A powerful documentary film that is bringing West Germans face-to-face again with Adolf Hitler has touched off a debate about whether the movie is dangerous for the nation's youth or healthy for an older generation that has still, in many instances, not come to grips with the meaning of its one time support of the fuehrer.

"Our minds could be put to rest if Hitler was only a moral monster who came out of nowhere to dupe us, who didn't belong to the human race," says Joachim Fest, the well-known German biographer of Hitler who has also now produced the film, "Hitler - A Career."

That explanation, however, has been too comfortable an alibi for too long for too many people, Fest says, and surely it is better in the long run "to find out what gave Hitler so much support, why he had so many followers, whether the conditions under which he came to power have really been changed."

In pursuit of those answers. Fest has produced a newsreel-style film that, like a bad yet fascinating dream, has already riveted 300,000 West German viewers to their seats in its first three weeks and is certain eventually to be seen by millions.

The film is an important event and that has made the debate swirling around it important, too.

It is the first such feature-length film on Hitler made by West Germans and widely shown throughout the country. The fact that Fest himself is a man of considerable stature - a coeditor of the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper and author of the international best-seller "Hitler," upon which the film is based - has added to the film's impact.

The ultimate destruction of Germany, Europe and Hitler are shown in the 2 1/2-hour film. There is a scene of Jews being executed in Russia and a reference to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Those are only fleeting glimpers, however. The central focus of the film is the examination of how such a man became attractive and achieved power in a country craying to be led. Fest pays far more attention to Hitler's technique than to the cost of his success.

That is both the strength and the weakness of the film, and it is the source of the spreading controversy here.

"It is not a dangerous film for people with a sufficient knowledge of German history," said Iring Fetsher, professor of political science at Frankfurt University. "But the problem in West Germany today is that there is very little knowledge of Hitler and the Nazi era by many young people."

"We have so many young people who have no experience with Facist regimes and thus lack a historical context. They are not prepared by their schools or parents and sometimes are misled by their grandparents. There are no lessons in contemporary history on Hitler and the Nazi era in the primary and secondary schools."

This observations is substantiated by recent studies of thousands of students who show little knowledge of who Hitler was when he lived and what he did.

"It is a bad situation and now a powerful film comes along that to cuse on only one aspect of a complex situation during the Third Reich." Janssen continued, "You can do that in 100 years maybe, but Hitler's crime is still too big to focus now on somw psychological aspect."

Fetscher and Janssen, among other critics, see dangerous subtleties as well.

"The films of Jews being executed are only fleeting views, and they are Russian Jews, the enemy, so it is more in the context of war and that doesn't disturb people enough," Janssen says.

"Both Churchill and Hilter are shown saying they will never give up and that produces subtle linkages," he adds.

The film focuses brilliantly on Hitler as the alert and willing repository for all the tumult of Germany in the early 1930s: the frustrated artist who becomes the ultimate political choreographer of public opinion. It dwells dramatically on the robot-like mind of the Germans frezied fascination with Hitler, and Hitler's constant speech making parades and awesome torchlight rallies.

Fetscher noted, however that Hitler had the help of many people.

In the view, too much is missing from the film: the industrial, judicial Hitler could not have come to power.

"The concordat with the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church, an important stabilizing factor for establishment of his dictatorship, is completely left out," Fetscher said.

The overcoming of unemployment by rearmament, the suppression of political opposition through concentration camps, and the crushing of the unions and labor parties are all part of the cost and political context which critics feel are missing or underplayed yet the vital to understanding by youngsters who otherwise sit and watch Hitler take on the rest of the world and come close to winning.

Fest argues that Hitler's monstrous evil is well known and that it is impossible even in a long film, to deal with everything when the primary aims is to remind Germans of Hitler's evil genius and the techniques that fascinated them.

Yet, the critics feel that Fest is walking a fine line between reminding people of how they behaved and deeding a mini-wave of nostalgia.

Germany today is among the most stable Western democracies and its extreme rightist fringe is probably smaller than of the United States.

"The film certainly is not a justification of Hitler because the end is quite clear," said Fetscher. "And it is certainly not true that after 32 years we are going back to dictators or that another Hitler could come again.

"But there is still something of this fuehrer-principle remaining in Germany, this longing for a strong man, not just at the head of society but in all fields.

"Fest is ignoring the political dangers of our times," Janssen added. "There are too many unemployed, many of them young people. Political parties are held in low opinion. There is a cry for law and order and anti-communism, and in some small circles, there is wishful thinking that a strong man could do it better than a democracy."

Many people would view such statements as exaggerated and alarmist. Indeed, early surveys of audience reaction to the film show no clear pattern, although most young people seem to believe Hitler is more revolting than heroic.

There are others, however like the one who said."What we need is a little Hitler. The other one was too horrible."