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Syberberg’s ‘Hitler’

To the Editors:

I agree with Miss Sontag (NYR, February 21): Syberberg’s film [Hitler, a Film from Germany] is an important attempt to give artistic expression to the phenomenon of Hitler and of national-socialist Germany, certainly it is among the most important attempts made in any medium. But it does so at a high price, and I am surprised that Miss Sontag doesn’t see this. I hope she will forgive me when I say that in her very long interpretation and assessment she seems to me to have failed to make clear what the film is really about.

For what Syberberg has understood (if that is the right word to describe the psychic work that has gone into his film) is that, beyond desire for conquest and enrichment, and beyond the will to power, the main force that informed Hitler, his henchmen and his followers as well as parts of their ideology, was the fascination exerted over them by destruction and the love of death.

This love of death, not mentioned by Miss Sontag, is the theme and provides the recurrent motifs of Syberberg’s film. He achieves the disquietingly intimate presentation of important aspects of national-socialist Germany—for instance in the very long SS monologues—precisely because his film reproduces and reenacts Hitler’s appeal to his public and his followers; and this appeal I take to have been, increasingly as the war went on, an appeal to their hideous preoccupation with death.

Miss Sontag considers that the film’s dominant emotion is mourning; she refers to the unpolitical Freudian term, “Trauerarbeit.” It is certainly the note on which the film closes. But there is here a kind of mourning, a kind of mythologizing and an empathy which make no distinction between victim and sacrifice, between victim and murderer: it is this intellectual conceit which gives those seven hours that strange ‘thirties and ‘forties feeling What the film is intent on evoking are certainly powerful emotions and powerful imagery—as powerful as they are indiscriminate, beyond good and evil.

Miss Sontag is of course right that Syberberg’s aim cannot have been to contribute to the conventional history of the Hitler era; and I agree that the film’s main effects derive from surrealist and symbolist sources. With some surrealists it shares their preoccupation with cruelty, with some symbolists the theme of death. However, the example of Baudelaire is irrelevant: it surely no longer needs saying that what Hitler was about was not death as a poetic symbol and a way to private redemption, but death-dealing in a public dimension and on a European scale—as a political phenomenon.

The film is “dedicated, as it were, to grief,” Miss Sontag writes. Grief—for whom? It seems to me that in any medium that permits that question—and this film is certainly such a medium—there must, for legitimate effect, be a discriminating answer. Perhaps in music things are different. But in any medium which relies for its effects on individuation through personal identities and personal acts, an indiscriminate answer is bound to perpetuate something of the original monstrosity.

The film belongs to a mode of feeling and experience which many of us thought had no longer any appeal in Germany. Even though it shares an important complex of emotions with its subject matter, it does not follow that it is a dangerous film. But the reason why it is not dangerous (dangerous, that is, in the sense of making out a powerful case for the ambivalence and aesthetic value of destructiveness and love of death) has less to do with the film itself than with the relative stability and sanity of public life in the Federal Republic.

I don’t offer to provide an assessment of the film—I have seen it only once right through; but I am quite sure that its one-sidedness must be defined before an adequate assessment is possible, and that neither its uniqueness nor its undialectical form are in themselves recommendations.

J.P. Stern

Department of German

University College, London, England

To the Editors:

I find barely one point in Susan Sontag’s review of Syberberg’s Hitler that can be agreed with in good conscience: the “film is a cheap fantasy.” Of course I am quoting out of context; she was referring to the cost and I to the product. Although Syberberg seems to be aware of the long-standing debate on the nature of narrative and history and though he apparently tries to apply the lesson that history is not self-evident but constructed to the medium of film, his manner of application suggests that he equates construction with license. His theoretical categories are simply not adequate to his materials which he cheapens by reducing to the level of his expectations. To tell his audience, for example, that Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin were both enemies of fascism is simply not enough, but it’s an easy way to make the Marxist Benjamin available to aristocratic, pessimistic, tempers like Syberberg’s. And to further state that Mann escaped from the Nazis is simply dishonest; it makes a principled hero of a man who, in 1934, was advised by his children to stay in Switzerland where he was then on tour. Mann took his time to denounce Hitler.

