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TELEVISION REVIEW

Was Hitler in closet? And if so, so what?

Two young men are hiking in the wilderness. Suddenly the skies open up, buckets of rain fall, and they take breathless refuge in a cozy farm hut. August lays a dry cloth on the hay, and his friend strips down and wraps himself in the cloth. "He was highly amused by the whole venture," August recalls, "whose romantic conclusion pleased him greatly. Besides, we were nice and warm by now."

No, this isn't the pivotal love scene from one of Gordon Merrick's lathery gay romance novels. It's a voice-over snippet derived from the memoir "Adolf Hitler, Friend From My Youth" by August Kubizek, and it's one of the many clues collected in a half-baked Cinemax documentary called "The Hidden Fuhrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler's Sexuality." The movie, which premieres tonight at 7, asserts that the dictator may have been a closeted homosexual, despite the fact that he annihilated thousands of gays. Indeed, the documentary suggests that Hitler's homosexuality may have fueled his rounding up of gays; self-loathing and closeted homosexuals (Roy Cohn, for example) can certainly be among the most vigorously homophobic.

Taken on its own, the movie's presentation of Kubizek's insinuating book passage is not a strong piece of evidence -- it's translated into English, read by a narrator in a lusty tone, and backed by music more fitting for "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing." Like too much of "The Hidden Fuhrer," it's actually a dreary bit of audience manipulation. Naturally, as the movie trots out story after story of Hitler's homosexuality, some possible and others quite ridiculous, you may find yourself tempted to wonder. After all, we've made assumptions about the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt with even less evidence. But ultimately, the movie fails to persuade, as it continually falls back on dramatic rumors and leaps in logic.

Actually, the documentary is a visual presentation of research done by Lothar Machtan for his controversial 2001 book "The Hidden Fuhrer." It uses period footage and talking heads to illustrate the German historian's work -- how Hitler stayed in hotels known for sex between older and younger men, for example, and how he was consistently awkward and nonsexual with women. We hear that Hitler may have ordered crimes -- murdering the openly gay Ernst Rohm, for example -- to cover up his early gay indiscretions and to protect himself from blackmail. And we hear that Hitler's aesthetic fit a gay stereotype, including his love of opera and his admiration for masculine ideals. One commentator argues that Hitler's choice of Leni Riefenstahl to direct the propaganda film "Triumph of the Will," with its glorification of young male bodies, would be analogous to George W. Bush hiring Bruce Weber.

Whether you're slightly convinced or not, of course, the question remains: If Hitler had homosexual experiences, what difference does it make? Is Machtan's mission an attempt to further pathologize gay people in our culture, to say that being gay somehow played a role in the Final Solution? Those are questions "The Hidden Fuhrer" doesn't seriously address. Some of the smartest comments in the movie are from the local author Michael Bronski, who finds Machtan's endeavor "irresponsible." The attempt to make Hitler gay, he says, "functions as a form of cultural shorthand. Nazis are evil. Who else is evil? Well, homosexuals are evil."

And will knowing more about Hitler ever really amount to an explanation of his sheer evil? Sometimes reducing massive and profound events to easy explanations -- the Holocaust comes down to Hitler's tortured homosexuality, for instance, or his failure to succeed as an artist -- makes it too easy for us to dismiss them and blindly move on.

"The Hidden Fuhrer" is also dogged by dullness. It's a more cerebral and conventional documentary than the material merits. The movie isn't a debate about Hitler's sexuality, as the title promises; it gives only token attention to those naysayers, such as Bronski, who see Machtan's theory as the stuff of tabloids, not scholarship. For every long and stylized exploration into reports of Hitler's gay past, the movie delivers an obligatory, brief cut to experts saying it's all bosh. "Hitler sells. Sex sells," says author Geoffrey Giles. "I think that's what it comes down to."

Filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey probably should have abandoned objectivity altogether, rather than give us this poorly balanced scale. The filmmakers, who created more excitement in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," could have made this movie about -- and not out of -- Machtan's scholarly crusade.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

program information
The Hidden Fuhrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler's Sexuality
Directed by: Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey
On: Cinemax
Time: Tonight (April 20), 7-8:30
Rated: TV14
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