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“Our Hitler: A Film from Germany,” “The Freethinker”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Our Hitler: A Film from Germany,” Facets]

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.

Finally, Syberberg’s monster is DVD’d, and of course today “Our Hitler” cannot withstand the burden, for this moviehead, of all those years of anticipation, all that ballooning Sontagian hype, all of that pioneering rhetoric. No film could. Not that Sontag was wrong, in her extraordinarily reasoned way — her evocation of the film is spot-on. A kind of stagebound, Wagnerian discourse-voyage through the meanings and ramifications of Hitler’s place in the 20th century (think of it as “Thirteen x 13 Ways of Looking at Hitler”), the film is a “mosaic,” in Sontag’s term, a salmagundi of theatrical effects, tropes and set-pieces, and, purposefully, nothing is left out: puppet theater, reenacted history, philosophical speculation (a lot of that), masquerade, vaudeville lampoon, Nazi film and audio clips, memoir recitations, symbolist tableaux, homages to German Expressionism, ad friggin’ infinitum, all of it shot in a wreath of mist and in front of a giant projection screen in a cavernous Munich warehouse. A large chunk of the film is taken up with the recitation of Hitler’s butler’s detailed memories about der Führer’s soap brand and underwear and breakfast preferences; another with the recollections of his projectionist. (As Syberberg points out, Hitler never went to the front, and saw the war only on privately screened, nightly newsreels — Hitler as moviemaker, or, as Sontag puts it, “Germany, A Film by Hitler.”) Another riveting section involves a Hitler ventriloquist dummy answering his critics — and correctly damning scores of other countries and corporations for their Hitlerian actions (“Hiroshima — your Auschwitz! Bravo!”).

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.

Another berserker going to extraordinary lengths, at extraordinary length, to plumb the mysteries of history, Peter Watkins has mastered, with Culloden, Edvard Munch and La Commune (Paris, 1871), perhaps the most effective and eloquent methodology for cinematic exploration of historical phenomena yet devised: the full-on, straight-faced mock-doc, exploring the social contexts around a battle or a painter’s life or a social revolution, with in-period interviews, narration and texts, woven together to make both a completely convincing now out of what may seem to be faraway material, and a fiery leftist testament for the sake of the poor and oppressed and against the wealthy. Prior to the international revelation of La Commune in 2001, which is largely responsible for the long-neglected Watkins’s renaissance in film culture and his long-unseen corpus being released on DVD, the director struggled, amid many struggles, with the cost of moviemaking. That changed, if only in a technical way, with “The Freethinker” (1994), for which Watkins discovered the possibilities of digital video. (Imagine how “The Journey,” Watkins’s 14.5-hour documentary about his global search for sanity in a fading-Cold-War world, might’ve taxed the great martyr less if video had been serviceable at the time.)

“The Freethinker,” shot over a few years with the devoted assistance of Norwegian students and volunteers but with no official institutional help, is a four-and-a-half-hour essay on the life and legacy of August Strindberg, famed Swedish playwright, controversial misanthrope, notoriously disastrous family man and self-destructive genius. But it’s not a straight-on mock-doc — like Syberberg’s gargantua, it’s a collage of formal ideas, mixing faux-documentary elements with cohesive dramatization, archival footage, photos, huge chunks of Strindbergian text, direct camera address, group discussions, documentary footage of the making of the film itself, texts by Watkins about Strindberg, the film and Watkins’s outrageous, but indisputable, summary evaluation of modern media, and so on, at Herculean length and with the defiant seriousness of an obsessive Luddite.

Watkins has often used history as a brickbat with which to assault the present-day system of wealth maintenance and pervasive inequity, but even so, it’s clear that Strindberg is a paradigmatically Watkinsonian figure, a recalcitrant backbiter, a man driven to odious arguments by his own experiences with political economics (including anti-Semitism and anti-feminism, but eventually including socialism), a socially critical artist maligned and maltreated time and again by critics and the media, if he was acknowledged at all, and a furiously unpopular pro-working-class polemicist (which, Watkins maintains, is the aspect of Strindberg’s work that’s least known outside of Sweden, though it might be the most vital). Methodical, studious, passionate and sometimes experimental-theater cheesy, “The Freethinker” is not only a moving portrait of the man and the times (no one need to read more for a solid sense of 19th-century Sweden or Strindberg), but a lacerating political statement as well, specifically targeting various supposedly progressive Scandinavian countries’ behaviors at the time, but in implication every state power since. (Authority doesn’t come easy to Watkins; as usual, he credits himself amidst an ensemble of filmmakers.) Of course, as per Watkins’s record, the movie was shunned by broadcasters and educators alike. Call me a partisan, but if Watkins made it, be it science fiction or ancient history, you gotta be there.

“Our Hitler: A Film from Germany” (Facets) will be available on DVD November 27th; “The Freethinker” (Zeitgeist) is now available on DVD.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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