Hans-Jurgen Syberberg
Hans-Jurgen Syberberg; drawing by David Levine

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.

The film is a mosaic of stylistic quotations. To present Hitler in multiple guises and from many perspectives, Syberberg draws on disparate stylistic sources: Wagner, Meliès, Brechtian distancing techniques, homosexual baroque, puppet theater. This eclecticism is the mark of an extremely self-conscious, erudite, avid artist, and the choice of stylistic materials is not as arbitrary as it might seem. Syberberg’s film is, precisely, Surrealist in its eclecticism, its use of pastiche. Surrealism is a late variant of Romantic taste, a Romanticism that assumes a broken or posthumous world reflecting the buried psychological or collective realities. Surrealist works proceed by conventions of dismemberment and reconstitution in the spirit of pathos and irony: these conventions include the inventory (or open-ended list); the technique of duplication by miniaturization; the hyper-development of the art of quotation. By means of these conventions, particularly the circulation and recycling of visual and aural quotations, Syberberg’s film simultaneously inhabits many places, many times—his principal device of dramatic and visual irony.

His broadest irony is to mock all this complexity by presenting his meditation on Hitler as something simple: a tale told in the presence of a child. Syberberg’s nine-year-old daughter is the mute somnambulistic witness, crowned by loops of celluloid, who wanders through the steam-filled landscape of hell; who begins and closes each of the film’s four parts. Alice in Wonderland, the spirit of cinema—she is surely meant as these. And Syberberg also evokes the symbolism of melancholy, identifying the child with Dürer’s “Melencolia”: at the end of the film she is posed inside a plump tear, gazing in front of the stars.

Whatever the attributions, the image owes much to Surrealist taste. The condition of the somnambulist is a convention of Surrealist narrative. The person who moves through a Surrealist landscape is typically in a dreamy, becalmed state. The enterprise that takes one through a Surrealist landscape is always quixotic—hopeless, obsessional; and, finally, self-regarding. An emblematic image in the film, one much admired by the Surrealists, is the “Eye Reflecting the Interior of the Theater of Besançon” (1804) by the visionary French architect Ledoux. The eye first appears on the set as a two-dimensional picture. Later it is a three-dimensional construction, an eye-as-theater in which one of the narrators (Baer) sees, projected at the rear, himself—in an earlier film by Syberberg, Ludwig II, Requiem for a Virgin King, in which he played the lead. As Ledoux locates his theater in the eye, Syberberg locates his cinema inside the mind, where all associations are possible.

Syberberg’s repertory of theatrical devices and images seems inconceivable without the freedoms and ironies introduced by Surrealist taste. Grand Guignol, puppet theater, the circus, and the films of Meliès were Surrealist passions. The taste for naïve theater and primitive cinema as well as for objects which miniaturize reality, for the art of Northern Romanticism (Dürer, Blake, Friedrich, Runge), for architecture as utopian fantasy (Ledoux) and as private delirium (Ludwig II)—the sensibility that encompasses all these is Surrealism. But there is an aspect of Surrealist taste that is alien to Syberberg—the surrender to chance, to the arbitrary; the fascination with the opaque, the meaningless, the mute. There is nothing arbitrary or aleatoric about his decor, no throwaway images, no objects trouvés; indeed, certain relics and images in Syberberg’s film have the force of personal talismans. Everything means something, everything speaks. One mute presence, Syberberg’s child, only sets off the film’s unrelenting verbosity and intensity. Everything in the film is presented as having been already consumed, so to speak, by a mind.

When history takes place inside the head, public and private mythologies gain equal status. Unlike the other mega-films with whose epic ambitions it might be compared—Intolerance, Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible I & II, 2001—Syberberg’s film is open to personal references as well as public ones. Public myths of evil are framed by private mythologies of innocence, developed in two earlier films, Ludwig II (1972, two hours twenty minutes) and Karl May—In Search of Paradise Lost (1974, three hours), which Syberberg treats as the first two parts of a trilogy on the German catastrophe that concludes with Hitler, A Film from Germany. Wagner’s patron and victim, Ludwig II, is a recurrent figure of innocence. One of Syberberg’s talismanic images—it ends Ludwig II and is reused in Hitler, A Film…—shows Ludwig as a bearded, weeping child. The image that opens the Hitler film is of Ludwig’s Winter Garden in Munich—a ravishing paradisiacal landscape of Alps, palm trees, lake, tent, gondola, which figures throughout Ludwig II.

