FILM / Return of the great dictator: Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, the 'blacklisted' director of Hitler - a Film from Germany, talks to Sheila Johnston about the role of Nazism in the cinema

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The Independent Culture
Fascinating Fascism] That was the subject of a famous essay by Susan Sontag in 1974 reflecting on the sudden fashionability of Nazism. There was plenty for her to muse on: a new book of photos by Leni Riefenstahl, the growing fad for Nazi uniforms and regalia as the very latest in S&M accessories and a whole slew of films that, as she said, 'eroticised fascism', such as Visconti's The Damned (1969), Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970), Fosse's Cabaret (1972) and Cavani's The Night Porter (1973). There were soon to be more movies on the theme, the longest, most sophisticated - and most intractable - being Hans- Jurgen Syberberg's seven-hour-plus Hitler - a Film from Germany.

Fascinating Fascism . . . this summer a series of cultural events invite us back to the Hitler cabaret. Over these months we have had in short order the Goebbels diaries, a retrospective devoted to John Heartfield (who twisted and turned Nazi iconography on its head), Riefenstahl's forthcoming autobiography and the resurfacing of Hitler - A Film from Germany 15 years after its original release. And, on the hard-political front, there is the worrisome re-emergence of neo-Nazi activity which this week culminated in a wave of vicious riots near Syberberg's former home town of Rostock in East Germany - the worst, the Independent's correspondent wrote, since the Second World War. With all this in mind, if Syberberg were re-making a film about Hitler, how would he do it differently?

'If I hadn't made the Hitler film, I would say I had missed out on something important,' he says. 'But I still wouldn't do it today. For me it was a very personal statement, like a poem; not an historical film or an action film. I've read extracts from the Goebbels diaries and learned new things from them. But I'm aware of them more as a consumer of history than as an artist trying to depict his own, or his country's history. Naturally a man like Goebbels is still an interesting character. But that whole period of the Third Reich is no longer a contemporary subject. If people are still writing about it, it's unfortunately just for commercial reasons, because it's a nice money-spinner. That doesn't interest me.'

Now, Syberberg reckons, Hitler is above all business pure and simple. But once he was showbusiness. Hitler - a Film from Germany is a sometimes maddeningly pretentious, sometimes brilliant meditation on Adolf Hitler, superstar. It proposes that the man soared to power because he was able to tap into and exploit mass fantasies. He was the product of a unique constellation of social and cultural factors which the film, a series of vaudeville sketches using slides, puppets, back-projection and a variety of actors playing the Fuhrer, displays through a kaleidoscopic prism.

Hitler revels in the technique of cinema and other optical devices - one of its recurring visual motifs is a miniature of Edison's Black Maria, the first film studio, set in a glass paperweight. Syberberg is still intrigued by these things, and indeed has to be steered away from a long conversational detour on the merits of our photographer's camera. 'I'm much more attracted by the Leica than by Hitler,' he says, weary of the subject. And in any case, it may be that the ghastly confluence of elements that produced the Third Reich is unrepeatable; certainly he doesn't see the same forces at work today. 'If one were to make a film about neo- Nazi gangs of youths in eastern Germany, it would be a good thing. But they have nothing to do with the historical figure of Hitler.'

Hitler was hotly debated on its original release, like Syberberg's previous films, notably Ludwig - Requiem for a Virgin King and Karl May, with which it formed a loose 'German trilogy'. He has had some very heavy-duty defenders, like Sontag who canonised the film in another of her essays as a noble masterpiece. And its attraction continues: it played to sell-out houses - slightly to everyone's surprise - in Edinburgh last week.

On the other hand, at the time of its original release, the director claimed that West German critics had snubbed his meisterwerk and, with impressive dedication, compiled a 337-page dossier attacking them. Inevitably many saw this as a media stunt. 'Even his most fervent defenders could not say that Syberberg hides his light under a bushel,' wrote the Frankfurter Rundschau. 'With the preferred subjects of his films . . . he not only shares their megalomania and gigantism, but the aggressively missionary vocation and the whining self-pity of a martyr.' And there were dissenting voices abroad too, such as Eric Rentschler, the American critic, who called Syberberg a 'self- advertiser par excellence'.

After Hitler, he seemed to draw in his horns: he made one more long epic, an idiosyncratic film of Wagner's Parsifal, and then a series of low-budget, one-woman pieces with the distinguished German actress Edith Clever. 'It's been very difficult to get finance, and so I scaled everything down, to one character and very little technology, otherwise my films simply wouldn't exist. On the other hand it was a choice made gladly . . . ' The latest fruit of their collaboration was a stage production on display in Edinburgh last week, a virtually dialogue-free, two-and-a-half-hour reverie called Ein Traum, was sonst? (A Dream, What Else?).

It was lauded by the Guardian as 'strange, brave and powerful . . . utterly beautiful and uniquely thought-provoking' and by the Scotsman (more ambiguously) as 'slow, brooding, Wagnerian, a sombre meditation on the zeitgeist of the post-Second-World-War Fatherland'. The Financial Times critic, however, confessed to having left in the interval.

Here's how Syberberg describes it: 'It's a completely silent apotheosis, a kind of still life on stage. Edith Clever sits quietly for a long time, listening to sounds or walking around. In the first hour, she hardly speaks at all, she just listens, literally in silence. In the second part, there are extracts from Faust, Holderlin's work, and Kleist's Der Prinz von Homburg - there's a bit of Hitler in it too. There is a melancholy over the whole thing; it's a version of Antigone, because a woman is mourning something that Germany doesn't want her to mourn, namely the defeat of Prussia.

'It's a very cinematic aesthetic - in the theatre. It's crying out to be made into a film, and I hope it will be. It wouldn't be expensive - between 300,000 and 500,000 DM ( pounds 110,000 to pounds 180,000). But it has been turned down seven or eight times, by television and government subsidy bodies. There's a controversy over me; I'm blacklisted. Democracy has its ways of censorship, through money,' he adds darkly. In Germany Syberberg has acquired something of a reputation for paranoia. But, whether this is justified or not, it's still sad to observe that one of that country's most original directors is unable to raise finance for his movies.

Ein Traum, was sonst? suggests that Syberberg's concerns have not changed as much as he probably imagines - it has the same oneiric quality (one of the subtitles of Hitler was Ein deutscher Traum - a German dream), the same obsession with the interface between history and myth. Of his peers' anxiety about confronting their country's shameful past - what the German writer Alexander Mitscherlich called 'the inability to mourn' - he says: 'My generation grew up with the nights of bombs, and the suffering, and the guilt nourished itself on the past and there were a lot of soap-box speeches about that in the West. It's better to start afresh.' Yet the Antigone theme of his new piece suggests it too is about exactly the inability to mourn.

Certainly, he has no ambition to document the ructions presently afflicting his country, unless it be from a private point of view. 'It's conceivable that I might do something about East Germany, where I come from, in fact where I was born. About my family in Pomerania, my origins, my parents, a little like Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. But the temptation isn't very great because no- one has said to me: here's eight million DM. And I'm reluctant to make these things public in a film.'

'Hitler - a Film from Germany' plays at the ICA Cinema from 4-17 September.

(Photograph omitted)

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