screened February 4-14 on Facets DVD en route to, during, and back from the Berlin Film Festival
Lauded by the likes of Susan Sontag as one of the greatest works of 20th century art, while reviled by many both in Germany and abroad as a work of depraved reactionary nostalgia, Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s epic rumination of Germany’s Nazi past remains as troubling and troublesome today as it was thirty years ago. (Two top German critics I met in Berlin admitted to not having been able to sit through the film.) Syberberg takes the old adage of confronting the mistakes of the past lest they be repeated and puts it to an extreme test, immersing its audience in seven-plus hours of Naziana drawn out to such length and breadth that it suggests a morbidly intractable fixation with its subject.
A historical zombie movie for intellectuals, the film fixes an unwavering gaze on reanimated Nazi figures like Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler (whose obsession with a mythic Germany Syberberg seems to share), Hitler’s personal valet, and Hitler himself, toga-clad and rising from Richard Wagner’s tomb, as they deliver endless monologues amidst a landscape of kitschy Third Reich paraphernalia and atmospheric dry ice fog. The film itself creeps like a mist, heavily influenced by a Wagnerian aesthetic of total immersion and seductive stasis whose registers of portentous yearning shift gradually from one motif to the next. Other monologues delivered by contemporary performers often teeter into tedious, sermonizing self-absorption and effete irony (as if to counterpoint the passionate conviction of Nazi orators), bringing out an anti-cinematic element that denies pleasure and resists rapture. The film comments on cinema itself through a series of rear projections of paintings, newsreel footage and other iconic imagery. Sets cluttered with stuffed animals and uniformed mannequins suggest the basement of a Neo-Nazi taxidermist, the detritus of the past splayed out haphazardly yet betraying a precision of design, and an overall funkiness that becomes perversely appealing.
Also telling is the film’s dual attributions of Nazism as both a precursor and an antidote to the 20th century American capitalism that, according to Syberberg, threatens the freedoms of the world. It’s an argument often waged on the battleground of cinema, with Hitler posited as the greatest filmmaker of all time, and Syberberg actively deconstructing the “movie” that was the Third Reich, that massive production that was able, however temporarily, to break capitalist Hollywood’s industrial and cultural stranglehold on world cinema. This thorough disenchantment with contemporary film culture is what has Syberberg reaching for his Nazi revolver, loading it with the ammunition of mythic enthrallment and redemptive cultural pride – and yet not quite willing to pull the trigger. It’s a deeply ambivalent work, both longing to return to the lost Eden of a Germanic ideal while cautious of the consequences that such an impulse has already wrought on the world.
You can watch the entirety of Hitler: a Film from Germany (in German orEnglish, with or without subtitles) at Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s website
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Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 429-minute historical pageant, conceiving Hitler as the logical end point of German romanticism. The film’s American distributor, Francis Ford Coppola, retitled it Our Hitler: A Film From Germany, which proves that commercial genius can lie in the stroke of a pronoun: self-flagellating audiences made the film a sellout in most of its initial 1980 engagements.
– Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
The third and longest part of Syberberg’s extraordinary trilogy on German culture, history and nationalism (the two earlier films were Ludwig – Requiem for a Virgin King and Karl May), best described as a high camp, heavy-duty analysis of both history and historical analysis itself. The chosen method is to single out, act out, alter, and finally comment on the lives of a handful of ‘awkward’ German historical figures, from Ludwig of Bavaria through fantasy author Karl May to Hitler, the ‘madman’. Behind aesthetic complexity lies a simple purpose: to show up the sort of historical contradictions solved by Marxists with bare economic models, and by others with suspect reference to the ‘greatness’ or ‘madness’ of the figures involved. Visually lyrical, the style is eclectic to the point of hysteria; and the tone oscillates between the operatic (Wagner figures large) and the colloquial (Hitler in conversation with his projectionist) without ever quite coming unstuck. Humour mixes with mythology and analysis in the attempt to reunite art, history and ideology. It’s a quite remarkable film, with a sense of metaphor equal to its intellectual courage.
– Time Out
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film from Germany is the most controversial film produced in post-war Germany. The central thesis of the film propounds the notion that Hitler is within all of us. Syberberg attempts to illuminate the German soul and German myth—and as such recalls romanticism’s themes and preoccupations. Moreover, in his seven hour film, Nazi Germany is depicted as a gargantuan spectacle in which Hitler becomes the ultimate showman-filmmaker; thus Syberberg does not only challenge what a film about Hitler should be like, but also raises important questions about cinematic representation in general.
Hitler and the previously published book about the film had so annoyed the German critical establishment that when a section was previewed at Cannes in 1977, the film was virtually boycotted by all the major German reviewers. In protest, Syberberg, who felt himself deliberately misunderstood, withdrew the film from the Berlin Film Festival and blocked its screening in his native land for a couple of years. The world premier was held at the London Film Festival in 1977 and Hitler was awarded the B.F.I.’s annual prize for “the most original and imaginative film of the year.” Subsequently the film was on general release for several months in Paris and Cahiers du Cinema enthusiastically devoted a whole issue to Syberberg and his film. Susan Sontag acclaimed Hitler “one of the great works of art of the twentieth century.”
Syberberg wants to draw parallels to cinema on different levels. He makes reference to Melies’s A Trip to the Moon, Welles’s Citizen Kane, and Lang’s M (the final scene, where Peter Lorre defends his evil deeds because he can’t help himself, is here reenacted by Peter Kern dressed as an SS officer). Cardboard figures from Caligari to Nosferatu punctuate the film, therefore linking them to the idea of Hitler being a subject for projection of the most evil desires in us. Moreover, Syberberg perceives the trend towards ever-increasing conformity in the developments of cinematic codes as a further basis for his comparison with facism. Thus Greed and its botching by MGM becomes an example, but he also examines Sergei Eisenstein’s persecution under Stalin. The figures of Hitler and Himmler are shown to be merelyrepresentations and not embodiments, when delegating their roles to various actors, historical personalities, and marionettes. The condemnation of commercial cinema culminates in the polemical comparison between Auschwitz and McCarthy’s Hollywood. In Syberberg’s view it was not the actual physical presence of Hitler which historically mobilized the masses, but Hitler as representation and Nazism as spectacle. He is convinced of the vitality of the myth, which is why he wants to break its fascination through mechanisms of estrangement and montage.
