For today’s #FilmmakerFridays piece, we introduce Matt Ogens. Matt is an award-winning filmmaker and commercial director. He has worked on many films including Confessions of a Superhero. This past week, Matt’s latest film Meet the Hitlers was released on Digital HD and DVD.
1. What made you want to film this specific topic?
A girl that I knew from college married a guy who happened to have the last name of Hitler. This seems as good of 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.
2. Was tracking each person with the same last name difficult? If not, how did you narrow down to featuring five subjects for the film?
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. I met up with writer-journalist David Gardner, who found the last remaining blood relatives of Adolf Hitler living right here in America, in a working-class suburb of New York. 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. Consider 84-year-old Gene Hitler, a father of four, who has gotten used to a double-take whenever he presents his Medicare card. Or teenager Emily Hittler, who is surviving high school with the most difficult last name imaginable. It has an undeniable power. For better or worse, “Hitler” can’t be forgotten or ignored.
So what would you do if it was your name? Is changing your name disrespectful to your ancestors? Is keeping it an insult to survivors of the Holocaust? And if you do change your name, do you lose a part of yourself as well? The film explores a variety of human reactions to this predicament. Some people try to banish the name from the world forever, like the three Hitler brothers who made a pact to never marry or bear children so their bloodline would die with them. Others use the name to push buttons and further a political agenda. The Neo-Nazi Heath Campbell named his newborn son Adolf Hitler Campbell, and faced a legal battle to keep custody of his children.
Everyone acknowledges that the name has tremendous power. Perhaps no one is more aware of this fact than Romano Hitler, who lives in Germany with the most notorious and sensitive name in that country’s history, and has faced insults and prejudice. But still he keeps his name, because it’s a part of who he is.
Some have used the name subversively, like advertising icon turned artist Jim Riswold, who created a series of satirical Hitler art. Across the spectrum of human experience, the film provides an entertaining, deeply human portrait of a diverse and fascinating cast of characters.
3. There is a part of the documentary that features the story of Hitler’s long lost half-brother. Did that specific topic just fall into place or was that something you wanted to include in the film from the beginning?
During the research and development phase of the project, I wondered if there were in fact any living relatives of Adolf Hitler. I came across David Gardner’s book “The Last of the Hitlers” and felt David’s search for the last remaining relatives fit into the overall themes and story of the film.
4. One of the themes of the film is focusing on the relationship between names and identify. What do you want people to take away from this film?
“Meet the Hitlers” examines the relationship between names and identity, by exploring the lives of people who are linked by the name “Hitler.” 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?
The film explores the notion of identity in the modern world. It subtly brings up issues that affect our sense of self, like immigration and racism and tolerance. It can even be seen as a film about Americana, examining our national identity through the lens of the least American name of all time, and contrasting our sense of who we are against the legacy of a genocidal tyrant.
Yet, the film faces these heavy issues with a focus on humanity. At its heart, this is a character-driven story. It compassionately captures the faces and voices of its subjects, who all have a unique relationship to their distinctive last name. Some laugh in the face of their strange predicament. Others break down and weep. “Meet the Hitlers” presents a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the power of names and their relationship to identity in the modern world.
5. Are you currently working on any future projects?
I am currently in post-production on me debut narrative feature NORTH, a post-apocalyptic coming of age story filmed in Detroit. The film stars Jacob Lofland (Mud, Maze Runner 2, The Free State of Jones), Sophie Kennedy Clark (Philomena, Nymphomaniac), and Patrick Schwarzenegger. We also filmed a very exciting virtual reality teaser/prequel that we will launch alongside the film. In between these longer form projects, I am always directing commercials and branded entertainment.