Can Oliver Stone show us the human side of Hitler?
Director describes subject of his new project as 'easy scapegoat'
Oliver Stone has never been one to spot a historical controversy without steaming towards it, but the latest project from the film-maker behind JFK and W threatens to pitch him into more dangerously hot water than ever before.
The director is battening down the hatches already, saying he fully expects "ignorant attacks" on a new documentary series in which he is promising to "liberalise" Hitler and to finger US corporations for their role in the rise of National Socialism in Germany.
Launching Oliver Stone's Secret History of America, the director promised to lay bare the military-industrial complex his fictionalised movie JFK blamed for a conspiracy to kill one president, and which Stone now says is trapping Barack Obama into the errors of his predecessors.
"I don't want to put out a conventional History Channel product where it's easy to like it," the 63-year-old director said. "You cannot approach history unless you have empathy for the person you may hate.
"I've been able to walk in Stalin's shoes and Hitler's shoes to understand their point of view. We're going to educate our minds and liberalise them and broaden them. We want to move beyond opinions ... go into the funding of the Nazi party. How many American corporations were involved, from GM through IBM? Hitler is just a man who could have easily been assassinated."
Stone unveiled a trailer for his Secret History at the Television Critics Association's biannual press tour in Pasadena, California, and even his collaborators appeared nervous. As the director promised empathy with leaders who ordered mass murder, Peter Kuznick, the history professor drafted in as lead writer, leapt in to clarify: "He's not saying we're going to come out with a more positive view of Hitler. But we're going to describe him as a historical phenomenon and not just somebody who appeared out of nowhere." Stone promised not to judge historical figures as "bad" or "good" and countered: "Obviously, Rush Limbaugh is not going to like this history. As usual, we're going to get those kind of ignorant attacks."
After winning two Oscars for a series of films about the Vietnam War, Stone turned his revisionist history lens on US presidents, from a more complex "Tricky Dicky" in Nixon, to a privileged, disengaged George W Bush in W. And as a documentary maker, he has courted controversy before with plans for biopics of US bogeymen such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
Last year, he walked the red carpet with the socialist president at the Venice Film Festival for the premiere of the documentary South of the Border. He has also long pursued Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in the hope of making a film about his life and presidency. Stone's forthcoming 10-part series ranges over subjects the director says have been "under-reported", taking in President Harry Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, and the origins and the end of the Cold War. Stalin, too, is getting a makeover, according to Stone.
"Stalin, Hitler, Mao, McCarthy – these people have been vilified pretty thoroughly by history. Stalin has a complete other story. Not to paint him as a hero, but to tell a more factual representation. He fought the German war machine more than any single person."
Hitler has been "an easy scapegoat" throughout history for forces that were bigger than one man, Stone says, and – warming to the theme in Pasadena – he said that the same complex of interests between corporations and the military were still at work today.
"You can understand why Obama is following in Bush's footsteps in Afghanistan," he said. "Obama is very much trapped, we believe, in that system. And so that's what we're going to try and show you: the way it works."