And this is the crux of the controversial German reception of Hitler. It is not so much Syberberg’s aesthetics per se, but the fear that his aestheticisation of politics might seduce the spectator since it is bordering on aestheticising Nazism. His “creative irrationality,” many critics argue, leads to further mystification and connects too problematically to Nazi-mythology.
—Ulrike Sieglohr, Film Reference.com
About four hours into its nearly eight-hour running time (442 minutes), Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) finally achieves liftoff. It comes, after hours of gassy cosmic gropings, in a welcome focus on the concrete: an excerpt from the memoir of Hitler’s valet and man-servant, Krause. The former sailor was assigned to attend to Hitler’s clothes, see that Der Fuhrer’s breakfast was delivered on time, arrange the day’s array of newspapers and dispatches, and otherwise make himself useful. So we get the devil in the details of Hitler’s routines, which not surprisingly make him emerge more vividly than the kind of epic breadth Syberberg is after here.
We’re told that Hitler could be surprisingly oblivious to clothes, and that the man who killed millions of human beings couldn’t bear to see a cat kill a bird. If no man is a hero to his valet, Hitler was human-sized to his, living simply, capable of a sentimentality that made him weep at the sight of a Christmas tree. Left to himself, he’d revert to looking baggier and more rumpled than you’d expect from the supreme being of the Third Reich, otherwise a genius at marketing himself. Hitler sensed what a shamed post-WW I Germany wanted and served it up on a massive scale, with an unerring instinct for theatrics. Although taking great pains to link himself to mytho-heroic antecedents, he was shrewd enough to stress that he was anti-elitist, a man of the masses in an age where mass culture was launching itself, especially through movies, of which Hitler was a great devotee. Social evenings at the Reichschancellory, we re told, ended with movie showings in Hitler’s private screening room. (Among his favorites:Broadway Melody, Disney animations, Die Nibelungen of Fritz Lang, who had the good sense to flee Germany.)
In making you shudder at the industrial scale of Hitler’s hate-fueled killing and lunatic ravings, the film also makes you shudder at Hitler’s perversion of language, the barbaric actions to which he affixed the labels bravery, heroism, nobility and so on. Syberberg knows his Orwell. The more horrible Hitler’s horrors, the loftier and more abstract the language became. It doesn’t help that Syberberg has his own language problems. Possibly he was doing an ironic riff on kitsch when he begins the film by telling us “The mysterious path goes inward, into night” or ends it by calling what we have just seen “a projection of the bloodbath of the future.” Although some of his pronouncements and connections are pretty contorted and others are simply bloated and shaky, he has a brain, but he doesn’t have much of an ear. One might almost say, with apologies to Cole Porter, down, down, down he goes, into the ground he goes, in a spin, loving the spin he’s in, loving that old black magic of death. Or at least transfixed by it.
– Jay Carr, Turner Classic Movies
A seven-hour-long film about Hitler caused quite a stir when it was shown in New York in January, 1980. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s “Our Hitler” (a two-disk set from Facets) is anything but a bio-pic. Its original German title, which translates as “Hitler, A Film from Germany,” makes clear the scope of the director’s ambition: to investigate Hitler as a psychic and aesthetic phenomenon, or, as is said in the film, as “fantasies of the mind and their blood realization.”
Syberberg’s technique is as phantasmagorical as the approach demands. The film is a collage of skits and masques, featuring actors doing antic impersonations of Hitler borrowed from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” cardboard cutouts and marionettes, monologues and pantomimes, accompanied by historical sound clips of speeches by Hitler, his associates, and his enemies. Shot in a studio, these theatrical sketches rely on a device that became an instant classic: the projection of slides and films onto screens behind the actors and the sets, providing backdrops that could change instantly.
One bravura sequence features a half-hour monologue by a character identified as Hitler’s valet (much time is spent on the foibles of the Führer’s color coördination); another shows an actor doing Hitler as the Peter Lorre character in Fritz Lang’s “M,” a child murderer who bewails his compulsion to a threatening mob. The film’s iconic image shows Hitler wearing a toga and rising from the grave of Richard Wagner. In Syberberg’s view, Hitler was not only the fulfillment of German culture but of “the whole Western culture and the Christian God,” and the defeat of Germany in the war did not mark Hitler’s defeat but, rather, inaugurated the triumph of his ideas throughout Europe and the world. The spread of Communism in the East and of materialism in the West, the resurgence of anti-Semitism and of the death penalty—and, over all, what he calls “freedom without a human face”—all strike him as the elements of Hitler’s victory.
Susan Sontag’s enthusiasm for the film (she called it “one of the great works of art of the twentieth century”) played a role in its American release. Francis Ford Coppola (who borrowed the rear-screen projection method for “One from the Heart”) picked it up for distribution, and it played to sold-out houses at Lincoln Center and at Hunter College. Yet the film’s influence was limited, perhaps due to its surprising impersonality. For all of his prodigious intellectual substance and theatrical ingenuity, Syberberg himself stays outside and above the fray, speculating invisibly on history from the hermetic enclosure of a studio. He may have got deep into the German psyche but he stayed resolutely outside his own.
– Richard Brody, The New Yorker
Syberberg’s metatext is not a self-flattering mirror but an injunction to self-judgment. “We’ll make it a commercial film, for after all, film has always been a commercial business,” Heinz Schubert’s sardonic circus barker remarks. Syberberg’s critique is an immanent one, knowingly mired in the Dantean muck of commercialism that has made Nazism a sellable brand name even as it scorns it. His boundless rage is directed as much against the contemporary consumer society of the West as against the historical atrocity of Hitlerism.
