Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Meet the Hitlers

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From its droll premise, Tulane University graduate Matt Ogens' documentary Meet the Hitlers follows the infamous moniker back into the past and out into the world, finding subjects in such far-flung locales as Salt Lake City, Utah, Ecuador and the Rhineland. What might have been merely a gimmick resolves into a strange and strangely powerful portrait of bloodlines and family ties, by turns funny, upsetting and affecting. "It's been a little journey, people asking me about my name," carpenter Hitler Gutierrez says, but Meet the Hitlers is nothing of the sort: it contains multitudes.

It screens twice at the New Orleans Film Festival. Ogens previously directed the documentary Confessions of a Superhero, about people who impersonate comic book heroes at Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Ogens also has directed projects for ESPN.

Marshalling a colorful band of Hitlers, Hittlers, Hitler parodists, Hitler imitators and Hitler researchers, from 16-year-old Emily to 80-year-old Gene, the film turns out to be as interested in the practice of naming as in the name itself. With artful, kitschy montages of family photos, drivers' licenses, household clutter and suburban streets, Ogens depicts the diverse fabrics from which identity is made, and the connection, however superficial, to history's most notorious villain elicits a similarly wide range of responses. Shame, humor, sorrow and pride all shadow the film, as if the very word "Hitler" is in the eye of the beholder. "It's sooo Hittler!" a friend exclaims as Emily twirls in a frilly, sparkly pink dress; "I'm a stranger," says German Romano Lukas Hitler, who claims to be Adolf Hitler's nephew. "I'm a stranger everywhere. The only person I have is God."

From these loose ends — a New Jersey neo-Nazi, an artist living in Oregon, a journalist searching for Adolf Hitler's last living relations in a Long Island, New York village — Meet the Hitlers weaves a remarkable narrative of disparate people linked as much by a craving for kinship as they are by the titular surname.

"I will never die as long as I have family," Gene says, before showing his daughters their ancestors' graves.

"This is the only place left for the Hitler family," Romano says, pointing to his own burial plot.

As the film's subjects pore over archives and heirlooms, we learn that Adolf Hitler's remaining descendants, brothers living under an assumed name in the United States, made a pact never to bear children.

What's in a name? Maybe everything, the surprisingly poignant Meet the Hitlers suggests, or maybe only what we decide to make of it.

Meet the Hitlers screens in the Documentary Feature competition at the New Orleans Film Festival:
- 7:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17; Theatres at Canal Place 9
- 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19; Contemporary Arts Center

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