Each of the three films stands on its own, but so far as they are regarded as comprising a trilogy, it is worth noting that Ludwig II feeds more images to Hitler, A Film from Germany than does the second film, about Karl May, the favorite novelist of Hitler and Hermann Hesse. Parts of Karl May, with its “real” sets and actors, come closer to linear, mimetic dramaturgy than anything in Ludwig II or in the incomparably more ambitious and profound film on Hitler. But, like all artists with a taste for pastiche, Syberberg has only a limited feeling for what is understood as realism. The pasticheur’s style is essentially a style of fantasy.

Syberberg has devised a particularly German variety of spectacle: the moralized horror show. In the excruciating banalities of the valet’s narrative, in a burlesque of Chaplin’s impersonation of Hitler in The Great Dictator, in a Grand Guignol skit about Hitler’s sperm—the Devil is a familiar spirit. Hitler is even allowed to share in the pathos of miniaturization: the Hitler-puppet (addressed, dressed, undressed) with whom others in the film try to reason; the cloth-dog with the Hitler-face carried mournfully by the child.

Syberberg’s spectacle assumes familiarity with the incidents and personages of German history and culture, the Nazi regime, World War II; alludes freely to events in the three decades since Hitler’s death. While the present is reduced to being the legacy of the past, the past is embellished with knowledge of its future. In Ludwig II this open-ended historical itinerary seems like cool (Brechtian?) irony—as when Ludwig I cites Brecht. In Hitler, A Film from Germany the irony of anachronism is weightier. Syberberg denies that the events of Nazism were part of the ordinary workings of history. (“They said it was the end of the world,” muses one of the puppet-masters. “And it was.”) His film takes place at a kind of end-of-time, a Messianic time (to use Walter Benjamin’s term) which imposes the duty of trying to do justice to the dead. Hence, the long solemn roll-call of the accomplices of Nazism (“those whom we must not forget”), then of its victims—one of several points at which the film seems to end.

Syberberg has cast his film in the first person: as the action of one artist assuming the German duty to confront fully the horror of Nazism. Like many German intellectuals of the past, Syberberg treats his Germanness as a moral vocation and regards Germany as the cockpit of European conflicts. (“The twentieth century,…a film from Germany,” says one of the ruminators.) Syberberg was born in 1935 in what became East Germany ten years later, and left for West Germany in 1953, where he has lived ever since; but the true provenance of his film is the extraterritorial Germany of the spirit whose first great citizen was that self-styled romantique defroqué Heine, and whose last great citizen was Thomas Mann. “To be the spiritual battlefield of European antagonisms—that’s what it means to be German,” Mann declared in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, written during World War I, sentiments that had not changed when he wrote Doctor Faustus as an old man in exile in the late 1940s. Syberberg’s view of Nazism as the explosion of the German demonic recalls Mann, as does his unfashionable insistence on Germany’s collective guilt—the theme of “Hitler-in-us.” The narrators’ repeated challenge, “Who would Hitler be without us?”, also echoes Mann, who wrote an article on Hitler in 1945 called “This Man Is My Brother.” Like Mann, Syberberg regards Nazism as the grotesque fulfillment—and betrayal—of German Romanticism.

Although Syberberg draws on innumerable versions and impressions of Hitler, the film in fact offers very few ideas about Hitler. For the most part they are the theses formulated in the ruins of post-World War II Germany: the thesis that “Hitler’s work” was “the eruption of the satanic principle in world history” (Meinecke’s The German Catastrophe, written two years before Doctor Faustus); the thesis, expressed by Max Horkheimer in an essay written just after the war, that Hitler was the logical culmination of Western progress. Starting in the 1950s, when the ruins were rebuilt, more complex theses—political, sociological, economic—prevailed about Nazism. (Horkheimer, for example, repudiated his essay.) In reviving those unmodulated views of thirty years ago, their indignation, their pessimism, Syberberg’s film makes a strong case for their moral appropriateness.