While Syberberg’s rhetoric indulges in the same rather simplistic linking of fascism to consumerism then common on both sides of the Iron Curtain—as witness Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1966), another moral treatise in documentary guise—this relates to his major theme: that Hitler simply activated currents already circulating through the realms of society, thought, and belief that with the assent of the world he made himself a compendium of the endless clichés of hate. For Syberberg, the pornographic consumer society of the “good old democracy” that emerged in the wake of Nazism, that now peddles the wares of that which it “defeated,” is consigned to the same Hell as Hitler—the Hell of ceaseless repetition envisioned by Walter Benjamin, where “precisely what is newest doesn’t change, where the ‘newest’ in all its pieces keeps remaining the same.”
Sontag, in her marvelous essay on Our Hitler, one of those rare pieces of criticism that has established itself as the authoritative (even if eternally disputed) starting point for its subject’s interpretation—think Sartre on Genet, Kael on Last Tango in Paris (1973), Lester Bangs on the Stooges’Fun House—quite sensibly points out that the Führer cannot be held accountable for the plastic consumer society that followed him, for it was well on its way to realization even as he railed against it. Syberberg, however, does not posit a direct causal relationship, but an even more damnable one of choice. In the wake of fascism’s dreadful legacy, to continue disseminating its myths in the name of profit is a moral renunciation, the same willing surrender to power—this time to that of the dollar—which allowed Hitler to rise to power in the first place. For Syberberg, the commodity society is the inverted mirror of fascism: where the latter sought to compress diversity into uniformity, the former markets uniformity in the guise of diversity.
This is not simply a polemical point, but an aesthetic quandary. How can an artwork be pure, how can art itself be possible when everything can be tagged for its niche market, when even the critical methods of modernism, as Sontag notes, can be assimilated into consumer society’s “huge variety of satisfactions—the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself?” How to make a Great Work when the Great Work itself has become a saleable and readily available commodity; when, 30 years later, every new, shallow provocation is branded a masterpiece by someone, somewhere? With the temperament of a Romantic and the sardonic irony of a Brechtian, Syberberg tries to break through the conundrum by having it both ways. Like Godard’s own television-spawned monument Histoire(s)du Cinéma (1988-98), Our Hitler is a messianic work unmoored from any faith in the sacred, a purifying work littered with cultural detritus, a noble work steeped in vulgarity. It valourizes and romanticizes the unifying and totalizing power of cinema, that “new child of the century,” even as it derides that very power as the enabler of banalization, repetition, and commercialization. It is a work forever conscious of the hopeless contradiction, the impossibility of its chosen task, even as that very impossibility heightens the urgency of what it is compelled to say, over and over again.
– Andrew Tracy, Cinema-scope, Issue 33
Our Hitler speaks eloquently of societal tragedy on a grand scale. Syberberg wields hefty ironies provided by many disturbing and sometimes blackly humorous juxtapositions. Much of part two is taken by an actor’s recitation of memories from Hitler’s personal valet, who details the Furher’s daily routine down to its most screamingly banal minutiae, climaxing in his preferences in underwear. Apparently Hitler demanded the shorter underpants not the longer — or was it the other way around? Earlier in the film, a rather chubby actor in full Nazi uniform enacts Peter Lorre’s hysterical “I couldn’t help it!” scene from Lang’s M to brilliant effect — it’s Germany itself as a pathetic child murderer with voices in his head.
Himmler expounds on The Final Solution while getting a full body massage — I get it, fine — but towards Syberberg’s summing up in part four, the filmmaker veers toward some questionable intellectualizing. He accuses Hitler of killing the Wandering Jew, who previously, “pushed by disquiet” had “creat[ed] culture . . . Israel has no Kafka.” Interesting point: that a displaced people would operate culturally in response to their outsider status. Would there be a Mahler without the shtetl? Still, Syberberg seems on thin ice here, especially when one puts these views in context with various statements he made in the ’90s. Viewing Europe as currently living in the “Jewish Epoch,” sanctioned and protected by an US/Israel axis, it seems he has his own “Jewish Question”: Western art, Syberberg proposes, is stifled by “Jews and leftists.” Sounds, as the magazine Der Spiegel pointed out, like a certain frustrated Austrian art student . .
– Gordon Thomas, Bright Lights Film Journal
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg made the seven-hour 1978 experimental epic Our Hitler, A Film From Germany for television, but he also anticipated the home-video revolution, and hoped patrons of the arts would one day run the film on the tiny boxes in their living rooms, like art installations. Brechtian to the extreme, Our Hitleris staged in a cavernous theater, where actors (and occasionally puppets) portray aspects of Adolf Hitler and other Third Reich leaders, delivering beat-poet monologues that Syberberg swaddles in snippets of Wagner and intersperses with original Nazi radio broadcasts. Sometimes Syberberg moves the camera around the big, boxy space, exploring its crannies; sometimes he holds still, using optical effects to create frames within frames. Throughout, he foregrounds the artifice, demanding that viewers divorce themselves of whatever emotions the name “Hitler” evokes, to see instead the way the dictator emerged naturally out of the German national character—a character that Syberberg still honors.
Whatever the filmmaker’s intentions, Our Hitler seems diminished on even the biggest TV screen. It’s a very chatty film, advancing a complex argument through historical anecdotes and vaudevillian spectacle, and it’s the kind of piece that demands the trappings of an actual theater, and the mesmerizing flicker of light. Flattened out on video—and especially given the new double-disc DVD’s crummy transfer—Our Hitler seems more self-indulgent in its length, and the associations between pop-culture phenomena and Nazi strategy appear more tenuous. Syberberg attempts to show how Hitler was both the apotheosis of multiple 20th-century movements and a petty little man, but by the time his monologists get to the end of their speeches, it’s sometimes hard to remember their point.
That said, there’s plenty here to support Susan Sontag’s famous claim that Our Hitler is “on another scale from anything one has seen on film.” The film’s layers of theatricality and critical thought can be peeled back endlessly, but not without disturbing each other. Our Hitlercontains the seeds of cinema’s future, blossoming in Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Todd Haynes’ dense pop essays, and even the epilogue to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, just a few years later. The film contains worlds, even if not all of them are worth visiting.
