One of the world’s great film culture apostates, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg is mostly notorious for the seven-hour-plus 1977 film “Our Hitler,” and for Susan Sontag’s rocket-to-Mars essay, ambitiously praising it to the heavens, and for being the most recalcitrant of the New German Cinema’s unholy four (with Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog).
Finally, two of his famous earlier films have been released on video to contextualize that later behemoth, “Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King” (1972) and “Karl May” (1974), the three of which supposedly comprise a “German trilogy.” Syberberg hardly seems disposed to ever make films about anything else, and it’s an unassailable career project, especially in light of the last decade or so of Holocaust movies produced in Germany and elsewhere, which have tried to straitjacket and even romanticize the horrifying mystery of German culture’s evolution.
Syberberg has always regarded it as a monstrous enigma, and his movies reflect his position in every frame. But the man does not make “movies” as we normally define them — Syberberg’s films are friezes, poised tableaux expressing German social anxiety with stockpiles of evidence. Syberberg makes movies the way Charles Foster Kane collected artwork. Forever roping in the poisoned spirit of Wagner and Nazism, the films are not dramatic but dissertative, dreamily and endlessly questioning and never daring to answer.
The two earlier films are not nearly as gigantic — “Ludwig” is, in fact, a solid hour-and-a-half shorter than Visconti’s “Ludwig,” and “Karl May” just pokes past three hours total. Still, neither is a breeze to confront — Syberberg comes at his historical inquisitions from an angle, and “Ludwig” dallies as much with the infamous monarch’s narcissistic biography as it does with Jarman-esque camp, Wagnerian kitsch, nude girls, 19th century graphics (projected as background sets), cabaret shtick, children with mustaches, stuffed swans, etc. — all of it assembled and explored on a proscenium stage that recalls Méliès in more ways than one. Fairly tongue-in-cheek, “Ludwig” is more like an epic carny sideshow orchestrated by a guilty Teutonic madman than a film, and stands as the definitive precedent of Syberberg’s exhausting Hitler film.
“Karl May” is different — its baroque warehouse-stage shenanigans are kept to a minimum, and instead, Syberberg ruminates on the legacy of the titular writer, a kind of hyper-popular, turn-of-the-century pulp mashup in Germany of Robert E. Howard and Jack London, who specialized in American Indian stories and pretended to have first-hand knowledge of primitive cultures. Inspired and emboldened by May his whole life, Hitler may’ve been the author’s biggest fan, and so May’s fate (here played out against and intertwined with a series of late-in-life lawsuits with which he struggled) appears permanently entangled with the fate of Germany as a whole.
Probably the most conventional of Syberberg’s features, “Karl May” is almost an ordinary period film, shot in genuine locations. But there’s a dagger up its sleeve: the cast is almost entirely made up of German industry vets who worked on films for and under the Third Reich, including director Helmut Käutner (as May), “Caligari”‘s Lil Dagover, Kristina Söderbaum (star of, among other Nazi films, “Jud Süss”), Käthe Gold, Attila Hörbiger, Mady Rahl, et al. The movie plays out like an autumnal conference held between cigar-pumping codgers blessed with nothing but time, idly deciding on the cursed celebrity’s fate even as their own culpability in German history is ignored, but looms nonetheless.