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FACING HITLER, FACING OURSELVES: SYBERBERG'S HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY
by LAWRENCE L. LANGER
HANS-JURGEN SYBERBERG'S seven- hour film spectacle of the rise, appeal, collapse, and aftermath of the Hitler era in Germany and the West has not exactly enchanted audiences in restless search of cinematic excitement. Indeed, the response of German film critics was almost universally unsympathetic. At various points in the film, one is encouraged to attribute Hitler's rise to power less to his own shrewd political talents than to the malleability, insecurity, greed, latent viciousness, or sheer stupidity of the German Geist. The film makes one thing perfectly clear: Hitler could not have conquered most of western Europe and murdered a large proportion of European Jewry without wide- spread support and collaboration from every corner of German society. Given this, it is no wonder Germans did not flock to theaters to see the film. Forty years after the end of the debacle, we are still asking who fed the needs of whom, and why.
But Syberberg's Our Hitler (American title) is not simply a documentary film like Joachim Fest's Hitler.- Eine Karriere, which apparently did arouse widespread interest in Germany, partly because it did not impose uncomfortable burdens of guilt on the viewer. Syberberg has created a gigantic work of the imagination, akin to Wagnerian operatic drama, though inventive in its own right, not merely imitative. By juxtaposing the music, the painting, and the poetry of high German culture (and much popular art) with the songs, the marches, the speeches, and the brutal deeds of the Third Reich, he raises the exasperating and still unanswered question: was the Hitler era a corruption or a culmination of prior German aspirations? Indeed, he challenges the whole tradition of German and world idealism, which makes men prisoners of their dreams and thus easily permits them to confuse the spirit of progress with the demon of destruction.
To begin with, let us remember what Syberberg himself has said about his film, whose German title, literally translated, is simply Hitler.- A Film from Germany. "This film, " he said, "not only comes from Germany, it has been made especially for Germanynowhere could it be understood better than here. " This is not to say that the film must remain enigmatic to foreign audiences; the consequences of Hitlerism have struck the life of every citizen in the twentieth century. But the cultural contexts of the film- its roots in nineteenth-century music and art and early twentiethcentury cinema, its literary allusions, its awakening of voices from the past that still arouse nostalgia and fear in the souls of members of the middle and older generation in Germany today-these contexts cannot possibly excite the American viewer so spontaneously or so forcefully as they do a native German audience.
The film represents a condemnation and a hope or, more exactly, a confrontation bound up with a hope: the hope that through confrontation, this complex agent of beauty and brutality in human history, the German nation, will somehow recognize its Janus personality and acknowledge its shared responsibility for the catastrophe that Hitlerism brought upon the world. And by extension, I suppose-though this is a less persuasive theme in the film-it summons all people to discover the "Hitler in uns" (the Hitler in ourselves) that makes possible eruptions like the Third Reich and the devastation it left in its wake. The idea is conventional enough, and Syberberg is not the first to have wrestled with the dilemma of the monstrous growing out of the human, but he is one of the leading exponents of the belief that the problem is one of imagination as well as intellect. His art pays homage to the resources of film in awakening those slumbering levels of response to atrocity that only the intricacies of the artistic vision can stimulate.
Is any art adequate to this gigantic, elusive theme of our time: the advent of Hitler, the hypnosis of the German people, the nearly achieved Thousand-Year Reich, the even more nearly achieved destruction of European Jewry, Gotterdammerung in Europe, the exasperating issue of collective guilt, and the never settled question of appropriate punishment? Film is, replies Syberberg vehemently: the art of cinema. With the supreme confidence of the conquerer, he marches into alien terrain determined to erect a memorial to the shattered faiths of Western civilization, a memorial to whose pedestal historians, novelists, poets, dramatists, psychologists, and theologians have already contributed, but for whose completion no one has yet summoned sufficient talent. Perhaps the realities behind the Third Reich are too complex for a single mind to grasp. But film, at least this film, goes beyond the mind of its creator, as all significant art does, to invent its own illusion of reality, a multidimensional experience that challenges not only our insatiable desire to understand this phenomenon but an even deeper need to envision it. Hitler.- A Film from Germany is not a realistic representation but a visionary one-Syberberg's controlled vision of what Hitler was, what we a:re as the heirs of his era, and what the world may be as a result of his having been. The three-ring circus of our childhood, with lion tamers and dancing elephants below and trapeze artists above, may have been too distracting for a single imagination to absorb. But we are adults now, says Syberberg, and the visions of past, present, and future that unfold in his film offer a crucial means of insight into the outer and inner tensions of the Hitler period.