– Noel Murray, The Onion A/V Club
One remarkable segment: Does it correspond to actuality by dint of metaphor or historical accuracy? What revelation either way! Dressed as Caligari (1919), an actor lectures us, describing the schools for boys that the Nazis instituted. Hitler loved birds, he tells us, and, because cats eat birds, as part of their “education” schoolboys gouged out the eyes of cats. Darwin’s Nature is thus translated into politics “red in tooth and claw,” and self-pity and cruelty, both monstrously enlarged, become indistinguishable. Syberberg’s Caligari proceeds to draw the Nazi identification of Jews with rats.
Another segment draws upon past German cinema: Syberberg redoes the scene in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) in which Peter Lorre’s child-rapist/killer breaks down, explaining to the court that he cannot help doing what he does, that he is in the grip of a compulsion beyond his means to resist. In the new version, the man is a Nazi protesting his inability to resist his own politics! On second thought, though, we may wonder whether this constitutes a reimagined M or a critical analysis of M. What revelation either way!
“Syberberg’s Hitler is no discrete entity of Biblical evil. He is one of us and needs explication. Even his paintings are relevant. Recurrent images of the Black Maria, Thomas Edison’s first motion picture studio, suggest the role that mass media has contributed to the creation of Hitler. In fact Syberberg correlates the rise of mass media with the rise of fascism. And through it all he probes the question of the extent to which Hitler was a projection of his society’s madness, and the extent to which Hitler projected his own madness upon society. Syberberg clearly sees Hitler as an eternal and omnipresent force, with his policies living on in all nations and cultures, especially the United States. Pogo put the proposition more succinctly: ‘We met the enemy and he is us.’ Syberberg’s Our Hitlerfocuses on Germany but is a warning to all against potential complicity.”
– Shirley Goldberg, “Our Hitler: the Self-reflexive Image of Evil,” Humanist Perspectives
Hitler: A Film from Germany is an attempt to divorce Hitler and the Third Reich from a simple narrative and historical summation through a marriage of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and the Brechtian alienation effect, an unlikely alliance but a profitable one: Film as the art form of the 20th century, the epic theater providing its principal dramaturgical devices. “I made the aesthetically scandalous attempt,” Syberberg explained, “of combining Brecht’s doctrine of the epic theater with Richard Wagner’s musical aesthetics, of linking the epic system as anti-aristotelian cinema with the laws of the new myth.”
Hence a circus metaphor; hence depth through duration; hence the episodic quality of the film. Hitler: A Film from Germany is a long series of monologues, film clips, puppet shows and tableaux, motifs emerging and re-emerging from episode to episode. Syberberg’s most fascinating technique is to strip even these devices of their ability to enchant by laying them bare as cheap circus tricks. The “puppets” (no more than dolls, really, of Hitler, Goebbels and other historical and symbolic figures) are clumsily manipulated and their lines spoken on-screen by live actors. Even the device of quotation is exposed. In “Part I: The Grail,” Austrian actor Peter Kern, costumed and made-up as Hitler (though Kern’s considerable girth undermines the illusion of impersonation), delivers the final monologue of the child sex murderer in Fritz Lang’s 1933 film M. Kern’s delivery is overdramatic, like Peter Lorre’s; Syberberg’s parallel explicit; but in this shameless theatricality he makes the ease of narrative suspension-of-disbelief ambivalent. We must ask ourselves: What are we watching here? Any film student sees the cultural significance ofM to inter-war Germany; what does it mean to make this significance over-explicit in post-war Germany? Does it make our interpretation of M (and, for that matter, Hitler the film and Hitler the figure) easier, or are we made to face our mythologizing tendency to distance our most unpleasant natures from ourselves as observers?
– George Hunka, Superfluities
I have heard that Syberberg did not want to create a film that people could slip into as if into a dream, as with most films, but a film where you would have to remain conscious all the while about what was being addressed. He creates a stage magic that makes a point of letting you know it is stage magic. Single, excellent actors help create a certain reality, however, while they speak to mannequins, puppets, cardboard figures, with a bit of stage fog at times. By the end of the film this made sense too: The Jews were real human beings; their persecutors, having destroyed all love inside themselves, were really stick figures. The tragedy of millions of real humans being killed by stick figures who should have figured only in a comedy epitomizes the perversion that was Nazi Germany.
I never quite grasped before the Syberberg film that Hitler’s campaign to kill Jews was a clever political calculation, itself indifferent to the Jews, but the essential unifying element in his power. If all else was failing, he could count on the anti-Semitism in all European countries remaining the one unifying constant. The purpose of destroying Jews justified crossing national lines: As Jews are everywhere, his conquest must be universal. Syberberg also reveals that whether it was rumor or fact that Adolph Hitler was part Jewish that would alter nothing; in fact, would reinforce how he and the other anti-Semites identified Jewishness as a part of themselves, whatever parts of themselves that they fear or hated. That demon Jew was the mythical Jew created over a millennium in Europe that the mass of people believed to be real (that group in every country onto which people project their shadow sides) – supposed to be violence-proned, sex-obsessed, or too sensual; angry, resentful, and heartless like Shylock; apt to kill Christian children to mix their blood into the dough they will bake into bread. Whatever a German might hate himself projected onto the Jews. As Syberberg points out, Jews, while in Germany, were the greatest Germans.
I have always wondered how that odd figure, Adolph Hitler – himself a good choice to play a nibelung – could have such charisma. Hearing a person, as portrayed by an actor in the film, describe how, in his first experience hearing a still unknown Hitler speak, he went from despair to hope, it occurred to me that Hitler physically was a perfect representation of how Germans felt at the time: scrawny, belittled, failing at everything attempted, in the hole, crazed from World War I defeat and rigid surrender terms, enduring decades of severe economic depression. To hear scrawny, limp wristed HItler work himself into an ecstasy was to watch a failure swell himself up. They might defend the fastidious, moralistic, downright prissy runt and give him their loyalty as he looked the way they felt and maybe they could swell up in that same way – and they probably heard too the desire for revenge.
