Are monsters born or made? Is true evil ingrained within a person from the beginning or does it seep into the pores of the vulnerable and impressionable through bitter experience? These are both big questions that Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich asks. However ultimately this is a film asking one incomprehensible and fascinating question; what transformed aspiring artist Adolf Hitler into a hatred fuelled dictator and perhaps the most infamous figure in not just the 20th century, but all of history?
To answer this question the film takes us back to Hitler’s formative years in Vienna, where he travelled as a young artist to seek a place at the city’s respected Academy of Fine Art. Historians largely agree that during the future Fuhrer’s time in the city he developed a fierce resentment for the Jews, which built upon prejudices he already carried from his childhood community and his parents. Needless to say Hitler failed with his application to the Academy, after presenting a weak and mediocre portfolio. He projected his disappointment and anger onto the Jews, blaming those that were wealthy and in positions of influence for holding him back. He scraped a living selling post cards of churches. He stole food and tasted life in the gutter. He absorbed nationalist and anti-Semitic literature. Like many he drifted without a purpose.
Generally details of his life in Vienna beyond this are vague. The precise intricacies of the monster’s birth cannot truly be known. Studies of Hitler tend to skip rapidly through his grim years in Vienna, to the First World War which invigorated him, and then onto the 1920s and the formation of the fledgling Nazi party. Consequently this film must conjure some fictions and twist what is known to achieve some form of artistic truth relating to such a notorious man.
At first the film succeeds. Hitler is bumbling and naive as he arrives at a home for Homeless Artists, with a degree of innocence. To feel this about a character instantly recognisable as Adolf Hitler is no small feat for the filmmakers and indeed to even attempt this story is bold and admirable for a piece of German cinema. Understandably anything connected to the shame of Nazi Germany is still raw and heavy with guilt for many in Germany, so to see Hitler so sympathetically humanised in the film’s opening stages is remarkably brave.
To see Hitler rendered as such a believable, flawed and scrawny young man actually makes his descent into total delusion and lust for power all the more chilling. He’s almost immediately spouting anti-Semitic vitriol and nationalist jargon to the old Jews already living at the homeless hostel. But he’s reciting it at this stage; it’s just something he’s learnt by rote. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe what he’s saying; he has been taught to mean it and feels he must. It is however, a hatred and anger not yet his own, which will become more venomous as he acquires his personal vendetta through life’s sour events. Disappointment and what he sees as injustice will ignite the prejudices he already holds and bring them to life as his guiding purpose.
Perhaps a partial and inadequate answer the film offers to one of its key questions, whether Hitler’s evil was born or made, is that it was both already present and considerably added to. There’s no doubting he already arrived with a narrow and twisted mindset but it’s also clear his hate deepens as the film progresses. One of the measures of this is the way in which his language grows increasingly elaborate to resemble the theatrical speeches of his later political career. At times the rhetoric is intoxicatingly colourful and persuasive, filled with symbolism and heroic, inspirational imagery. Mostly however the film exploits Hitler’s misplaced sense of grandeur and importance for laughs. Indeed Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich, is a disturbingly funny film. From the very first scene and Hitler’s arrival, the elderly Jews tease him to teach him some politeness and manners. There’s something irresistibly hilarious about Hitler being asked to leave and come back again, but this time to knock and wait for an answer. It’s a scene that’s well acted enough to be funny in itself, but knowing that it’s a man as dangerous and feared as Hitler being humiliated adds a level of uneasy, dark humour to things.
In fact the film makes a big deal about the lingering torment of being laughed at. A Jewish roommate of Hitler’s, Schlomo Herzl, is forever teasing the young artist. However he also takes him under his wing and treats him like a son, and it’s clear the humour is affectionate and for Hitler’s own good. Hitler simply cannot take being laughed at or looked down to by a Jew though and he finds Schlomo’s care for him repugnant. Nevertheless he exploits it. He accepts Schlomo’s help to prepare him for his interview and entry exam. He lets Schlomo sell his post cards for him so that he can pay rent. He treats him like a slave and then sets about robbing him of his young love. Evidence of a later political pragmatism perhaps?
There are some good scenes between Schlomo and Hitler, particularly in the first half of the film. There’s an interesting contrast between Hitler’s brainwashed nationalism and the haggard man’s devout faith. In their very first exchange Hitler declares to Schlomo that God is dead, following Nietzsche’s famous idea. Schlomo is constantly the wise counterpoint to Hitler’s wild unfocused enthusiasm. But in the end, especially for those who know their history, the relationship strains the bounds of believability to breaking point.
The interesting points about Hitler’s philosophical and political development, and the alternative path through life he might have taken had he gained entry to the Academy, are lost beneath a sensational conflict and love triangle. Initially Schlomo was a clever lens that helped us learn more about Hitler. His character helped us see both Hitler the human and Hitler the animal as he used him and treated him like dirt. You really come to hate the young artist, and not just for being Hitler, as he cruelly rebuffs every kindness extended to him by the old man. Eventually though the plot surrounding Schlomo’s book, which Hitler helps him title “Mein Kampf”, becomes ridiculous.
Tom Schilling gives a great performance as the young Hitler and it’s one that evolves throughout the narrative. His gestures and mannerisms are perfect and his appearance in general. His delivery of the trademark passionate rallying cries, in stirring German, becomes more assured as the character grows in confidence. For me though it’s a real shame that Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich seems to lose its way. It begins as a compelling and absorbing study of a neglected period of history. It asks intriguing questions about how far individuals shape history or the social forces around them. But in its efforts to spin a story within those grander themes it loses sight of its strengths, becoming simply a mediocre tale which concludes with a baffling attempt at a poetic ending.