The inner tension, a psychological turmoil of suppressed complicity and buried silences, of blind worship and human indifference, is the chief substance of Syberberg's film. The historical facts are easily obtainable elsewhere, and Syberberg uses them sparingly here. His own daughter, the young girl who wanders mutely across the landscapes of the film, is a kind of Alice in "Underland," a member of the future generation in Germany who will grow up with this crowd of interior scenes and "dead" voices as her legacy. The film's last part is called "Wir Kinder der Holle" (We Children of Hell) and is ironically subtitled "We Remember the Age of the Grail." That child is an emblem of us all, innocently trying to piece together the fragments of myth and history that led mankind from the legend of the Grail, with its promise of a spiritual paradise, to the Inferno of the Third Reich and-according to Syberberg-the soulless society that followed. As the strains of Parsifal echo through the film, they recall to us how people may be duped by a noble abstract goal into betraying, through impious means, the very values that make that goal worthy. At the film's end, as the crumbling letters of the Grail disappear into a black hole of the future, we are reminded by the last words that precede the silence of infinity how worthless is the faith that moves mountains-a phrase repeated by Goebbels earlier in the film-when it is not accompanied by the love that cherishes human beings. It is a solemn and melancholy admonition, a memorial to the misery that men cause in behalf of their obsessive visions of a glorious future.
But no statement about the film's "meaning" can do justice to the irrationalities of its form. Syberberg is firm on the need to demythologize the Nazi past, to strip its fabled leaders of morally impenetrable labels like "demonic" and "monstrous." The Nazi world itself was made possible by the idealizing appeal of the mythological impulse, which gave birth to the notion of a master race. Syberberg subscribes to the idea of the banality of evil, insofar as it acknowledges the deeds and beliefs of ordinary human beings as the source of terror in the Third Reich; but he adds to this formula the reverse, the evil of banality, to suggest that in art as in life no relationship, no detail is too trivial- Himmler's dependence on his masseur, or Hitler's on his valet-to add a grain of insight into the Nazi phenomenon. Military defeat may have doomed the Third Reich, but it did not illuminate - certainly it did not bring spiritual regeneration to-the German people. Hence Syberberg has the members of his audience relive, in memory as well as sound and vision, as a kind of son et lumiere spectacle, the fragments of that reality whose meaning, or lack of it, eluded them then. Not in order to recapture that reality, but to reignite a comatose, unmastered past, still glowing faintly like unextinguished embers within each of his auditors. This is what the Circus Announcer means when he suggests that everyone in the audience play himself, the Hitler in himself, and by listening to Hitler and Goebbels and Speer, Deutschland uber Alles and the SS marching song, reenact those unconfronted moments and try to determine now what in themselves made Hitler possible then. The film itself is a montage of reenactment, offering us different perspectives from the Nazi and the German past and imposing on us the task of synthesizing from our own interior world those images and ideas and feelings stimulated by Syberberg's spectacle.
What Syberberg calls for-what the art of his film demands -is the intervention of a new faculty within ourselves, as yet unnamed, that will endow us with the power to combine imagination, conscience, emotion, and the analytic intelligence into a center of absorption that can respond to the multifarious and contradictory images on the screen without being buried by a sense of surrealistic and symbolic chaos. At one crucial moment, for example, the history of German film fuses with a film on German history as the voice of the murderer in Fritz Lang's 1931 film M (whom some of us will remember as Peter Lorre) is juxtaposed with the voice of Adolf Hitler addressing a mass meeting of SS troops. M, or Lorre, a psychotic child-murderer, is justifying himself before a tribunal of so-called judges from the criminal underworld with words that evoke a seminal moment in the chronicle of German faith: " Ich muss, ich muss es tun, aber niemand wird mir glauben. Ich kann nicht anders, ich, ich. . . . " What German can forget that historic moment in 1521 when Martin Luther affirmed the priesthood of all believers with the same words: "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders . . . " (Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise)? Rejecting the authority of the Pope, he initiated a reformation in Christian faith. And four centuries later, as this scene suggests, another reformation is about to begin as a different voice cries out: "Unser Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, Sieg Heil. . . "Men of destiny have played a singular role in the history of German belief. But with Peter Lorre's demented words ringing in his ears, the viewer is forced to ask how almost an entire nation could have mistaken a mass murderer for a new spiritual authority. The association of idealistic ends with brutal, inhuman means, unrecognized until the consequences are made plain-is this, Syberberg asks, the fatal, vulnerable spot in the German spirit? That paradox is at the heart of his film.
