Names are important. Without one, it's very hard to buy personalized mugs or introduce yourself to people. However, they can also be a burden. One of my ninth-grade teachers was called Mr. Hyman, for instance, which can't have been easy. And put yourself in the shoes of Mr. Dick Assman, or anyone who shares a name with Justin Lee Collins. That can't be easy, either.
In his new documentary Meet the Hitlers, director Matt Ogens—the guy behind Confessions of a Superhero – explores just how much a name can influence an identity. Meeting a diverse group of people with the surname Hitler (or Hittler), which arguably comes with more baggage than literally any other name in existence, the film looks at how their lives have been affected, for better or worse.
I gave Matt a call to speak about the making of the film.
VICE: Hi, Matt. Why did you decide to track down loads of Hitlers?
Matt Ogens: I have a friend from college who married a guy by the last name of Hitler. I remember visiting them and seeing the name on the buzzer. I would get Christmas cards saying, "Happy Holidays from the Hitlers!", and there was something quirky about it. It got me thinking what it must be like to take on that name or to be born with that name. How it would affect your life, positively or negatively.
How your name plays into your identity.
Exactly. We all have our names, but if you don't have an odd name you usually just take it for granted. If you have an odd name, how might that affect you? How would that shape your life? I wanted to take what is arguably one of the most notorious names in history and do a social study from that perspective.
Was it hard getting people to take part? I'd imagine quite a few Hitlers would be happy to keep the name, but not necessarily want to make a big song and dance about it.
For a start, a lot of people with that name don't list it because they don't want prank calls. And yeah, it's also hard to get people to say yes, unfortunately. They assume it's going to be a judgment thing, but one of the points of the film is to not judge a book by its cover. Don't judge someone by their name; judge them by their actions. There are good people with that name in the film and not so good people with that name in the film.
The trailer for Meet the Hitlers
Did you meet anyone who's really struggled with the name?
I can go through a couple of scenarios. I mean, you have a guy like Jean Hitler, an older guy—he's probably 83 now—with four daughters, a wife, and a very nice life. He'd say he kept it because it was a family name that was around before Adolf Hitler. Why should he have to change it, you know? He said it didn't affect him, but for his four daughters going through school… it's probably going to have had an effect on them. One of his daughters ran for, I think, class president, but got heckled off stage and didn't win. So people were affected in some way or another, some worse than others.
Were there any people who were totally cool with it? Anyone whose peace with it surprised you?
You have a girl like Emily Hittler, who—at the time we filmed her—was 16. She lives in a small town outside of St. Louis, so she's insulated by her friends and family. Though, we don't know what it's going to be like if she goes to college, gets a job, or leaves town. My other theory with her is that she's another generation removed from World War II, the Holocaust, and Adolf Hitler. So a 16-year-old today may not have as strong an opinion on Hitler as we did. Maybe if her name was Bin Laden it would be way worse for her.
I was going to mention that—whether you came across opinions on the name specifically colored by age or culture? Like how there are clothing stores in India named "Hitler" because the name isn't as big a part of the region's history as in Europe or America.
Absolutely. We explored all of that stuff. We explored stuff like that as a storyline in the film—we even explored other names to include in the storyline—but we didn't go there. But the name has a different effect on different cultures. Like you said, there's the store in India. In fact, most of them are gone now, but a few years ago there were also Hitler-themed restaurants.
Heath Campbell, who named his son Adolf Hitler Campbell
What are your thoughts on the family featured in the film who named their kid Adolf Hitler?
I'm a documentary filmmaker, so I should be objective. But I'm also a human being. Some people would say it's a First Amendment right—that you can name your kid whatever you want. But, to me, when you're naming a kid something like that, that's going to affect a kid the rest of their life. I don't feel it was down to anything other than the father, Heath Campbell, who's a neo-Nazi. Those are his beliefs. He's got swastika tattoos. He did it to make a statement. It wasn't about the kid; it was about himself.
Yeah. Did you expect to meet neo-Nazis when you started production on the film?
The scary thing about making a documentary is that you don't know the ending when you start; things change as you go deeper and deeper. At first, I thought, Hey, I'm going to make this quirky film about people with the name Hitler. Sort of a dark comedy. But it went deeper than that. It's still a character-driven film; it's not about saving the whales, or anything like that. It's people. The thread is this connection between name and identity.
How connected do you think those two things are?
I think your name can affect how people react to you from an early age, which is when your brain is shaping and your identity is forming. So, for example, if you got made fun of as a kid because of your name, that may affect your identity.
Would you have kept the name Hitler if you were born with it?
If you're born with that name, you're born with that name. If it were me personally—I'm Jewish—I wouldn't keep that name. And I wouldn't give my kids that name. I get the whole reasoning of it being a family name, but to me it's not worth going through the burden of life with it. It's not worth putting my kids through it. But that's just me.
I respect the decision of someone like Jean Hitler, though, who's had the name in his family since the 1700s. I respect that, and I appreciate that he decided to keep it. So I try to be not judgmental about it. With someone like Heath Campbell—who wasn't born with the name Hitler, but named his kid Adolf Hitler for a very specific reason—that's a different story. That's harder to swallow for me.
Makes sense. What else did you take away from the making of the film?
There's a character in our film named Jim Riswold. He's an iconic advertising creative but does a lot of conceptual satirical art on the side. One of his series pokes fun at dictators, and he did some stuff with Hitler. In a way, he's kind of the voice of reason in the film. What he says is that people talk about Hitler in hushed tones, but that if Hitler were alive today, or watching from hell, he would like that: 'They revere me.' He wanted to do something in his art that would piss Hitler off and make fun of Hitler. So it's sort of like saying, "If you mock it, you beat it."
Besides that point, that people should be judged by their actions and who they are as people—something that says much more about you than your name.
The first screening of Meet the Hitlers is at the New Orleans Film Festival on Friday, October 17, but until then you can take part in the #whatsinaname project, which is cataloguing the stories behind a number of unusual names from around the world.
Follow Jamie Clifton on Twitter.