– James Eilers, The Blue Elephant
SUSAN SONTAG AND HITLER
Some critics are such passionate pitchmen for certain films that the works become theirs. Lola Montez was Andrew Sarris’ darling, and Last Tango in ParisPauline Kael’s —she compared its U.S. premiere at the 1972 New York Film Festival to the first performance of Stavinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Well, Francis Coppola may have attached the Our to the original title, Hitler: A Film from Germany, but this 6hr.50min. pageant is really Susan Sontag’s. Once the distinguished essayist-novelist-filmmaker declared that Syberberg had made “the most extraordinary film I have ever seen,” she owned it. And she wasn’t the only critic moved to rapture when Coppola presented the movie in 1980 at New York’s the Ziegfeld Theatre. Now, in a DVD edition supervised by the director, a new generation can see what all the kvelling was about.
Anyone, not just Sontag, could love Hitler for the scope of its intentions, the density of its images. “The film tries to be everything,” she wrote. “Syberberg’s unprecedented ambition in Hitler, a Film from Germany is on another scale from anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. … Syberberg’s film belongs in the category of noble masterpieces 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.)”
And even fewer these days. But it’s unlikely that Hitler could win the devotion today that it received on its release. You had to be there —in the theater, submitting to an all-day immersion in Syberbergonomics. That way, Hitler could command you to follow its pace, its labyrinthine arguments and artistic strategies. Watching it on a TV screen, able to hit the Fast Forward or Stop button as your attention wanes, you are the director, the Fuehrer. Still, the cumulative experience —less than half the length of its TV-movie contemporary, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz —is enthralling enough to invest in.
– Richard Corliss, Time
It was one of the most fabulous, rumored-about, challenging, psychotic film events of the modern age: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s “Hitler, a Film from Germany” (1977), arriving in New York in 1980 as“Our Hitler,” to be shown at the Ziegfeld theater in an unheard-of nearly seven-and-a-half-hour form (it was made as a four-part German TV program, but the networks rejected it), bearing hype as a brazenly non-narrative epic addressing the legacy of Hitler as a kind of cultural consciousness, carrying the crest of Francis Ford Coppola as “presenter,” and trailing after it, in February 1980 in The New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag’s immediately famous appreciation proclaiming the film to be “unprecedented” and “on another scale from anything one has seen on film.” I was but a wee film-hungry shaver at the time, and never got to the Ziegfeld. But “Our Hitler,” a film that promised a truly unique experience (every description I’d read about it left me still questioning what on earth the movie could be like), maintained the aura of an Atlantis among sought-after movies, elusive, humongous, too unwieldy and rich and profound for the average filmgoer, but a prize new world for the rest of us.
What Sontag neglected to mention, or, more accurately, didn’t care about, was the slowness of the film, its longueurs and repetitions, its reliance on monologuing. For every five salient, revelatory postulates about “Hitler” the man, the ghost, the enigma, the dialectic inevitable, there’s at least one that’s fuzzy, inconclusive or silly. And of course the visual dynamic grows familiar, regardless of how much Syberberg tries to recreate the space with Hitler memorabilia clutter and new projected images on the back screen. But such criticisms, Sontag would surely argue, are irrelevant in the face of a film that strives for such massiveness, that dares so boldly, that creates its own way of watching. And she’d be right, as I could well be in suggesting that editing out a just few hours would make the film communicate better and test patience less. Whatever: it’s an astounding, intellectually adventurous monument, and obviously a cinephile’s required viewing, if in fact the cinephile in question wants to remain worthy of the label.
– Michael Atkinson, IFC.com
Sontag begins her analysis of Syberberg’s film with the claim that the Romantic desire for the “great work” of art, thought by many to be impossible, returns in Syberberg’s film in a powerful rereading that takes into account its own anachronism. Modernism, according to Sontag, has been stripped of its heroic nature as an adversary sensibility.(138) The untimely nature of Syberberg’s undertaking is brought to the fore: it purports to be, once again, a “great work of art,” one that has incorporated a self-reflection concerning what it means to construct such a “great work” in the late 20th century, and the complicity of this art-form with the grandiose staging of Nazi Germany.
Syberberg’s two themes are film and Hitler, the art medium of the twentieth century and the subject of the twentieth century. One might include here all of the permutations of these two terms: Hitler as film, Hitler in film, film as Hitler’s privileged medium, and our own, contemporary construction of Hitler as one that is, ultimately, cinematic in the sense that Hitler functions as a “screen” for many of the internal projection machanisms of modern mass culture, Germany in particular. These two themes in their entwinement are articulated and interrogated on a grand, even “mythic” scale, enacted theatrically on a stage, combining and mixing different modes, genres, media: the puppet show, the fairy tale, circus, morality play, philosophical dialogue, and, of course, film itself.
Syberberg dispenses with all realistic representation. According to Sontag, to simulate atrocity requires the passification of the audience, something that Syberberg struggles against. It also reinforces stereotypes and simplistic generalizations, and confirms our distance from the event and the practice of Nazism. For Syberberg, there is a morally appropriate or apt way to confront Nazi Germany and the Holocaust: one must dispense with realism and realistic conventionality. Simulation of the Genocide as fiction transforms realistic representation into a form of pornography.
Robert S. Leventhal
Department of German
University of Virginia
Susan Sontag‘s essay on the film is really one of her finest, worth reading even if you haven’t seen the film. An extract here:
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.”
And her final recommendation:
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.
– Alok, Dispatches from Zembla
Replies to Susan Sontag’s Essay on Hitler in New York Review of Books
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.
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.
Department of German
University College, London, England
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 seeHitler, 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.
Departments of Literatures, Languages and Linguistics
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Susan Sontag replies:
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.
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 findHitler, 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.
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); thatDoctor 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.