Syberberg asks that we really listen to what Hitler said—to the kind of cultural revolution Nazism was, or claimed to be; to the spiritual catastrophe it was, and still is. By Hitler Syberberg does not mean only the real historical monster, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. He evokes a kind of Hitler-substance that outlives Hitler, a phantom presence in modern culture, a protean principle of evil that saturates the present and remakes the past. Syberberg’s film alludes to familiar genealogies, real and symbolic: from Romanticism to Hitler, from Wagner to Hitler, from Caligari to Hitler, from kitsch to Hitler. And, in the hyperbole of woe, he insists on some new ones: from Hitler to pornography, from Hitler to the soulless consumer society of the Federal Republic, from Hitler to the rude coercions of the DDR.

In using Hitler thus, there is some truth and some unconvincing attributions. It is true that Hitler has contaminated romanticism and Wagner, that much of nineteenth-century German culture is, retroactively, haunted by Hitler. (As, say, nineteenth-century Russian culture is not haunted by Stalin.) But it is not true that Hitler engendered the modern, post-Hitlerian plastic consumer society. That was already well on the way when the Nazis took power. Indeed it could be argued—contra Syberberg—that Hitler was in the long run an irrelevance, an attempt to halt the historical clock; and that communism is what ultimately mattered in Europe, not fascism. Syberberg is more plausible when he asserts that the DDR resembles the Nazi state, a view for which he has been denounced by the left in West Germany. Like most intellectuals who grew up under a communist regime and moved to a bourgeois-democratic one, he is singularly free of left-wing pieties.

Syberberg’s notion of history as catastrophe recalls the long German tradition of regarding history moralistically, as the history of the spirit. Comparable views today are more likely to be entertained in Eastern Europe than in Germany. Syberberg has the moral intransigence, the lack of respect for literal history, the heartbreaking seriousness of the great illiberal artists from the Russian empire—with their fierce convictions about the primacy of spiritual over material (economic, political) causation, the irrelevance of the categories “left” and “right,” the existence of absolute evil. Appalled by the extensiveness of the German support for Hitler, Syberberg calls the Germans “a Satanic people.”

The devil story that Mann devised to sum up the Nazi demonic was narrated by someone who does not understand. Thereby Mann suggested that evil so absolute may be, finally, beyond comprehension or the grasp of art. But the obtuseness of the narrator of Doctor Faustus is too much insisted on. Mann’s irony backfires: Serenus Zeitblom’s fatuous modesty of understanding seems like Mann’s confession of inadequacy, his inability to give full voice to grief. Syberberg’s film about the devil, though sheathed in ironies, affirms our ability to understand and our obligation to grieve. Dedicated, as it were, to grief, the film begins and ends with Heine’s lacerating words: “I think of Germany in the night and sleep leaves me, I can no longer close my eyes, I weep hot tears.” Grief is the burden of the calm, rueful, musical soliloquies of Baer and Heller; neither reciting nor declaiming, they are simply speaking out, and listening to these grave, intelligent voices seething with grief is itself a civilizing experience.

The film carries without any condescension a vast legacy of information about the Nazi period. But information is assumed. The film is not designed to meet a need for information but claims to address a (hypothetical) therapeutic ideal. Syberberg repeatedly says that his film is addressed to the German “inability to mourn,” that it undertakes “the work of mourning” (Trauerarbeit). These phrases recall the famous essay Freud wrote during World War I, “Mourning and Melancholia,” which connects melancholy and the inability to work through grief; and the application of this formula in an influential psychoanalytic study of postwar Germany by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn, published in Germany in 1967, which diagnoses the Germans as afflicted by mass melancholia, the result of the continuing denial of their collective responsibility for the Nazi past and their persistent refusal to mourn.1 Syberberg has appropriated the well-known Mitscherlich thesis (without ever mentioning their book), but it seems unlikely that his film was inspired by it. It seems more plausible that Syberberg found in the notion of Trauerarbeit a psychological and moral justification for his aesthetics of repetition and recycling. It takes time—and much hyperbole—to work through grief.

So far as the film can be considered as an act of mourning, what is interesting is that it is conducted in the style of mourning—by exaggeration, repetition. It provides an overflow of information: the method of saturation. Syberberg is an artist of excess, making thought into a kind of excess, the surplus production of ruminations, images, associations, emotions connected with, evoked by, Hitler. Hence the film’s length, its circular arguments, its several beginnings, its four or five endings, its many titles, its plurality of styles, its vertiginous shifts of perspective on Hitler, from below or beyond. The most vivid shift occurs in Part II, when the valet’s forty-minute monologue with its mesmerizing trivia about Hitler’s taste in underwear and shaving cream and breakfast food is followed by Heller’s musings on the unreality of the idea of the galaxies. (It is the verbal equivalent of the cut in 2001 from the bone thrown in the air by a primate to the space ship—surely the most spectacular cut in the history of cinema.) Syberberg’s idea is to exhaust, to empty his subject.

