The release of the documentary “What We Left Unfinished” (2019) is all too timely. Directed by Mariam Ghani, daughter of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who fled the Taliban before they took over Kabul a few days ago, it provides a perspective on the history, culture, and politics of the Communist regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1978 to 1991 as seen through the lenses of directors, actors, and others working during that period in the Afghan film industry.
Interviewed today, they look back with fondness at a time when the government offered filmmakers generous funding and access to the manpower and equipment of the armed forces. On the negative side, they had to contend with coups and regime changes and different censorship protocols. That was especially true after 1979, when the Soviet army swept in to overthrow and assassinate Hafizullah Amin, the then prime minister, who came to power by overthrowing and assassinating his predecessor (who also overthrew and murdered his predecessor). These events loom large in the filmmakers’ recollections, as Ghani runs clips of the five unfinished films referred to in the title.
Some of the film sequences have a “Borat”-like amateurism and kitschiness, and the stories of their production are often absurd and astonishing. Though the filmmakers had access to all the weapons and military personnel they desired, they did not have any blank ammunition so they had to resort to live rounds when shooting combat scenes, which resulted in fatal accidents. When on location their simulated battles would sometimes attract the attention of real rebel forces, resulting in tense confrontations. And despite the fact that the movie storylines drew on Hollywood genres, they also reflected the turmoil of ongoing events. In one meta-situation, a snippet is shown from a Soviet documentary about the USSR-orchestrated overthrow of Amin, which uses footage from a fictional film about Amin in which the leader plays himself.
Ghani made the film well before the triumph of the Taliban and you have to wonder what will become of those interviewed, some of whom seem to have been still living in the country. “If the Taliban catches us,” says one, “they will rip us to pieces.”
“What We Left Unfinished” can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre’s Brattlite Virtual Screening Room. Go to watch.eventive.org/brattletheatre.
The perplexing appeal of evil
Perhaps Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s documentary “The Meaning of Hitler” (2020) will help explain why so many democracies these days are being drawn to totalitarian rule. Based on Sebastian Haffner’s 1978 German bestseller of the same title, the film confronts the mystique of the ex-army corporal, failed artist, and mass murderer.
Peripatetic (the film visits nine countries) and diffuse, “The Meaning” consults with numerous historians and other experts and enlists archival footage and images in its search. Its sections correspond to chapters in Haffner’s book, focusing on various aspects of the subject, with titles such as “Chaos,” “Death,” and “Life.” In that last episode the filmmakers ask a psychiatrist what in their subject’s background might account for his actions and are told that Hitler has been diagnosed with just about every mental disorder in the lexicon in futile attempts at such an explanation. More important than understanding his psychology, the filmmakers imply, is explaining his perennial aura, fascination, and appeal.
They argue that popular culture, with its unending stream of movies and TV shows that feature Hitler, prolong the toxic myth — one of the film’s many montages includes images from Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” (1967), Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall,” (2004), and Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). They note that these depictions, whether intentionally or not, elevate their subject. They also wonder if by making yet another film about Hitler they might themselves be perpetuating the mythology.
Another key factor in the persistence of Hitler’s influence is the distortion of history by his apologists and the widespread ignorance of history, especially among young people. The historian Saul Friedländer suggests that “the image of National Socialism and of Hitler ultimately has a greater impact on the minds and emotions of the younger generation today than the story of the horror it brought.” Meanwhile the Holocaust denier David Irving is seen leading a debunking tour of the Treblinka death camp, where he claims that any prisoners who perished there died from labor and not in gas chambers. (“Jews don’t like any kind of manual work,” he says. “They just like writing receipts.”) And in Berlin the curator of the Hitler Bunker Museum reports that visitors from the United States ask him questions like “Why were Nazis able to invade Germany?” and “Are you sure he’s dead?” Perhaps a better question is, will he ever die?
“The Meaning of Hitler” is available on demand. Go to meaningofhitlerdoc.com.
Falling in place
Lily Hevesh, the 20-year-old hero of Jeremy Workman’s documentary “Lily Topples the World,” was a shy kid with an odd hobby that turned into an Internet sensation, an entrepreneurial success, and an inspiration for other shy kids to dream big. Big as in lining up thousands of dominoes in precisely calculated patterns so that they fall in shimmering, exfoliating waves that surprise and delight. Also as in successfully managing an online presence that gains millions of followers and draws the attention of stars like Jimmy Fallon, Katy Perry, Will Smith, and YouTuber Casey Neistat. Hevesh’s installations, both their elaborate, painstaking construction and their dazzling destruction, combine into a unique new art form the wacky ingenuity of a Rube Goldberg device and the self-destroying sublimity of a Buddhist sand mandala. But her modesty, confidence, and generosity in sharing her skill and wisdom will impress you as much as her more than 1 billion YouTube views.
“Lily Topples the World” can be streamed on Discovery+, beginning Aug. 26. Go to lilytopplestheworld.com.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.