CINEMA / The Nazi myth as vaudeville

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The Independent Culture
FIVE HOURS or so into Hitler, A Film from Germany, one of the characters blows the dead leaves off a rusty garden table, then sits down to eat his lunch. At one point he stops and asks, 'Why are you fidgeting in your seats?' Our reaction is to go quite still, like small prey hiding from a hunter, but he just laughs: 'I know everything.'

In one sense, this is a film with no illusions: it is seven and a quarter hours long, and knows it. It is also quite aware, even proud, of its own theatricality. Many scenes take place on a desolate stage set, lit by weak autumnal arc-lamps, riddled with rough furniture and junk. A good place to wait for Godot; or the end of a Chekhov play, perhaps, with the characters departed. Yet in another way, Hitler is all illusion; it aims for nothing less than the story of an entire race, and the beliefs that ran in their blood - the belief, above all, that it could run pure. The man who persuaded them of that may be the subject of the film, but it never tries to tear him away from history: he was always there, it tells us, waiting in the wings.

The German director Hans Jurgen Syberberg spent four years planning his movie before shooting it in a mere 20 days. That was in 1977, and since then the film has hardly been seen in England. Now it has been screened at the Edinburgh Festival and will be shown at the ICA for four weeks, starting on Friday. It was once shown on television, but split over four weekends: a hopeless dilution of a work that must be taken straight, if at all.

The problem with Hitler is not one of length, however, but of grandeur. It is an extraordinary film which barely glances at ordinary suffering. At the very start, a melancholy voiceover - the first of many - announces that we will not be seeing 'the unrepeatable reality' of Hitler's rule, or 'the emotional dramas of the victims'. If you are going to get up and leave, go now; you would be quite right to do so. For many artists - Primo Levi, say, or Claude Lanzmann with Shoah - those dramas are precisely our concern; the reality of the Holocaust should indeed be repeated, just as we intone familiar liturgies. Shoah is even longer than Hitler, and could, one feels, go on for ever; in fact it should go on in some form, as a guard against forgetfulness.

That is not Syberberg's way. He thinks that the events of the century have wrought such changes to our imagination that we can no longer touch them with the force of reason. For him, documentary is fruitless - he enlists a useful phrase, 'the stupor of objectivity'. Unfortunately, it was first said by Josef Goebbels in 1943. But Syberberg is risking everything: since Hitler was a myth to his own people, he must be treated as one - and, what is more, swathed in all the mythical tricks of which cinema is capable.

So what do we get? First, a couple of narrators, reflecting gravely upon the Fuhrer and his time. Then there's a small group of actors, playing many parts - one man will be seen as an SS officer, then as Himmler's masseur, then as a blubbery infant sitting on the floor, dismembering dolls and thoughtfully starting to eat them. Then we have a small girl (Syberberg's own daughter) in widow's weeds, bound with strips of celluloid, wandering through the film and - when the weight of horror proves too much - simply closing her eyes and blocking her ears. Then we have puppets and dummies - a rubber doll, a blackened corpse, a wooden Hitler. Behind them is a shifting series of backdrops: a peaceful wood, say, or a party rally, any of the sublime absurdities of which Nazis dreamed.

'Music enhances everything,' we learn, and this film is enhanced right up to the hilt. Wagner, of course. It doesn't surprise you, even if you weren't already aware of Syberberg's obsession. He once filmed Parsifal inside a gigantic model of Wagner's death-mask. That appears here, too, as does his grave, with a sheeted Hitler rising up from it: the spirit of Bayreuth brought back to life. Syberberg knows full well how Wagner prepared the way - not just in anti-Semitism, but in the solemnity with which his work wound itself up to the last, overwhelming pitch of Romanticism. Hitler is film as music- drama - repetitious, seductive, laying image over image and sound upon sound - and it cannot help submitting to the suspect ambitions of the form.

The first chords we hear come from the Prelude to Parsifal, of which Nietzsche wrote: 'It was as if someone were speaking to me again, after many years, about the problems that disturb me.' He loathed that opera, with its pained desire for healing and redemption, but Hitler saw exactly what shape the healing could take - the expulsion of bad blood, 'the problems that disturb me', the Jewish race. The notion of genocide not just as a political programme, but as a Grail: we can conceive of nothing worse, and once we have witnessed it, perhaps of nothing else.

That is why Hitler tries not to tell us anything, or even to condemn, but more simply to haunt. It feels like nightmare dressed up as vaudeville - at one point the lighting switches to maddening blue strobes, which pummel your retina until you have to look away. The discomfort goes deeper: as the hours pass, the movie begins to enjoy itself, its own gruelling grip on our attention. We know where Syberberg gets this from: he is helplessly in thrall to Nazi pageantry - the 150 searchlights at Nuremberg, say, which legend says could be seen as far away as Frankfurt, all swivelled to greet one man. Hitler referred to 'the total work of art called Germany', an idea he stole from the historian Jacob Burckhardt and turned to his own advantage: 'I am Germany and Germany is me . . . how fortunate that we found each other.'

Hitler is a monstrous work of art because it believes that Hitler was one, too. It bleeds the blame away from him, transforming the great dictator into a great director with a megaphone voice and a cast of millions. That is Syberberg's guilty secret, and the clues are easy to spot. He jostles a glass snow- shaker (the icon of lost happiness in Citizen Kane) against an inflated globe (the sphere of a new dream for the 1,000-year Reich). He dwells on the Fuhrer's private screenings, his love of Fred Astaire, Gone with the Wind and (like Stalin) almost all Westerns. He even rambles on about Von Stroheim, the German genius whose plans were laid waste in the cutting-rooms of Hollywood. Is he serious? If the chopping of celluloid is a crime, what do you call the roasting of human beings?

Towards the end of the film, a puppet of Hitler considers his legacy. This includes the rise of materialism in the West; Syberberg is thinking big as usual, splitting the world into highbrow values versus the horror of commerce. But his film is a majestic demonstration of what happens when you take the spiritual to extreme conclusions. He shares the Nazis' spiritual vulgarity, a brand of philosophical kitsch far more dangerous than the satisfaction of everyday desires. Given an enslaved world that listened to Wagner, or a free one laughing at Goofy, which would you choose? Syberberg isn't sure, and at least his film is honest about that. Hitler becomes Hitler, in every sense: humourless, enraptured and compelling. No one has made a greater film about the attractions of wickedness, or given in to them with such a thrill.

'Hitler: a Film from Germany' will be shown at the ICA (071-930 3647).