By any measure, "Our Hitler -- A Film From Germany" is one of the most massive movies ever made. More than seven hours long, it poses physical as well as intellectual challenges for its audience. It's a film of almost intimidating proportions: an epic monologue that sweeps across nearly every aspect of the Hitler phenomenon, inventing a new kind of cinema language in the process.
Since it was completed about two years ago, director Hans-Jurgen Syberberg has traveled with it around Europe, showing it at film festivals, universities, and enterprising theaters. Not long ago it attracted the attention of Francis Ford Coppola -- best know as the director of "Apocalypse Now" and the "Godfather" pictures -- who brought it to the United States. Response has been strong in the cities where it has been shown so far; and Syberberg is ready to screen it anywhere public demand crops up.
And he was mightily pleased with the reception given "Our Hitler" during a large showing at Lincoln Center here. He made notes on the audience, "like a critic," and gathered that most spectators were following the film closely and intelligently. This has reinforced his hope that "a new aesthetic" may develop in film, to replace the popular entertainment represented by the TV series "Holocaust," which he cordially despises.
In terms of style, "Our Hitler" is a unique experience -- slow, fascinating, pretentious, inescapable. It takes place entirely on a stage, which partly accounts for its claustrophobic atmosphere. The actors and the camera move slowly and deliberately about the playing area, which is littered with mannikens , dummies, and ostentatious props. On the rear wall we see huge slide projections, representing the places in Hitler's life. Sometimes their effect is almost realistic, making it appear that an actor is strolling through one of the dictator's old haunts. More often, the effect is expressionistic -- evoking feelings and impressions without pinning us down to particular biographical or historical facts.
Within this setting, a small company of actors (generally seen one or two at a time) launches a seven-hour torrent of talk. Using little in the way of dialogue or off-screen narration, Syberberg prefers to have his characters speak directly to the camera, occasionally using ventriloquists' dummies as intermediaries. "Our Hitler" is a movie that moves very little. Its aim is contemplation, not action.
Yet this is very much a film, not an illustrated lecture. Just as slide projection is one of its key visual devices, the concept of projection is its main metaphor. Did Hitler project his will on the German people? Or, as Syberberg suggests, did the Germans project their unconscious needs and desires onto their leader? Even more outrageously, was all of World War II a massive media event -- a loathsome spectacle concocted by Hitler to ensure his immortality in films assembled by his ever-busy crew of moviemakers?
In a sense, all of "Our Hitler" is a passionate response to the Fuhrer's own noxious misuse of the film medium. This helps explain some of the unorthodox choices made by Syberberg in planning the work. To use conventional characters and plot devices, for example, could have been as manipulative (though in a more constructive way) as Hitler's propagandistic ploys. Above all, Syberberg has sought to avoid any vestige of sensationalism -- what he calls "left-wing concentration-camp pornography." As it turns out, "Our Hitler" is so "pure" in this regard as to become almost abstract. Yet it remains an uncommonly provocative film.
Over lunch recently in New York, I asked Syberberg if his film could be seen as a compendium of the same forces that converged at an earlier time to form Hitler himself. Syberberg agreed, remarking that "Hitler was not a man of the right or the left, in the usual sense. His genius was that he didn't invent. Rather, he drew together different things from different areas of history, tradition, ideology, and technology. And he turned all these things to his own purpose. I used the same system, putting things together in anotherm way, for another purpose -- to oppose him. Like Hitler, I use Wagner. But my use is quite different.
The soundtrack of "Our Hitler" throbs with music of Wagner, Verdi, Beethoven, and other great composers. It also contains long passages from archival recordings, dating back to the Third Reich. The use of these recordings blends well with the film's dense audiovisual texture, providing a rich historical flavor without the intrusive imagery that inevitably clings to the occasional newsreel footage that is also included. In many instances, however, it was budgetary considerations that prompted the use of sounds where sights would have been preferable. According to Syberberg, less money was available to make "Our Hitler" than was used by Ingmar Bergman to run tests beforem shooting "The Serpent's Eggs," his film about the Hitler era. The toal budget for "Our Hitler" came to less than half a million dollars.
The shooting schedule was also uncommonly short -- about three weeks, though this was preceded by four years of planning. Through it all, Syberberg hoped to make a film that would not just be aboutm politics, but would be a political act in itself. The result is a major statement about the Hitler period, with special reference to two controversial subtopics: the continuing reverberations of Hitler's mentality in the world today, and the potential dangers of the democratic form of government which allowed Hitler to achieve his power through legal electoral means.
Syberberg is pleased that audiences are provoked and stimulated by his meditations on these subjects. "Art must always be in motion," he says. "When it becomes quiet, it's dead. And the same goes for politics. But in art the aim is not always to climb up, so we reach the top of some mountain. The movement can be backwards, or in the direction of meditation. I don't know how much hope there is in other things, like politics, but art is healthy as long as it keeps moving."
Syberberg wasn't sure what response "Our Hitler" would find in the United States. "Coming to the country of Hollywood," he says, "I expected to find the difficulties that might be encountered by an enemy of this kind of aesthetic. People here are brought up with the idea of entertainment, box office, and quick-moving stories, with lots of crime and sex. The earlym Hollywood had a lot of power -- Griffith and Stroheim and such filmmakers -- but today people use TV as a substitution for life.
"And on top of that, I am very different from Fassbinder and the other German directors who are known by Americans. I am far from the European and German cultural traditions. How could I expect people to follow me?
"Aesthetics are connected with morals," he insists. "Something like 'Holocaust' is immoral because it is a bad film. Bad art can't do good things. In many ways, Leni Riefenstahl was a good director in the films she made for Hitler, and maybe she was quite avant-garde, too. But we know her work was not done for good purposes."
In his own case, Syberberg's purity of purpose may be less debatable than the actual products of his imagination and his camera. Perhaps the virtues and shortcomings of "Our Hitler" will be easier to assess when the screenplay is published soon in book form, with an introduction by Susan Sontag, who is an avowed admirer of the film. On the printed page, for example, we may see more clearly the film's maddening lack of specificity in some areas -- its reliance on allusion. One is reminded of Nietzsche's references to "intimation" in his work "The Case of Wagner," particularly the wry suggestion that intimations are often a substitute for thought. "Nothing is more compromising than a thought," wrote the philosopher in a sarcastic mood.
Syberberg's film is full of thought, and it dearly desires to provoke thought in its viewers. Yet there ism something here of "infinity, but without melody," to quote Nietzsche again. One feels that Syberberg might have accomplished his task in far less time, and with far less bother, if he did not so fiercely champion art -- and artifice -- as the predecessor and protector of intellect and analysis. In proclaiming its own artfulness, "Our Hitler" protests too much. And rambles about in the process.
Still, one must heartily admire Syberberg's insistence on noble motivations inextricably coupled with noble deeds. What's his opinion of second-rate film that seeks to lead people in a beneficial direction? "Even that is no good," he answers, "because you are moving the audience only by quick excitement. Afterward they fell regret, and unhappiness. And then you are in a worse situation than before."