Syberberg measures his ambitions by standards set by Wagner, although living up to the legendary attributes of a German genius is no easy task in the consumer society of the Federal Republic. He considers that Hitler, A Film from Germany is not just a film, as Wagner did not want the Ring and Parsifal to be considered “operas” or to be part of the normal repertory of opera houses. Its defiant, seductive length, which prevents the film from being distributed conventionally, is very Wagnerian, as is Syberberg’s reluctance (until recently) to let it be shown except in special circumstances, encouraging seriousness. Also Wagnerian are Syberberg’s ideals of exhaustiveness and profundity; his sense of mission; his belief in art as a radical act; his taste for scandal; his polemical energies (he is incapable of writing an essay that is not a manifesto); his taste for the grandiose. Grandiosity is, precisely, Syberberg’s great subject. The protagonists of his trilogy about Germany—Ludwig II, Karl May, Hitler—are all megalomaniacs, liars, reckless dreamers, virtuosi of the grandiose. (Very different sorts of documentaries Syberberg made for German TV between 1967 and 1975 also express his fascination with the self-assured and self-obsessed: Die Grafen Pocci, about an aristocratic German family; portraits of German film stars; and a five-hour interview film on Wagner’s daughter-in-law and Hitler’s friend, The Confessions of Winifred Wagner.)

Syberberg is a great Wagnerian, the greatest since Thomas Mann, but his attitude to Wagner and the treasures of German romanticism is not only pious. It contains more than a bit of malice, the touch of the cultural vandal. To evoke the grandeur and the failure of Wagnerianism, Hitler, A Film from Germany uses, recycles, parodies elements of Wagner. Syberberg means his film to be an anti-Parsifal, and hostility to Wagner is at the core of the film: the spiritual connection of Wagner and Hitler. But it is from Wagner that Syberberg’s film gets its biggest boost—its immediate intrinsic claim on the sublime. As the film opens, we hear the beginning of the prelude to Parsifal and see the word “GRAIL” in fractured blocky letters. Syberberg claims that his aesthetic is Wagnerian, that is, musical. But it might be more correct to say that his film both mimes Wagner and has a parasitic relation to him—as Ulysses is in a parasitic relation to the history of English literature.

Syberberg takes very literally, more literally than Eisenstein ever did, the notion that film is a synthesis of the plastic arts, music, literature, and theater—the modern fulfillment of Wagner’s idea of the total work of art. (It has often been said that Wagner, had he lived in the twentieth century, would have been a film maker.) But the modern Gesamtkunstwerk tends to be an aggregation of seemingly disparate elements instead of a synthesis. For Syberberg there is always something more, and different, to say—as the two films on Ludwig he made in 1972 attest. Ludwig II, Requiem for a Virgin King, which became the first film in his trilogy about Germany, pays delirious homage to a film-making style of ironic theatricality and over-ripe pathos. Theodor Hirneis, the other film, is an austere Brechtian monodrama of ninety minutes with Ludwig’s cook as its one character—it anticipates the valet’s narrative in Hitler, A Film from Germany—and was inspired by Brecht’s unfinished novel on the life of Julius Caesar narrated by his slave. Syberberg considers that he began as a disciple of Brecht, and in 1952 and 1953 filmed several of Brecht’s productions in East Berlin.

His work, he says, come from “the duality Brecht/Wagner”; that is the “aesthetic scandal” he claims to have “sought.” In interviews Syberberg invariably cites both as his artistic fathers, partly (one supposes) to neutralize the politics of one by the politics of the other and place himself beyond issues of left and right; partly to appear more even-handed than he is. But he is inevitably more of a Wagnerian than a Brechtian, because of the way the inclusive Wagnerian aesthetic accommodates contraries of feeling (including ethical feeling and political bias). Baudelaire heard in Wagner’s music “the ultimate scream of a soul driven to its utmost limits,” while Nietzsche, even after giving up on Wagner, still praised him as a great “miniaturist” and “our greatest melancholiac in music”—and both were right. Wagner’s contraries reappear in Syberberg: the radical democrat and the rightwing elitist, the aesthete and the moralist, rant and rue.

