Imagine for a second that you are the exact same person you are right this minute, with one small exception: Your name is Hitler. Would you have the same job? The same friends? What would school have been like for you? Some people put a lot of thought into naming their child–what could your parents have been thinking?
A new film from director Matt Ogens examines all these questions and more. Meet the Hitlers paints a portrait of regular people who share a name with one of the most notorious villains in history and looks at life through their eyes. Some are everyday regular people who just so happen to have been given the name Hitler (or some spelling variation), while others are despicable bigots who chose it for a reason.
Ogens, also a commercial director with Tool of North America, came up with the idea six years ago when a friend of his married someone with the name Hitler. It got him thinking of any others who have been forced to walk through life carrying that name, what it was like and why they kept it.
“Originally I thought it would be a quirky doc about six people who happen to have the name Hitler but then I did the research I thought it would be interesting for people to experience the name in a couple different ways,” says Ogens. “There’s a couple people named Hitler, one person with the first name Hitler, and another who deliberately named their child Adolf Hitler. There’s a journalist in search of an interview with the last remaining relatives of Adolf Hitler, and then there’s Jim Riswold, an iconic ad man who’s also a fine artist who has a project that centers around the absurdity of Hitler, mocking him in a satirical way.”
While it is about names and identity, Ogens says it’s really a character-driven film, with no aims to make a definitive statement. “It’s not about war or famine,” he says. “I thought it was an interesting subject to explore, because there’s something absurd about it, there’s something offensive about it. I’m Jewish so maybe it should offend me as much as anyone. But I wanted to give a portrait of these people and let the audience decide what it’s about. Everyone experiences it a bit different.”
Ogens says one thing that emerged as a theme across his different subjects was the role self-image played in how each person lived with the name. “Part of it is about what you think of yourself if you have that name,” he says. “Are you confident? Are you secure? What are your values? All that affects how that name affects you. Some were affected more than others.”
Understandably, finding people named Hitler can be a challenge. “People with that name don’t always list themselves in the phone book or online because over the years people have bothered them and many don’t want to talk,” says Ogens. “They get crank called and pranked. So when we called, they sometimes assumed it was just another gag. We made sure to tell them that this was about getting their point of view, there’s no judgement.”
Produced in partnership with Ryot, the film premiered at the New Orleans Film Festival and is available for pre-order online. The film’s interactive site allows you to feel, even just for a few fleeting online moments, what it would be like to have the name Hitler. Spoiler alert: It’s not great.
But, as one of the film’s subjects optimistically puts it, “A name is just a name. It certainly doesn’t define what your heart is.” Sure, but it does raise a hell of a lot of eyebrows when you get paged at the airport.