Getting creative with Hitler: Is it right?

The History Channel with its constant reruns of newsreel footage has been called "The Hitler Channel" because, it seems that as often as not, the little dictator is there giving the Sieg Heil to his henchmen. It's hard for a channel surfer to just slip by without stopping for a look.

For more than 50 years, the fascination with Adolf Hitler has been unyielding. How do you separate the fascination with the kitschy cult image that lives on in celluloid from the real, historical, and brutal German dictator? How does one tell the live from the Memorex as portrayed by the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi, and the late Alec Guinness?

The latest Hitler portrayal is a film – "Max" – about the young Hitler. In it, not only will we have to decipher the real from the media-made, but the young Hitler from the elder. "Max" premièred last week at The Toronto Film Festival. It depicts the young Hitler as ... well, human. The vitriol he'd spew in years to come is still just a knot in his belly. Here he's sympathetically drawn during his starving artist years while he's living in Munich after World War I.

The title character, Max, is a Jewish art dealer who mentors the young Hitler and is played by John Cusack.

"We know it's true that Hitler was human, but we don't want to think of him as human," Mr. Cusack told The Toronto Star. "We don't want to think that this kind of inhumanity can be traced back to human roots."

A similar point was made in Hannah Arendt's description of Nazi Adolf Eichmann when she first coined the term, "banality of evil." To portray Eichmann as nothing but a monster would superficialize the man and take away his culpability.

But wait, the VCR isn't done programming yet. CBS is making a four-hour miniseries called "Hubris." Being shot in Prague and Munich, it is based on Ian Kershaw's book "Hitler: 1889-1936," which follows Hitler from his youth to his rise as the leader of the Third Reich. The miniseries is scheduled for broadcast in May.

Neither of these big-budget projects have been viewed widely yet – "Max" is due for release later this year in the US. So why does a new generation need to recreate the nightmare again? Is the nonstop newsreel footage not telling enough?

The post-World War II generations, born into an era of TV as cultural sustenance, know only what they've heard passed down to them, but not experienced. Since they can never really know what it was like, they need experience it the only way they know how: remake it.

In March, The Jewish Museum in New York unveiled the exhibit, "Mirroring Evil," in which artists born after World War II blended and merged Nazi imagery with pop icons and commercial messages. It sparked a major controversy – including protests from Holocaust survivors who felt it trivialized the murder of millions of Jews.

For survivors, the difficulty is in the distortion that occurs when an artist reexamines a painful past.

Likewise, what if future generations made their own dramatizations of Sept. 11? Survivors could argue that no depiction will ever capture the reality of the moment that itself has already become docudramatized and manipulated.

Will future depictions be accused of being twisted, warped, and distorted? Most likely, yes.

Yet, if artists are not allowed to sift through the rubble of the past, to explore and reveal the meaning they find in it, we would live in a society where the only kind of art we can view is the kind of art that is dictated to us. Without this freedom of expression, we'd never be able to observe the very kind of art that a pathetic little man once burned.

• Abe Novick is a senior vice president with Eisner Communications, a Baltimore advertising firm.

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