Syberberg’s genealogy, Brecht/Wagner, obscures other influences on the film—for example, what he owes to Surrealist ironies and images. But even the role of Wagner seems a more complex affair than Syberberg’s obsession with the art and life of Wagner would indicate. Apart from the Wagner that Syberberg has appropriated, one is tempted to say expropriated, for his film, this Wagnerianism is properly an attenuated affair. It seems a fascinatingly belated example of that kind of art which grew out of the Wagnerian aesthetic, known as Symbolism. While the cultural references in Syberberg’s film are mostly German, and Symbolism was mainly an affair of French poets as well as painters and musicians—the Symbolist organ, for which Mallarmé and others wrote, was called La Revue Wagnerienne—there are interesting correspondences between the Symbolist notions and the form of Hitler, A Film from Germany.

Symbolism was the Wagnerian aesthetic turned into a procedure of creation for all the arts—further subjectivized, pulled toward abstraction. What Wagner wanted was an ideal theater, a theater of extreme and intense emotions purged of distractions and irrelevancies. Thus Wagner chose to conceal the orchestra of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus under a black wooden shell; and he once quipped that, having invented the invisible orchestra, he wished he could invent the invisible stage. It was the Symbolist poets under the sway of Wagner, starting with Baudelaire, who found the invisible stage. Events were to be withdrawn from reality, so to speak, and restaged in the ideal theater of the mind.

From Wagner’s fantasy of the invisible stage to that immaterial stage, cinema—Syberberg’s film is mordant rendering of cinema’s Symbolist potentialities. He construes cinema as a kind of ideal mental activity, being both sensuous and reflective, that takes up where reality leaves off: cinema not as the fabrication of reality but “a continuation of reality by other means.” In Syberberg’s meditation on history in a sound studio, events are visualized (with the aid of Surrealist conventions) while remaining in a true sense invisible. But lacking the stylistic homogeneity that was characteristic of Symbolist works, Hitler, A Film from Germany has a vigor that Symbolists would avoid as vulgar. Its impurities rescue Syberberg’s film from what was most limiting about Symbolism without making the film’s reach any less comprehensive than what Symbolism claimed.

The quintessential Symbolist artist, Mallarmé, defined his poetry as an attempt to evoke things “in a deliberate shadow, by allusive, never direct words,” that is, “to attempt something that comes close to an act of creation.” The standard of Symbolist art is art made by a superior mind, a creator-mind that sees everything, that is able to permeate its subject; and eclipses it. Much of Syberberg’s meditation on Hitler has the characteristic porousness of Symbolist art: soft-edge arguments that begin “I think of…,” verbless sentences that evoke rather than explain. Conclusions are everywhere but nothing concludes. All the parts of a Symbolist narrative are simultaneous; all coexist in this omniscient mind.

The function of this mind is not to tell a story (the story is behind it) but to confer meaning in unlimited amounts. Actions, figures, individual bits of decor can have, ideally do have, multiple meanings—for example, the various meanings Syberberg assigns to the figure of the child. The film overflows with meanings of varying accessibility, and there are further meanings from relics and talismans on the set which the audience can’t possibly know about.2 The Symbolist artist is not primarily interested in exposition, explanation, communication. The Symbolist narrative is always a posthumous affair; its subject is precisely something whose existence is assumed. It seems fitting that in Syberberg’s film one talks to those who cannot talk back: to the dead (one can put words in their mouths) and to one’s own daughter (who has no lines). He is appealing to another process of knowing, as is indicated by the presence of Ledoux’s ideal theater in the form of an eye—the Masonic eye, the eye of intelligence, of esoteric knowledge.

Syberberg’s grandest conceit is that with his film he may have “defeated” Hitler—exorcised him. The problem for Syberberg is that he cannot give anything up. So large is his subject—and everything Syberberg does makes it even larger—that he has to take many positions beyond it. Though he tries to be silent (the child, the stars), he can’t stop talking. Even when the film is finally over, after the several climaxes of Part IV, Syberberg still wants to say more; and adds postscripts: the Heine epigraph, the citation of Mogadishu and Stammheim, the final oracular Syberberg-sentence.

