FILM / Rhetorical questings: Hitler - A Film from Germany

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The Independent Culture
With the Goebbels diaries still being fought over and 'ethnic cleansing' in the front pages of English papers, it shouldn't be surprising to find a film review devoted to Hitler, or rather to Hitler - A Film from Germany, Hans Jurgen Syberberg's huge 1977 film, which has been shown on television in this country (in 1979), but is only now receiving any sort of theatrical release.

Syberberg's approach is neither narrative nor analytical; his film is a phantasmagoria on Hitlerian themes. Its most characteristic parts are tableaux in which living performers are outnumbered by photographic cut-outs, waxworks and ventriloquists' dummies, while oversized images, changing every few seconds, are projected on to the backdrop. Some scenes call for as much dry ice as a mid- Seventies Top of the Pops, and when curiously period-looking mannequins (the period of the film's making, not its subject-matter) are present in large numbers, the effect can sometimes be of a Biba shop window with delusions of grandeur.

The film's intermittently avant- garde look masks a neo-Wagnerian aesthetic. Any film of seven hours-plus invites surrender. Hitler will cast either a spell or a deep sleep over its audiences. Even in a short film a style based on rhetoric and spectacle would not be well placed to investigate an ideology also composed of rhetoric and spectacle. The dream mechanisms of condensation and displacement, however they are intended, work to deny those things which may not be symbolised. There is no acceptable shorthand, that is to say, for genocide.

Hitler offers its viewers a multitude of Hitlers, human and inhuman - the trademark moustache appearing on a soft toy dog, for instance, or above the crack of a pair of ceramic buttocks. Jews, however, are represented by the occasional cut-out, the odd back-projection and the glimpse of a concentration camp uniform.

Without the Holocaust Nazism is just another tyranny, though not everything that blurs the stark opposition of the one and the six million is improper. Claude Lanzmann's Shoah set out to explore the exact responsibility of the intermediaries between that one and those six million. But when, as in most of Hitler - A Film from Germany, the killer is reduplicated and the millions of victims symbolised away, we seem a lot closer to the fantasy of the one than the reality of the six million.

Syberberg's verbal rhetoric (and though visually inventive this is a crushingly verbal and literary film) oscillates between extreme positions. One position is: there's a little Hitler in all of us. He only liberated desires that others were ashamed to acknowledge. Another is: Hitler is responsible for everything abominable in the world as it is now, decades after the petrol was poured and his body burned. This second theme gives rise to tirades that are often insulting in their triviality and irrelevance.

At one point, Hitler is used as a devil's advocate, listing the evils of the modern world - the number of United Nations member states that ignore human rights, for example, as if to say, you're not so different. He refers in the course of this litany to 'Women's Lib, the New Racism'. Since the rhetorical value of playing devil's advocate depends on the plausibility of the arguments advanced, this seems like an example of Syberberg using Hitler as a mouthpiece for his own prejudices, hardly a reassuring procedure.

The most ludicrous imposition of Syberberg's priorities on his chosen material occurs relatively early in the film, and may justifiably put off many viewers for good and all. We have just been shown a bubbling cauldron of unconvincing severed heads and all too convincing turds, and been told of the part played by lawyers in legitimising Hitler's rise to power. (This is not, despite appearances and acclaim, a politically sophisticated film: that Hitler was able to exploit democratic institutions is assumed to discredit democracy everywhere and in perpetuity.) The lawyers 'boil in the swamp of their deeds'. Then, without transition, we are being told that there is also a corner of hell reserved for those who prevented Erich von Stroheim from making films 11 hours long. It would be hard to imagine a more damaging irrelevance than for the director to mount his hobby-horse in this way, hoping to be taken for a fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.

But then Syberberg ascribes to Hitler his own mystical evaluation of film as a medium. There is nothing informative here, as there was for example in a recent television programme showing how choice of lighting and camera angle in Nazi propaganda films could successfully characterise the mentally handicapped as subhuman. When Syberberg states that 'he who controls film, controls the future' he does not mean by 'film' a shorthand for 'manipulated public perception of events', he means almost literally film. Edison's prototype film studio, the 'Black Maria' recurs in various forms, and near the end of the film, the little girl in black who has been wandering about (symbolising something or everything) wears a sort of mantilla of celluloid. It is a further nail in the coffin of democracy, already shut tight, that in democratic countries 'the film that's the best is the one which clicks at the box office'.

The most compelling part of the film, ironically, is the least distinctive cinematically, a passage perhaps two hours long, roughly hours four and five. First there is a monologue by Hitler's valet, Krause, then a dialogue between Himmler and his masseur, and then a monologue by Hitler's projectionist, Ellerkamp, imagined as walking round a deserted Berghof. Away from the dry ice and the symbolic figures, Syberberg does what he should fight against, what perhaps the tacky-sublime style which precedes and follows was intended to prevent, and makes these Nazis humanly interesting. Why did Hitler always choose unsuitable ties against professional advice? Did Himmler really consider himself a Buddhist? Was Eva Braun joking or just ignorant when she described the tapestries at the Berghof as 'genuine Gobelin d'Aubusson'? Of course these people are 'more interesting' than the people whose lives they ended. They saw to that.

The part of the film directly dealing with the Holocaust - less than 15 minutes in all - is part of the Himmler sequence. It's only fair to say that it is well thought out; a representative Nazi will enter the frame through a doorway in a huge projected photograph of a representative victim, so that the victims, though unmoving and two-dimensional, dwarf their executioners. None the less, the Holocaust is filtered through the point of view of its administrator, Himmler, who did not experience it. We hear him say that he would be better suited to being in charge of the Reich's flowerbeds (the Ministry of Culture, say) than its garbage disposal, and Himmler's green fingers successfully distract us from his red hands.

When, as happens in Hitler - A Film from Germany, a rhetoric that diffuses guilt away from Hitler ('All are guilty, but who's nearer God than the guilty?' is a recurring and mightily suspect phrase) is mixed in with a rhetoric that blames him for absolutely everything - even the replacement of traditional inns by fast-food joints - then any workable notion of responsibility, individual or collective, is eroded. Near the very end of the film, the director-figure who is Syberberg's most garrulous stand-in tells Hitler that thanks to him 'a whole people has ceased to exist in the sphere of the spirit and the elite'. He is referring not to the Jewish people but to Teutonic culture. While less self-promoting artists have considered the problem of how to be human after Auschwitz, Syberberg is preoccupied with the problem of how to be German after Hitler. It is a mark of his queasy relationship with the ideas whose history he seeks to trace that the questions should so manifestly be different in his eyes.