In Who is Afraid of Hitler’s Town? director Günter Schweiger tells a controversial story using many, perhaps too many, points of view. As a result, the possible interesting story lines are unfortunately excessively weak and do not provide the opportunity for deeper reflection or analysis.
A house and the past within us
Four years after his film debut with the drama The Diver Inside, the documentary talent of Günter Schwaiger deals with a controversial and certainly divisive subject. The problem is that in Who is Afraid of Hitler’s Town? the director creates a mosaic of story lines that, while all potentially interesting, end up remaining shallow, without an adequate deeper investigation. That’s a pity.
Produced together with his colleague Julia Mitterlehner, Who is afraid of Hitler’s Town? starts from a simple question that Schwaiger himself, originally from Neumarkt am Wallersee in the Salzburg region, asked: “Why has no one ever made a film about Adolf Hitler’s birthplace?”. Considering the places of his own childhood as a reality halfway “between Mozart and the Führer”, the two most googled Austrians ever, the documentary filmmaker/ethnologist’s reflection attempts to recount his personal experience through images, comparing and relating it to that of others, be they inhabitants of Braunau or tourists visiting Salzburg.
All this, following the 2016 decision of the Austrian Parliament to expropriate the previous owner of this Biedermeier building, located in central Braunau on the river Inn, to make it the property of the Federal Republic of Austria. Only later would it be discovered that there was a plan to turn the house into a police station rather than an administrative centre for the association ‘Lebenshilfe’, thereby increasing rumours, which were never fully confirmed, of a possible desire by Hitler himself to turn the house into an unspecified administrative centre. Just another way of saying that, in the end, the wish of a despot was fulfilled.
In Who is Afraid of HItler’s Town? in less than 100 minutes, various interviews and police-style stakeouts thus alternate, almost all outside the house where the founder of the German National Socialist Party was born in 1889. Interweaving personal experience with a moving interview with his deceased parents from ten years ago and a rendezvous with his brother Erwin, the owner of a nearby farm, Schwaiger takes the narrative to a higher level, even quoting Melanie Klein’s projective identification in a debate initiated in a local school on the difficult issue of the role of the spectators of tragedies, according to many scholars as active participants as the perpetrators of violence.
If not helping actually means being guilty in turn, the answer to the question that kicked off the Who is afraid of Hitler’s Town? project is quickly developed: the past within us frightens us to such an extent that we want to avoid it. Let’s be clear: no one is afraid of the house itself, a beautiful building from the late 19th century, but of what it represents. Which is alienating in any case, considering that Hitler was not born a Führer and bloodthirsty dictator, but became one. And above all, he became so quite far away from Braunau, ironically located right on the German-Austrian border. The speech by Prof. Embacher, a historian at the University of Salzburg, is illuminating in this sense: these are unresolved conflicts, handed down to the following generations, who, despite themselves, have to bear this burden as well.
But then “what does this house represent?” asks Günter Schwaiger in his quinquennial research. The house, the scholar continues, is the symbol to be normalised, not erased or even exalted. And what emerges from the documentary leaves little room for imagination. The house has become a stigma for the inhabitants of the town, but also a divisive place of prayer for both those nostalgic for National Socialism and those who strongly condemn totalitarianism.
‘Braunau’, says Schwaiger, ‘opened my eyes’. And it did so when the director was finally allowed to enter the house, showing that there is actually nothing to be afraid of inside. But above all showing that one cannot hide behind façades, no matter how much they are renovated and repainted: things have to be faced from within, looking metaphorically inside. As suggested by the stone placed as a warning right outside the building, in the name of the millions of dead who, however, have nothing to do with the house itself but who deserve a very different awareness.
Who is Afraid of Hitler’s Town? cleverly tells a controversial story, while using many, perhaps too many, points of view. The possible interesting story lines are unfortunately too weak and do not provide the opportunity for deeper reflection or analysis. One above all is the interview with the 100-year-old Lea Olczak, former deputy mayor and child of Braunau during the Nazi period, and thus a direct witness to the mantra most in vogue at the time: ‘that was it, the end’. End like the last line of this article, which has told of so many good ideas, but none really carried through to completion. Schade.
Original title: Wer hat Angst vor Braunau?
Directed by: Günter Schwaiger
Country/year: Austria / 2023
Running time: 99’
Screenplay: Günter Schwaiger, Julia Mitterlehner
Cinematography: Günter Schwaiger
Produced by: Günter Schwaiger Filmproduktion, DIm DIm Film