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Eye of the Storm

Hitler, A Film from Germany

directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland Giroux later this year)

by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg
Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag (Hamburg), 315 pp., DM15 (to be published in English translation by Farrar, Straus &

Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren
Sich weiss Rechenschaft zu geben,
Bleib im Dunkeln, unerfahren,
Mag von Tag zu Tage leben.

(Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.)


Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler, A Film from Germany is not only daunting because of the extremity of its achievement, but discomfiting, like an unwanted baby in the era of zero population growth. Art is now the name of a huge variety of satisfactions—it has come to stand for the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself. Where so many blandishments flourish, bringing off a masterpiece seems a retrograde feat, a naïve form of accomplishment. Always rare, the Great Work is now truly odd. It insists that art must be true, not just interesting, a necessity, not just an experiment.

Syberberg assumes importance both for his art (the art of the twentieth century: film) and his subject (the subject of the twentieth century: Hitler). These assumptions are familiar, crude, plausible. But they hardly prepare us for the scale and virtuosity with which he conjures up the ultimate subjects: hell, paradise lost, the apocalypse, the last days of mankind. Leavening romantic grandiosity with modernist ironies, Syberberg offers a spectacle about spectacle: he wants to evoke “the big show” called history in a variety of dramatic modes—fairy tale, circus, morality play, allegorical pageant, magic ceremony, philosophical dialogue, Totentanz—with an imaginary cast of tens of millions and, as protagonist, the Devil himself.

The idea of boundless talent, the ultimate subject, the most inclusive art—these Romantic notions are congenial to Syberberg and they give his work an excruciating sense of possibility. Syberberg’s confidence that his art is adequate to his great subject derives from his idea of cinema as a way of knowing that incites speculation to take a self-reflexive turn. Hitler is depicted through examining our relation to Hitler. (The theme is “our Hitler” and “Hitler-in-us.”) The inexpressible horrors of the Nazi era are represented in Syberberg’s film as images or signs. (Its title isn’t Hitler but, precisely, Hitler, A Film….)

To simulate atrocities convincingly is to risk making the audience passive, reinforcing witless stereotypes, confirming distance, and creating meretricious fascination. Convinced that there is a morally (and aesthetically) correct way for a film maker to confront Nazism, Syberberg can make no use of any of the stylistic conventions of fiction known as realism. Neither can he rely on documents to show how it “really” was. Like its simulation as fiction, the display of atrocity in the form of photographic evidence risks being tacitly pornographic. Further, the truths it conveys, unmediated, about the past are slight. Film clips of the Nazi period cannot speak for themselves; they require a voice—explaining, commenting, interpreting. But the relation of the “voice-over” to a film document, like that of the caption to a still photograph, is merely adhesive. In contrast to the pseudo-objective style of narration in most documentaries, two ruminating voices hold Syberberg’s film together, constantly expressing pain, grief, dismay.

Rather than devise a spectacle in the past tense, either by attempting to simulate “unrepeatable reality” (Syberberg’s phrase) or by showing it in photographic document, Syberberg has created a spectacle in the present tense—“adventures in the head.” Of course for such a devout anti-realist, historical reality is by definition unrepeatable. Reality can only be grasped indirectly—seen reflected in a mirror, staged in the theater of the mind. Syberberg’s synoptic drama is radically subjective, without being solipsistic. It is a ghostly film—haunted by his great cinematic models (Meliès, Eisenstein) and anti-models (Riefenstahl, Hollywood); by German romanticism; and, above all, by the music of Wagner and the case of Wagner. A posthumous film, in the era of cinema’s unprecedented mediocrity—it is full of cinephile myths, about cinema as the ideal space of the imagination and cinema history as an exemplary history of the twentieth century (the martyrdom of Eisenstein by Stalin, the excommunication of von Stroheim by Hollywood). And of cinephile hyperboles: he designates Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will as Hitler’s “only lasting monument, apart from the newsreels of his war.” One of the film’s conceits is that Hitler, who never visited the front and watched the war every night through newsreels, was a kind of movie maker. Germany, a Film from Hitler.

Syberberg has cast his film as a phantasmagoria: the meditative-sensuous form favored by Wagner which distends time and results in works that the unpassionate find over-long. Its length is suitably exhaustive—seven hours; and, like the Ring, it is a tetralogy. The titles of its four parts are: Hitler, A Film from Germany; A German Dream; The End of a Winter’s Tale; We, Children of Hell. A film, a dream, a tale. Hell.

In contrast to the lavish DeMille-like decors that Wagner projected for his tetralogy, Syberberg’s film is a cheap fantasy. The large sound studio in Munich where the film was shot in 1977 (in twenty days—after four years of preparation) is furnished as a surreal landscape. The wide shot of the set at the beginning of the film displays many of the modest props that will recur in different sequences, and suggests the multiple uses Syberberg will make of this space. It is a space to ruminate in (the wicker chair, the plain table, the candelabra); to make theatrical assertions (the canvas director’s chair, the giant black megaphone, the upturned masks); to display emblems (models of the rhombohedron of Dürer’s “Melencolia” and of the ash tree from the set of the first production of Die Walküre); to make moral judgments (a large globe, a life-size rubber sex-doll); a space of melancholy (the dead leaves strewn on the floor).