Perhaps it is the heavy aura of Mann’s work (I am thinking specifically of the scene in which Harry Baer acts as ventriloquist for the dummy Hitler and which clearly echoes the climactic mid-point of Doktor Faustus when the mad genius Leverkühn has an interview with the Devil, who turns out to be a projection of the composer himself) that makes Sontag imagine “modernist ironies” in Hitler. I missed them all. The film, in fact, is relentlessly self-important; and the grandiose theme to which such unyielding importance is attributed represents one of the most disturbing aspects of the film (it’s too hard to pick the most disturbing aspect): the predicament of the artist whose materials have been defiled. Poor Syberberg. One cannot listen to Wagner now without thinking of Hitler, or read Nietzsche, or even harmless Novalis. To see Hitler, one would think that the worst devastation of World War II was in the realm of art; it left debris, not material. Syberberg constructs with the debris but does not transform it; it remains garbage. Where Doktor Faustus was a sensitive, self-critical meditation on Germany gone mad, and where most of the pervasive irony is directed against Zeitblom, the ineffectual humanist who is Mann just as much as Leverkühn is, Hitler is an indictment of everyone but the artist. At best, it attempts to implicate everybody in the Nazi debacle; at worst (and I honestly believe this to be the case) it associates Nazism with popular rule in Germany, with massification or any other pejorative Jungian term that one may choose. Since Syberberg hardly mentions the strong internal resistance to fascism in the form of left-wing parties (if he did would simply equate fascism with communism in his neat way of reducing historical material), he can dismiss the value of all political activity and remain an aloof, bereaved genius. In fact, he treats the loss of his artistic heritage just as he might have treated the loss of his material legacy after it was expropriated by the East German State. His innocence is touching.

Susan Sontag says of Hitler that it is “like an unwanted baby in the era of zero population growth.” It’s more like a miscalculated abortion when everyone has been waiting for a birth.

Doris Sommer

Departments of Literatures, Languages and Linguistics

Livingston College

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey

Susan Sontag replies:

For J.P. Stern, Syberberg’s film is an argument about Nazism that happens in the form of a film but could as well be in some other—wonderful word—“medium.” He shows only a perfunctory awareness that this is a work of art, not a treatise on Nazism to be judged alongside, say, his own superb Hitler: The Führer and the People. He seems unaware of the issues raised by my contention that Syberberg is the first film director since Godard who really matters.

Syberberg’s argument cannot be lifted out of its incarnation as art without understanding what it is as art. Mr. Stern’s language shows how far he is from that understanding; a whole world of insufficient judgment is implied in his praise of the film as “an important attempt to give artistic expression to the phenomenon of Hitler,” etc. His lack of interest in film as an art, in the artistic decisions made in Syberberg’s film which my essay addressed at length, makes him think I haven’t made clear “what the film is really about.” I think I have done precisely that. For I, unlike Mr. Stern, don’t think Hitler, a Film from Germany is—or should be—about one thing. For instance, it is as much about film as about Hitler. And has every right to be.

Mr. Stern closes his letter by saying that he’s not offering “an assessment of the film” but only defining its “one-sidedness”—the awareness of which, however, must precede an adequate assessment. But no. That is simply the wrong way to proceed toward an assessment: first settling what Syberberg “says,” then dealing with its artistic envelope. This is why my essay starts with an elaborate account of Syberberg’s film as a work of art—for his views, I submit, are a function of the film’s status as art; not the other way around.

Further, this final reproach seems somewhat to contradict the rest of Mr. Stern’s letter, in which the film is criticized not for being one-sided but for empathizing with too many viewpoints, and therefore not giving “a discriminating answer.” But Syberberg is not trying to give an “answer,” discriminating or other, any more than Wagner and Joyce composed their works in order to give answers.

These two letters, one civil and thoughtful, one not, make the same exemplary error. The form-content dichotomy is being used at its most simple-minded, with the predictable distortions. Not only have Mr. Stern and Ms. Sommer reduced the film to its putative content, but this reduction grossly misrepresents the actual complexity of Syberberg’s views, and their formal and imaginative profundity. It is Mr. Stern, with his insistence on designating what Syberberg’s film is “really about,” in naming (as if it were obvious) “the main force that informed Hitler,” who seems one-sided.