One other crucial moment will illustrate the technique of juxtaposition used to summon from us a faculty broad enough to embrace the ironies and contradictions implicit on the screen. As the very human and mortal Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler lies before us under the hands of his masseur, a vision emerges of the atrocities committed on Himmler's authority. As we contemplate, with eye, ear, and mind, what has been done in the name of "Gesamtgermanentum" or total Germanity, listening to one vividly described atrocity against the Jews after another, we hear an SS man (repeating Himmler's own earlier words) explaining that real pain was endured not by the victims but by the perpetrators. "Einer muss sich opfern," proclaims that voice: "Someone must make the sacrifice. "The sacrificial hero, the leader as martyr-in German myth, faith, history, and Wagnerian opera, this principle as theory has sustained the national imagination as it trampled on the lives of its victims. But in actuality, not in theory, the principle leads to one of the most shattering ironies of the film. During a report from the mobile killing units or Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union, listing the number of Jews liquidated by each group (249,420 by Group A; 25,467 by Group B; etc.), the voice of the announcer interrupts with a news dispatch: an attempt has been made on the life of Adolf Hitler! And following a brief statement from the Fuhrer that the attempt has miscarried, we are told that by the end of the year the "Jewish question in the occupied countries" will be "settled." And the synthesizing faculty within us is compelled to ask: why, if (comparatively speaking) so few Germans could successfully murder so Many millions of Jews, could so many millions of Germans not have successfully assassinated one man? Syberberg does not release his audience from the grip of this overwhelming question. Perhaps he wishes to suggest that if reverence for Hitler was a form of ego fulfillment, repudiation of him would have been a form of national suicide-and this was too high a price for his devotees to be willing to pay.
Hitler himself, in his way of living, at his monster rallies, and in his speeches celebrating the Volksgemeinschaft (the brother hood of racial Germans), was equivalent to a film from Germany, satisfying the lust for entertainment in his audiences. His career, from this point of view, was a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular and he starred in his own film biography. If, as Syberberg's film insists, Hitler would have been nothing without "us" (and the limit of that "us" is bound to inspire much controversy), so, we must conclude, "we" would have been nothing without him. The film captures a symbiotic relationship- but we would err grievously in failing to distinguish between the host and the parasites, and here perhaps the film's implications are not entirely clear. From the absurdist point of view, Hitler was a natural showman and the Third Reich the Greatest Show on Earth. Leni Riefenstahl presented this brilliantly in her Hitler documentary, Triumph of the Will. Most Germans failed to penetrate that facade, and, as Syberberg's vision of Hitler's house near Berchtesgaden being turned into kind of Disneyland- in- Germany suggests, still fail to do so. History has marched remorsefully from the Holy Grail to the Decline of the West, but the surviving "Hitler in uns, " the reverence for spectacle and cheap entertainment, blinds us to its movement.
The film leaves us, like the child at the circus, suspended between hope and despair. The glory of the chorus from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the freedom fanfare from Fidelto ring in our ears, but as lament rather than celebration, as promises unfulfilled, not a future to be won. The freedom that human beings have reclaimed after the fall of the Third Reich, is, as one of the last of the film's "voices" confesses, a freedom without a human face. "Hitler," he concedes, "here is your victory." The enigmatic question locked in the film (to which each of us must discover his or her own answer) is whether we are Hitler's creatures, or he ours. At the film's end, this question recedes into a large, somber uncertainty concerning what people, represented by the praying child, will make of their future now. The corpse of German idealism, indeed of all schemes for a paradise on earth, lies strewn across the landscape of the imagination: it will not soon be resurrected. We are left, as Syberberg admits, with only the silence of melancholy. But one purpose of Syberberg's film fantasy is surely to help us see our possibilitiesand impossibilities- more clearly. The tragedy of modern history, as Heine wrote about Germany more than 100 years ago (and as Syberberg's film reminds us in both the opening and the closing credits), is that when we think about it in the night, it makes the hot tears flow. Outside the circus tent of the Third Reich, in the black hole of our past, more than one corpse of German idealism lies strewn across the landscape. If Syberberg has chosen instead to point us toward the black hole of the future, it is perhaps to re- mind us that the way is still illuminated by millions of scattered stars. Nevertheless, those who believe that Hitler's greatest crime was not the corruption of Western culture but the destruction of European Jewry, may find it difficult to forget how many of those once-shining stars have been permanently eclipsed by the millions of his scattered victims.