This allegory-littered wasteland (appearing to us as limbo, as the moon) is designed to hold a large number of people and attitudes and artifacts, in their contemporary, that is posthumous, form. It is really the land of the dead, a cinematic Valhalla. Since all the characters of the Nazi catastrophe-melodrama are dead, what we see are their ghosts—as puppets, as spirits, as caricatures of themselves. Carnivalesque skits alternate with arias and soliloquies, narratives, reveries. The two ruminating presences (André Heller, Harry Baer) keep up, on screen and off, an endless intellectual melody—lists, judgments, roll calls of names, historical anecdotes, as well as multiple characterizations of the film and the consciousness behind it.

The muse of Syberberg’s historic epic is cinema itself (“the world of our inner projections”), represented on the waste-land-set by “Black Maria,” the tarpaper shack built for Thomas Edison in 1894 as the first film studio. By invoking cinema as “Black Maria,” that is, recalling the artisanal simplicity of its origins, Syberberg also points to his own achievement. Using a small crew, with time for only one take of many long and complex shots, this technically ingenious inventor of fantasy managed to film virtually all of what he intended as he envisaged it; and all of it is on the screen. (Perhaps only a spectacle as underbudgeted as this one—it cost $500,000—can remain wholly responsive to the intentions and improvisations of a single creator.) Out of this ascetic way of film making, with its codes of deliberate naiveté, Syberberg has made a film that is both stripped-down and lush, discursive and spectacular.

Syberberg provides spectacle out of his modest means by replicating and reusing the key elements as many times as possible. Having each actor play several roles, the convention inspired by Brecht, is an aspect of his aesthetics of multiple use. Many things appear at least twice in the film, once full-sized and once miniaturized—for example, a thing and its photograph; and all the Nazi notables appear played by an actor and as a puppet. Edison’s “Black Maria,” the primal film studio, is presented in four ways: as a large structure, indeed the principal item of the master set, from which actors appear and into which they disappear; as toy structures in two sizes, the tinier on a snowy landscape inside a glass globe, which can be held in an actor’s hand, shaken, ruminated upon; and in a photographic blow-up of the globe.

Syberberg uses multiple approaches, multiple voices. The libretto is a medley of imaginary discourse and the actual words and voices of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels. Speer, and such backstage characters as Himmler’s Finnish masseur Felix Kersten and Hitler’s valet Karl-Wilhelm Krause. The complex sound track often provides two texts at once. Interspersed between and intermittently overlaid on the speeches of actors—a kind of auditory back-projection—are historical sound-documents, such as snatches from speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, from wartime news-broadcasts by German radio and the BBC. The stream of words also includes cultural references in the form of quotations (often left unattributed), such as Einstein on war and peace, a passage from the Futurist Manifesto—and the whole verbal polyphony swelled by excerpts from German music, mostly Wagner. A passage from, say, Tristan and Isolde or the chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth is used as another kind of historical quotation which complements or comments on what is being said, simultaneously, by an actor.

On the screen a varying stock of emblematic props and images supply more associations. Doré engravings for the Inferno, Graf’s portrait of Frederick the Great, the signature still from Meliès’s A Trip to the Moon, Runge’s Morning, Caspar David Friedrich’s The Frozen Ocean are among the visual references that appear (by a canny technique of slide projection) behind the actors. What we see works on the same assemblage principle as the sound track except that, while we hear many historical sound-documents, Syberberg makes very sparing use of visual documents from the Nazi era. His metaspectacle virtually swallows up the photographic document: when we see the Nazi reality on film, it is as film. Behind a seated, ruminating actor (Heller) appears some newsreel footage of Hitler—indistinct, rather unreal. Such bits of film are not used to show how anything “really” was: film clips, slides of paintings, movie still all have the same status, as allusions. Actors play in front of photographic blow-ups that show legendary places without people—empty, almost abstract, oddly scaled views of Ludwig II’s Venus Grotto at Linderhof, Wagner’s villa in Bayreuth, the conference room in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, the terrace of Hitler’s villa in Berchtesgaden, the ovens at Auschwitz. These are a more stylized kind of allusion and they are also a ghostly decor rather than a “real” set, with which Syberberg can play illusionist tricks reminiscent of Meliès: having the actor appear to be walking within a deep-focus photograph; ending a scene with the actor turning and vanishing into a backdrop that had appeared to be seamless.

Nazism is made known by allusion, through fantasy, in quotation. Quotations are both literal, like an Auschwitz survivor’s testimony, and, more commonly, fanciful cross-references—as when the hysterical SS man recites the child-murderer’s plea from Lang’s M; or Hitler, in a phantom tirade of self-exculpation, rising in a cobwebby toga from the grave of Richard Wagner, quotes Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Like the photographic images and the props, the actors themselves are stand-ins for the real. Most speech is monologue or monodrama, whether by a single actor talking directly to the camera, that is, the audience, or by actors half-talking to themselves (as in the scene of Himmler and his masseur) or declaiming in a row (the rotting puppets in hell). As in a Surrealist tableau, the presence of the inanimate makes its ironic comment on the supposedly alive. Actors talk to, or on behalf of, puppets of Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, Eva Braun, Speer. Several scenes set actors among department-store mannequins; or among the life-size photographic cut-outs of legendary ghouls from the German silent cinema (Mabuse, Alraune, Caligari, Nosferatu) and of the archetypal Germans photographed by August Sander. Hitler is a recurrent multiform presence, portrayed in memory, through burlesque, in historical travesty.

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