The need to reduce the work of art to its message obfuscates the character of its artistic lineage. Thus, even when Mr. Stern claims to agree with me (“…that the film’s main effects derive from surrealist and symbolist sources”), I cannot agree with him. It is not some “main effects” but the film’s very form and sense. Further, the extent to which Hitler, a Film from Germany is Surrealist and Symbolist is not that it “shares” cruelty with some Surrealists and death with some Symbolists. The notions of cruelty and death are irrelevant to the precise sense in which I invoked the Surrealist and Symbolist aesthetics; Baudelaire is relevant.

Eager to promote his own thesis about Nazism—“this love of death, not mentioned by Miss Sontag”—Mr. Stern first finds it in the film (“For what Syberberg has understood…”), and then reproaches Syberberg for not pressing that thesis only (his “indiscriminate answer”). I find Hitler, a Film from Germany much more complex and, yes, dialectical. Love of death? Love of cinema, too. After the assertion that Syberberg’s film is “really about” what Nazism is “really about” (the preoccupation with death), then comes the sleight-of-hand—and behold Syberberg’s film charged with reproducing and reenacting Hitler’s appeal to his public. It is a grave charge to say that Syberberg’s “indiscriminate answer is bound to perpetuate something of the original monstrosity”—and a naïve one. Naïve, first of all, in its understanding of the possibilities open to art in general and cinema in particular (Mr. Stern’s insipid certainty that film is a “medium which relies for its effects on individuation”). Moralizing about art in this way is pure demagogy. The polity is not seriously threatened by a film director who has thought somewhat more deeply about cinema; who makes films whose structure derives from that old debaucher of individuation, music.

The subject of Hitler makes moralists of us all—moralists with a facility that is perhaps the last of the corruptions which is Hitler’s legacy. But Mr. Stern has let his license to moralize mislead him; he is not talking about what is, for seven hours, on the screen: a film designed as a critique of and antidote to the fascinations of fascism. There is no complicity, objective or subjective, between Hitler and Hitler; nothing in common between the appeal of this contemplative, ironic, learned, compassionate film and the Führer’s appeal. Mr. Stern is projecting his own view of the secret theme of Nazism onto Syberberg, and then faulting Syberberg for making a case for this theme. But what makes Mr. Stern outside the preoccupation with death and Syberberg perniciously inside (the author of a potentially “dangerous” work)? That Syberberg is an artist? An expert in empathy? But that is precisely the point. Syberberg is not a professor of German Studies but a great artist. He is an artist, as well as a propagandist for the good. I sincerely doubt that we need to be protected from him by the “stability and sanity” of the Federal Republic.

Ms. Sommer’s letter does not accuse Syberberg of being a dangerous artist but, rather, of being an example of the dreaded “aristocratic, pessimistic temper.” It is hard to know what to say to such virulent name-calling except to murmur, shyly, “You called?”

To explain just how much she dislikes Syberberg’s film, Ms. Sommer drags in Mann—asserting that there are echoes of Doctor Faustus in Hitler, a Film from Germany (which I’d said); that Doctor Faustus is a great work; that Mann was no hero. Sorry, but Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin were both enemies of fascism. Needless to say, Syberberg does not in his film “tell his audience” that; aristocrat that he is, he assumes they know. But Ms. Sommer has to turn Syberberg’s argument into baby talk in order to launch her complaint that Walter Benjamin has been made “available” to the likes of Syberberg. I was under the impression that the greatest critic of the twentieth century is not the exclusive property of Marxists, particularly vulgar Marxists, and is available to us all.

Ms. Sommer did indeed miss the modernist ironies in Hitler, a Film from Germany—nothing to brag about, I should have thought. But it is not “the heavy aura of Mann’s work” that makes me “imagine ‘modernist ironies’ in Hitler“; Mann is not, in my books, a modernist artist. No wonder Ms. Sommer missed the modernism of Syberberg’s film, since she plainly doesn’t know what modernism is. Nor does she appear to know anything about film.

Quickly, a few points. Syberberg’s film does not “associate Nazism with popular rule.” It associates Nazism with Germany—a somewhat different matter. And: it is not perhaps wrong for a genius to be aloof and bereaved. Is Ms. Sommer suggesting that bereavement is so inappropriate a response to the German catastrophe? Finally, the defilement of the German artistic heritage by Nazism is a weightier event than Ms. Sommer, with her sneering reference to Syberberg’s “innocence,” can conceive. Her philistinism is not touching.

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