Hitler, A Film from Germany
Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland Giroux later this year)
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 …