By Michael Atkinson
[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.