– The New York Review of Books, Volume 27, Number 9 · May 29, 1980
What is interesting in Kracauer’s book From Caligari to Hitler is that it shows how expressionist cinema reflected the rise of the Hitlerian automaton in the German soul. But it still took an external viewpoint, whilst Walter Benjamin’s article set itself inside cinema in order to show how the art of automatic movement (or, as he ambiguously said, the art of reproduction) was itself to coincide with the automization of the masses, state direction, politics become ‘art’: Hitler as film-maker… And it is true that up to the end Nazism thinks of itself in competition with Hollywood. The revolutionary courtship of the movement-image and an art of the masses become subject was broken off, giving way to the masses subjected as psychological automaton, and to their leader as great spiritual automaton. This is what compels Syberberg to say that the end-product of the movement-image is Leni Riefenstahl, and if Hitler is to be put on trial by cinema, it must be inside cinema, against Hitler the film-maker, in order to ‘defeat him cinematographically, turning his weapons against him’. It is as if Syberberg felt the need to add a second volume to Kracauer’s book, but this second volume would be a film: not now from Caligari (or from a film from Germany) to Hitler, but from Hitler to A Film from Germany, the change taking place inside cinema, against Hitler, but also against Hollywood, against represented violence, against pornography, against business… But at what price? A true psychomechanics will not be found unless it is based on new associations, by reconstituting the great mental automata whose place was taken by Hitler, by reviving the psychological automata that he enslaved. The movement-image, that is, the bond that cinema had introduced between movement and image from the outset, would have to be abandoned, in order to set free other powers that it kept subordinate, and which had not had the time to develop their effects: projection and back-projection. There is also a more general problem: for projection and back-projection are only technical means which directly carry the time-image, which substitute the time-image for the movement-image. The film set is transformed, but in that ‘space here is born from time’ (Parsifal). Is there a new regime of images like that of automatism?
The modern world is that in which information replaces nature. It is what Jean-Pierre Oudart calls the ‘media-effect’ in Syberberg. And it is an essential aspect of syberberg’s work, because the disjunction, the division of the visual and the sound, will be specifically entrusted with experiencing this complexity of informational space. This goes beyond the psychological individual just as it makes a whole impossible: a non-totalizable complexity, ‘non-representable by a single individual’, and which finds its representation only in the automaton. Syberberg takes the image of Hitler as enemy, not Hitler the individual, who does not exist, but neither a totality which could produce him according to relations of causality. ‘Hitler in us’ not only indicates that we made Hitler as much as he made us, or that we all have potential fascist elements, but that Hitler exists only through pieces of information which constitute his image in ourselves. It could be said that the Nazi regime, the war, the concentration camps, were not images, and that Syberbergs position is not without ambiguity. But Syberberg’s powerful idea is that no information, whatever it might be, is sufficient to defeat Hitler. All the documents could be shown, all the testimonies could be heard, but in vain: what makes information all-powerful (the newspapers, and then the radio, and then the television) is its very nullity, its radical ineffectiveness. Information plays on its ineffectiveness in order to establish its power, its very power is to be ineffective, and thereby all the more dangerous. This is why it is necessary to go beyond information in order to defeat Hitler or turn the image over. Now, going beyond information is achieved on two sides at once, towards two questions: what is the source and what is the addressee? These are also the two questions of the Godardian pedagogy. Informatics replies to neither question, because the source of information is not a piece of information any more than is the person informed. If there is no debasement of information, it is because information itself is a debasement. It is thus necessary to go beyond all the pieces of spoken information; to extract from them a pure speech-act, creative story-telling which is at it were the obverse side of dominant myths, of current words and their supporters; an act capable of creating the myth instead of drawing profit or business from it. It is also necessary to go beyond all the visual layers; to set up a pure informed person capable of receiving into his visible body the pure act of speech.
– Gilles Deleuze. Cinema. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group. Pages 253, 257
“[Hitler] represents one of the few attempts to come to terms with the Nazi phenomenon in a way that challenges Hollywood storytelling and, above all, utilizes the specific potential of film as a representation of the past.”
1.“According to Syberberg, Hitler served the Germans as a screen onto which they could project all their wishes, anxieties, and hopes. That is the point of the film’s central monologue, given to Hitler:
“After all, there was no one else who would, who could take over my desired role. And so they called upon me. First, the bourgeoisie, then the military, rubbing their hands in bliss and dirt, and also to defend their honor, do you imagine I did not take notice? Then, industry, to drive out Bolshevism, from whose Lenin I learned so much and whose Stalin could be venerated secretly. Then the petty bourgeois, the workers, for whom I could bring forth so much, and youth, to whom I gave a goal, and the students, who needed me, and the intellectuals, who were now liberated from the Jewish Mafia of their friends and foes, yes, and other countries, which were glad to have a pacified Europe again, strength and solemnity. And one should consider to how many people I gave something worth being against. And just compare the lives of so many people—listless, empty. I gave them what they put into me, what they wanted to hear, wanted to do, things they were afraid to do. I made and commanded for them, for it was all for them, not for me…I was and am the end of your most secret wishes, the legend and reality of your dreams, so we have to get through. Finally. The final time? Nightmares? Not by a long shot.””
2.”Syberberg obliquely asks the taboo question of why fascism attracted such a broad following, even among the elite. After decades of traditional research that explained fascism in moral or economic terms, it was only in recent years that the obvious fascination and the aesthetics of fascism have been openly acknowledged: fascism seemed to have elicited and fulfilled hidden wishes and desires of a people who, after the Versailles Treaty and the self-effacing politics of the Weimar Republic, felt deprived of their national pride and collective identity.”
3.”The mythic dimension of German history seemed forever devalued through Hitler’s misuse of it. The memory of the power of the medieval German empire and the dream of the return of the mythic Barbarossa, the often-evoked honor and loyalty of the Nibelungs, and the charisma of such leaders as Arminius and Frederick the Great—all had been appropriated by Hitler and integrated into the national myth of the Third Reich (itself a mythic idea). According to Syberberg, Hitler killed German identity at its roots by stealing and soiling all national myths. In Syberberg’s film, however, the loss of German identity gives way to a vision of apocalypse.”
4.”The more Weimar politics appeared as meek and “unsensuous,” the more the support for the National Socialists grew. More than any other political party, they knew how to appeal to the collective imagination and satisfy the need for the irrational with their nocturnal torchlight parades, uniforms, and archaic rituals. Already in the late 1920s, Ernst Bloch, a Marxist, correctly pointed out the mass appeal of irrational elements in National Socialism and warned about the consequences of ignoring these potentiality explosive forces. Irrationalism had always been present in German culture as the “dark side” of Reason; in 1933 it became, logically enough, the basis for a secular state religion.”
