There are surnames and then there is Hitler, shorthand for evil the world over. Do the Hitlers of the world get by unnoticed when they announce themselves? Never, as American filmmaker Matthew Ogens’s documentary Meet the Hitlers proves. The 2014 film comprises interviews with people who share their names and surnames with the Nazi Party leader. There’s Ecuadorian immigrant Hitler Guiterrez, for instance, and Gene Douglas Hitler, a sweet-natured widower. An advertising professional makes memorabilia inspired by the German fascist to make the point that “there is nothing more absurd than all this Hitler shit you can buy”. But the most fascinating character is Heath Campbell, a white supremacist whose decision to name his son Adolf Hitler causes a media storm and a custody battle. Campbell might have Nazi tattoos and a Hitler toothbrush moustache, but he asserts his right under the American constitution to name his son as he pleases. The debates between Ogens and Campbell throw up interesting points on the connection between the names we are given and the identities that come along with these names.
There are greater links between Hitler and the United States of America than seem immediately apparent – the sons of Hitler’s nephew live in Long Island. Accompanied by David Gardner, the journalist and author of The Last of the Hitlers: The Story of Adolf Hitler’s British Nephew and the Amazing Pact to Make Sure His Genes Die Out, Ogens tries to understand what it means to be the only surviving relatives of the German dictator. This portion of the 83-minute documentary attempts to answer one of the many questions that spurred Ogens to make the film: “Can you escape from the legacy of the name you were born with?” Excerpts from an interview.
What set off the quest to find the various Hitlers?
A girl that I knew from college married a guy who happened to have the last name of Hitler. This seems as good a reason as any to keep your maiden name, but apparently she decided to stick to tradition. The holidays rolled around, and I opened the mailbox one day to find a Christmas card from her new family, cheerfully signed “Happy Holidays from The Hitlers!”
The incident stuck in my mind and got me thinking about a question Shakespeare posed 400 years ago – What’s in a name? If you’re a Tim Smith or a Janet Martens, you probably think “Not much.” But if you're born a Rockefeller, a Capone, or a Disney, you’ve probably encountered the assumptions and prejudices invoked by your famous forebears, whether you’re actually related or not. I couldn’t help but think about my own name and wonder… Would I be a different person if I were born with a different name?Of course, some names have more weight than others. And in our world today, there’s one name that carries an utterly inescapable connotation: Adolf Hitler.
What do the individual stories say about American identity?
The film raises important questions about the meaning of names. Are you judged by your name or your actions? Can you escape from the legacy of the name you were born with? What does your name say about you?
To find answers to these questions, I began a search for the Hitlers of the world. It’s a quest that started in the phone book but eventually took me around the country and beyond. In the course of my search, I met a diverse cast of characters who share this name, and uncovered stories and experiences that spanned the spectrum of human experience, from tragedy to comedy, and heartbreak to hope.
Most people don’t give much thought to what their name might suggest about their character. But the Hitlers of the world don’t have that luxury.
What made you choose the characters that we see in the documentary?
We had a research and development phase long before we began filming in which we looked for various people with the name “Hitler” in some form or another. Many Hitlers did not wish to be part of the project, understandably so. There were a few additional characters we filmed that did not make it into the final cut of the film.
As far as the characters that remain in the film, I felt they were a good cross-section of people who have different experiences with the name Hitler.
At what stage did David Gardner’s work enter the picture?
Once we began production, I came across David Gardner’s book The Last of the Hitlers and felt his journey in search of the last remaining relatives of Adolf Hitler fit within the themes of the film. His book was unfulfilled for him because he never got a chance to actually sit down with Hitler’s “long lost” relatives so he wanted to go back and attempt to complete his story. I found the story of the brothers to be fascinating because they are a family not only born into the name Hitler but actually related to him and yet chose to live in anonymity rather than live with the burden of the name. That is their choice and I respect that.
The example of Heath Campbell, who makes a case for freedom of expression, is particularly interesting. How challenging was it to keep your own views on the matter in check in dealing with a white supremacist?
As a documentary filmmaker, part of my job is to try to remain objective throughout the production and editing of a film. I really attempt to let the characters speak for themselves and I don’t put any bias or spin on their stories. In the end, I leave it up to the audience to decide rather than deciding for them.
I am Jewish. I identify as being Jewish, so certainly hearing someone spew hate against any race, religion, or gender is not in line with my values. I believe everyone is equal and have the same rights. As a human, I disagree with Heath’s beliefs. As a filmmaker, I am there to observe. I’ve had many experiences as a filmmaker where I don’t necessarily agree with the views of my subject, but that’s what makes telling stories interesting.
The advertising professional featured in the documentary makes an interesting point about how you won’t be able to get past the title of your film in the same way that people named Hitler are often unable to get past their surnames. Did that happen a lot to you?
There were definitely people who did not wish to be part of the film. Having the name Hitler is not easy. I’m sure people with this name have been harassed and made fun of. Some of the people we approached just did not want any more attention on themselves. And I can understand that. We never tried to persuade people to be in the film. We presented an opportunity to tell their stories and respected people’s boundaries.
The conversation between Hitler Gutierrez and his father was illuminating – what do you make of families that decide to adopt this name despite the knowledge of Hitler’s deeds?
Like anything, it all depends on context. For example, Heath Campbell chose to name his son Adolf Hitler because of his own Nazi beliefs. His son didn’t have a choice in the matter. Forcing your child to live with that name is abusive, in my opinion. In the case of Hitler Gutierrez, I don’t think his father had any malicious intent although, of course, it still affected his son’s life. And then there are others, like Gene Hitler, who have had the family name Hitler for hundreds of years, pre-dating Adolf Hitler, and felt a pride on their name. Gene felt that he shouldn’t have to change his name, the name that has been in his family for generations, because of one man’s deeds that he doesn’t even agree with.