Rise of Nazism traced in drama/newsreel film hybrid

In an unusual account of the Third Reich called ``Following the F"uhrer,'' the German-born director Erwin Leiser has combined both drama and documentary -- not in the usual ``docudrama'' style, which treats real-life incidents with the tools of fiction, but by intercutting scripted episodes (written by Oliver Storz and directed by Eberhard Itzenplitz) with archival footage. The aim is twofold: to portray the past through authentic images and also to flesh out, via dramatic incident, the kinds of ordinary people we see (always as large, anonymous masses) in newsreels of the Nazi period. What emerges is a portrait not only of Nazism, in all its evil, but of the individuals it swept into its grasp, in all their flawed humanity. The danger in such an approach is that it may seem to excuse the just-plain-folks who became Nazis by emphasizing the gulf between their mundane lives and the overwhelming social pathology that suddenly imposed itself on them. Leiser avoids this trap by focusing on carefully chosen moments in the lives of the ``good Germans'' he depicts -- moments that seem banal at first, but can eventually be seen as times of realization and decision.

Thus the characters are common people faced with deceptively simple dilemmas. A domestic worker learns that she's courting hostility by serving a Jewish family; a judge gets a sharp reprimand for not hewing obsessively enough to the party line; a young couple finds its marriage plans clouded by argument about whether to swim with the Nazi tide or stand uncomfortably out from the crowd.

The most pathetically amusing scene involves a zealous brown-shirt who seems a fool even to his own family as he prepares for a day of Jew-baiting. The longest and most harrowing episode concerns a Nazi officer whose compulsive drinking masks a tormented conscience -- the result of his new job as train engineer at a mysterious camp where human beings (``I assume they're Jews'') are packed into boxcars like animals and shipped to a fate he doesn't want to know about.

The filmmakers don't always meet their self-imposed challenge of making brief, everyday minidramas as involving and portentous as the newsreel-style footage that frames them. Some sequences are weakly constructed and trail off indecisively; others have little dramatic force to begin with. By stressing the value of both fictional and documentary modes, however, ``Following the F"uhrer'' makes a thoughtful contribution to the cinematic study of Nazism and the Holocaust; and by seeking to combine those modes into a seamless whole, it points to a promising area for further research.

The picture is now having its American theatrical premi`ere at the enterprising Film Forum in New York.

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