Syberberg’s view of cinema as a staging of the imagination concludes with notions of the imagination as a purveyor of the powers of blackness. Heller’s monologue in Part IV ends with a roll call of myths that can be regarded as metaphors for the powers of cinema—starting with Edison’s “Black Maria” (“the black studio of our imagination”); evoking black stones (of the Cabala, of Dürer’s “Melencolia”—the presiding image of the film’s complex iconography); and ending with a modern image; cinema as the black hole of the imagination. Like a black hole, or our fantasy about it, cinema collapses space and time. The image perfectly describes the excruciating fluency of Syberberg’s film: its insistence on occupying different spaces and times simultaneously. It seems fitting that Syberberg’s private mythology of subjective cinema concludes with an image drawn from science fiction. A subjective cinema of these ambitions and moral energy logically mutates into science fiction. Thus Syberberg’s film begins with the stars and ends, like 2001, with the stars and a star-child.

Evoking Hitler by means of myth and travesty, fairy tales and science fictions, Syberberg conducts his own rites of deconsecration: the Grail has been destroyed, it is no longer possible to dream of redemption. Syberberg defends his mythologizing of history as a skeptic’s enterprise: myth as “the mother of irony and pathos,” not myths which stimulate new systems of belief. But someone who believes that Hitler was Germany’s “fate” is hardly a skeptic. Syberberg is the sort of artist who wants to have it both—all—ways. The method of his film is contradiction, irony. But, exercising his ingenious talent for naïveté, he also claims to transcend this complexity. He relishes notions of innocence and pathos—the traditions of Romantic idealism; some nonsense around the figure of a child (his daughter, the infant in Runge’s Morning, Ludwig as a bearded, weeping child), dreams of an ideal world purified of its complexity and mediocrity.

The earlier parts of Syberberg’s trilogy are elegiac portraits of last-ditch dreamers of paradise: Ludwig, who built castles which were stages sets and paid for Wagner’s dream factory at Bayreuth; Karl May, who romanticized American Indians, Arabs, and other exotics in his immensely popular novels, the most famous of which, Winnetou, chronicles the destruction of beauty and bravery by the coming of modern technological civilization. Ludwig and Karl May attract Syberberg as gallant, doomed practitioners of the Great Refusal, the refusal of modern industrial civilization. What Syberberg loathes most, such as pornography and the commercialization of culture, he identifies with the modern. His film is a work of mourning for the modern and what precedes it, and opposes it. If Hitler is also a “utopian,” as Syberberg calls him, then Syberberg is condemned to be a post-utopian, a utopian who acknowledges that utopian feelings have been hopelessly defiled. Syberberg does not believe in a “new human being”—that perennial theme of cultural revolution on both the left and the right. For all his attraction to the credo of romantic genius, what he really believes in is Goethe and a thorough Gymnasium education.

Syberberg manages to perpetuate in a melancholy, attenuated form something of Wagner’s notions of art as therapy, as redemption, and as catharsis. He calls cinema “the most beautiful compensation” for the ravages of modern history; to “our senses, oppressed by progress,” it offers a kind of “redemption.” That art does in sorts redeem reality—that is the ultimate Symbolist belief. Syberberg makes of cinema the last, most inclusive, most ghostly paradise. Syberberg’s cinephilia is another part of the immense pathos of his film, perhaps the only pathos that is involuntary. For whatever Syberberg says, cinema is now another lost paradise.

Syberberg is a genuine elegiast who knows how to use the allegorical props, the symbols and talismans of melancholy. But his film is tonic. The poetic, husky-voiced, diffident logorrhea of Godard’s late films discloses a morose conviction that speaking will never exorcise anything, and an inhibition of feeling, both of sympathy and repulsion, that results from this sense of the impotence of speaking. Syberberg, with a temperament that seems the opposite of Godard’s, has a supreme confidence in language, in discourse, in eloquence itself. The result is a film altogether exceptional in its emotional expressiveness, its novel aesthetic, its visual beauty, its moral passion, its concern with contemplative values.

The film tries to say everything. Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, Céline, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on. (Beckett would belong to this race too were it not for some inhibitory force—sanity? elegance? good manners? less energy? deeper despair?) Syberberg’s unprecedented ambition in Hitler, A Film from Germany is on another scale than anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. The more one recognizes of its stylistic references and lore, the more the film vibrates. Syberberg’s film belongs in the category of noble master-pieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeing Hitler, A Film from Germany, there is Syberberg’s film—and then there are the other films one admires. (Not too many these days, alas.) As was said ruefully of Wagner, he spoils our tolerance for the others.

This Issue

February 21, 1980