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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.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.