5.”In a similar way, Syberberg’s filmic work of mourning challenges the present. Hitler, according to the film, lives on in terrorism, in modern totalitarianism, in the pollution of the environment, in the ravaging of life through the entertainment industry, in the quantitative art-hating mass democracy. “Hitler himself is the theme and center of this past, which we must penetrate, this past so wounded and painful, yet so identifiable.””
– Anton Kaes, FROM HITLER TO HEIMAT: THE RETURN OF HISTORY AS FILM (1989). Found on Limitless Cinema
Syberberg’s film is epic in length but of chamber-opera dimensions in its dramaturgy (in this, too, not unlike postwar reappraisal of more bombastic elements supposedly inherent in Wagner). The dominating composer on a prominent soundtrack is Wagner. This tallies with expectations aroused by the film’s title alone, a cliched parallel both foregrounded and challenged by Syberberg. His project quickly dispels this triggered association and signals its intention to seek the roots of Wagner’s music beneath the patina of Nazi reception. Through the saturation of its soundtrack and its own length, his film acquires a dramatic kinship with the composer. Yet the film’s own balance diverges from that of opera, not just Wagnerian opera.
With Syberberg, music as cultural market becomes marked, even scarred, music. Like references to Romantic painting and cinema history, it is part of the cultural bric-a-brac of this film, but it is also tainted through its identification with artistically brilliant but politically compromised conductors like Knappertsbusch, Furtwangler, or von Karajan. With Syberberg, however, the thrust is frequently reversed, and the reduction of Wagner’s Romantic aura by the tawdry attributes of Nazism becomes the real object of lament. Wagner is simply the most focused object of the director’s sense of affront at the destruction of German art in the twentieth century.
While certainly not an apologist for Hitler, Syberberg thereby aligns himself with a politicaly blighted nineteenth-century tradition. In the wake of German history of the twentieth century, this stance seems willful. At one level, in his introduction to the script, he even links Wagner with Mozart as a common site of resistance to Hitler: “Hitler is to be fought, not with the statistics of Auschwitz or with sociological analyses of the Nazi economy, but with Richard Wagner and Mozart.” Music per se is viewed here as legitimate irrationalism, the converse to Hitler’s. But elsewhere his Hitler figure, having emerged from the grave of Wagner, acknowledges the alien mold of the cosmic laughter of Mozart. This is a more realistic acknowledgment of the ideological component of musical reception.
– Roger Hillman. Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music, and Ideology. Published by Indiana University Press, 2005. Pages 67, 68-69
ABOUT THE FACETS DVD
Perhaps not seasonally appropriate but a gift all the same, Facets’ 30th- anniversary release of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s phantasmagoric, seven-and-a-half-hour Hitler, a Film From Germany makes one of the great, audacious, all-but-impossible-to-see movies of the 1970s generally available for the first time.
Syberberg’s Hitler—which was misleadingly retitled Our Hitler by its American presenter, Francis Ford Coppola, and is now packaged in an infelicitous compromise as Our Hitler, a Film From Germany—was the culmination of Syberberg’s ongoing meditation on the myths, fantasies, and desires that resulted in the Third Reich and continue to fuel fascination with the Nazi period. Following movies on Ludwig of Bavaria and Karl May and an extended interview with Winifred Wagner, Syberberg brought his mock-epic style—puppets, props, rear-screen projection—to bear on 20th-century Europe’s most alarmingly seductive personality.
Syberberg is not without artistic antecedents, but nothing else in movies quite resembles this underground extravaganza—populated by stand-ins and shot entirely on a soundstage cluttered with the symbolic detritus of German culture. Syberberg was the only filmmaker of the German neue kino to successfully synthesize the spirit of Wagnerian romantic megalomania and that of Brecht’s sardonic cabaret theatricality, infusing both with a sense of cosmic melancholy. Hitler often seems to be a circus staged by and for a single impoverished aristocrat pondering the mystery of Germany in the night.
The Facets transfer has an unexpectedly ethereal quality wholly appropriate to both the artist’s anti-monumental aesthetic and his belief in cinema as an artifact. The two discs are accompanied by a booklet that includes Susan Sontag’s early influential essay on the film; the major extra is a German video doc on Hitler‘s much-ballyhooed American premiere at Lincoln Center in 1979.
– J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
The only extra feature is some historical video footage of the New York City premier ofHitler, A Film From Germany in 1978. The quality of the tape is poor, but I suppose it’s all we’ve got.
Picture and Sound
Picture and sound quality are uneven. Parts of the film are razor-sharp and beautiful, others look like badly dubbed video. Also the English subtitles are shot full of typos, misspellings, and in some cases, German words instead of the English equivalent. This film deserves better.
How to Use this DVD
Give yourself a couple of nights to watch this one. On the last night, go back and watch the first disk again to pick up on all the stuff you missed while you were learning how to watch the film.
– John Adams, Movie Habit
ABOUT HANS-JURGEN SYBERBERG
The films of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg are at times annoying, confusing, and overlong—but they are also ambitious and compelling. In no way is he ever conventional or commercial: critics and audiences have alternately labeled his work brilliant and boring, absorbing and pretentious, and his films today are still rarely screened. Stylistically, it is difficult to link him with any other filmmaker or cinema tradition. In this regard he is an original, the most controversial of all the New German filmmakers and a figure who is at the vanguard of the resurgence of experimental filmmaking in his homeland.
Not unlike his contemporary, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Syberberg’s most characteristic films examine recent German history: a documentary about Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law, a close friend of Hitler (The Confessions of Winifred Wagner); his trilogy covering 100 years of Germany’s past (Ludwig II: Requiem for a Virgin King, Karl May, and, most famously, Hitler, A Film from Germany, also known asOur Hitler). These last are linked in their depictions of Germans as hypocrites, liars, and egocentrics, and in the final part he presents the rise of the Third Reich as an outgrowth of German romanticism.
“Aesthetics are connected with morals,” Syberberg says. “Something like Holocaust is immoral because it’s a bad film. Bad art can’t do good things.” He commented that “my three sins are that I believe Hitler came out of us, that he is one of us; that I am not interested in money, except to work with; and that I love Germany.” Our Hitler, and his other films, clearly reflect these preferences.
In recent years, Syberberg has remained relatively inactive as a filmmaker. None of his latter work has earned him the visibility, let alone the acclaim, of his earlier films. Since Parsifal, his version of the Wagnerian opera which was his most widely seen film, he has collaborated only with one of that film’s stars, Edith Clever. Their artistic ventures have included a number of theatrical monologues, a few of which have been videotaped or filmed. The series commenced with Die Nacht, a six-hour-long examination of how an individual may act or what an individual may ponder deep into the night.
Syberberg, however, has spoken out on issues relating to his homeland. He especially is troubled by the Americanization of world culture, and has hypothesized that the resurgence of neo-Nazism in Germany, especially among the nation’s youth, is a natural response to the hollowness of the capitalist culture which enveloped Germany in the post-World War II years. Thus, even in the wake of German unification, the memory of Hitler—despite the fact that he ultimately brought catastrophe and anguish to Germany—continues to influence and mold the national psyche.
—Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com
I went to see Mr Syberberg’s Hitler films at the I.C.A in London. And then saw him speak. I took down everything he said, in order to use it in evidence against him…
– Esther Leslie, Militant Esthetix
Syberberg has been criticised for turning to such politically controversial subject matter, and has even been accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies. However, Syberberg is not a protofascist, but a critic of the way that attempts to understand romanticism have been marginalised within West German establishment and intellectual culture. For Syberberg, the modern German disavowal of the utopian longings which lie at the heart of romanticism has resulted in the ’emotional deadness of Contemporary German society.’ Furthermore, he believes that failure to recover the tradition so corrupted by Nazism could lead to new outbreaks of violence, as the forces of the right seek to appropriate the romantic heritage for themselves. For Syberberg, therefore, it is crucial that the romantic legacy is addressed, and, in his films, he seeks to find a way back to the ‘spiritual home of the Germans’: one which has been lost to a combination of fascism, materialism and rationalism.
– Ian Aitken. European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Published by Indiana University Press, 2001. Page 147
No contemporary German artist has been associated more consistently with the tasks of mourning than the filmmaker Hans Jurgen Syberberg. There is no major essay on Syberberg that does not at some point invoke the term Trauerabeit as the key to the metapsychological underpinnings of Syberberg’s film aesthetics, as metaphor for the aesthetic and intellectual labor to which Syberberg invites his audience with each new film. This by now nearly automatic association of Syberbergs oeuvre with the tasks and procedures of collective mourning has been to a large extent the achievement of Syberberg himself. In his copious essayistic work, which includes long commentaries on and defenses of his own films, Syberberg has quite often used the word Trauerarbeit (along with other related terms) to describe the moral and psychological dimensions of his work. Indeed, at least one of the sources of Syberberg’s isolation from his colleagues in the New German Cinema, as well as from the cultural scene generall, has been his insistence that he alone among German artists has been willing to take on the postwar burdens of mourning and repairing the damage to their nation’s bereft cultural identity.
What makes Syberberg’s work in general, and Hitler, a Film from Germany, in particular, so important in the present context is that Syberberg’s meditations on and cinematic performances of Trauerabeit always situate the particulars of the postwar German tasks of (and impediments to) mourning in relation to other, more properly postmodern phenomena and considerations. Syberberg’s attempt to operate at multiple levels of moral engagement and conceptualization in his films and writings warrants particular attention. Shifts from one level of discourse or analysis to another, for example, from discussion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the particular tasks of mourning it has left in its wake to meditations on the university of what made it possible, are always strategic and significant. As Edgar Reitz’ Heimat demonstrates, such shifts, which may take the form of double plots, may reproduce patterns of thinking which are content simply to displace burdens of guilt and mourning, and allow one to rewrite one’s position as that of the true victim without such a move necessarily signifying an act of solidarity or empathy with other more recognizable victims. One’s own despair and losses become the central catastrophe, flooding out empathy for all others.
An example of such a problematic leap from one level of analysis to another is Syberberg’s rhetorically charged remark concerning the screening of Holocaust on German television: “America now has its own reparations to pay [hat einiges wiedergutzumachen] after this Holocaust from Hollywood on German media.” Such a claim suggests that for the maker of Hitler, a Film from Germany, the real violence of recent history has occurred not so much in the Holocaust as in the Holocausts, and thus that souls sensitive to Hollywood’s cheap games with history and experience are the real victims of the twentieth century. The point behind such outrageous and deeply offensive rhetoric is, however, somewhat less outrageous, and one with which Syberberg, in often brilliant and compelling ways, forces viewers and readers to contend, namely that the psychological mechanisms that lead to the construction of places like Auschwitz are akin to those that continue to be deployed by what has come, since Adorno and Horkheimer, to be referred to as the culture industry. A corollary to this thesis is the claim that the psychological mechanisms of identity formation which helped to guarantee Hitler’s success in Germany in the thirties and forties and, as Adorno and the Mitscherlichs have suggested, continue to inhibit the work of mourning in post-Hitler Germany, are of the same order as those that, to an even greater extent today, organize postmodern psyches. These mechanisms, so the argument goes, not only block one’s capacities to carry out the work of mourning but, what is more, so numbe one’s sensibilities that one is incapable of knowing any longer what human loss feels like. Syberberg aims to inscribe the so-called inability to mourn endemic to postwar Germany within a larger history of Western culture, understood as a series of shifts and transformations of the sites of identity formation. According to Syberberg, this history enters its modern stage in the European nineteenth century and continues into the present of postmodernity, though now centered, like a shifting meteorological turbulence, not in Europe but in America, whose capital city turns out to be, in this particular narrative, Hollywood.
– Eric L. Santner. Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany. Published by Cornell University Press, 1993. Pages 103-105