Saturday, June 10, 2006

Hitler, A Film from Germany (1978)

Immense rumination on Hitler and his legacy. By Hitler, I don't mean the man -- I mean the historical concept, the social phenomenon, the crushing guilt and overwhelming agony that is Hitler and all for which he stood. Lest that make it sound like a fiber-rich homework film, the technique must also be reckoned with. It's deliberately performed on stages like a filmed play or an opera (a la Von Trier's Dogville), and it leaps between setpieces like it has rabies. There's puppets and fourth-wall breaking and explosions and endless reams of fascinating words. Director Hans-Jurgen Syberberg is attempting nothing less than a mass exorcism for the sins of Germany during WWII, and as such he throws everything he can think of into the eight hours that comprise his film to make his point. What emerges is a dizzying, brilliant, troubling and exhausting film that gambles everything and reaches too far into places that most people wouldn't think to go. It's divided into four parts (as any film of this length should be). The most astonishing segment comes midway through the first segment, during a series of representations of Hitler in different guises; during this parade of charades, an actor shows up as Hitler while acting out Peter Lorre's climactic speech in M, and the conflicting impulses that come from recontextualizing the famed plea for clemency (from a child molester, no less, in a film made by a man who had to flee Nazi Germany after refusing to make films for Hitler) makes for ballsy, jaw-dropping cinema. The film's most important stretch, though, (and part of the reason the aforementioned scene hits so hard) comes in the second half of the second part, as an actor in the guise of Hitler's valet recites a long speech about Hitler's likes and dislikes, his tastes in underwear and socks, his morning rituals and so on. As the actor talks, it slowly dawns that what's being done here is a gradual humanization of Hitler. The purpose, though, is not necessarily to make us see that Hitler was just a man like us but that he wasn't a demonic aberration -- in short, the guilt of Germany can't be expunged by just blaming the man and moving on. Hitler, it turns out, was the people's fault first and foremost. This realization ties in with Syberberg's frequent potshots at democracy and "the will of the people," which resonates a bit ironically given America's current political situation. (And before someone jumps on me, I'm not comparing Bush to Hitler. Like I said, this is more about the political phenomenon and less the literal guy.) This irony, too, is built in -- the end of the third segment has a Hitler puppet tearing off on a disturbing rant about how his thuggish brand of shock-troop politics didn't die with him and may indeed have become the dominant political philosophy of the 20th century. With all that's amazing about this film, it's then a shame that Syberberg goes back to the well to try and dredge another two hours out of his material, resulting in a mostly awful and repetitive fourth part in which one guy pontificates endlessly to the camera as though he's telling us something revelatory when all we want to do is shout back, "Yeah we got it, shut up and go away." Despite the serious damage done by the horrid fourth part, though, this is really quite something. Obviously, it requires a large dollop of patience and endurance, as well as a high tolerance for the unusual and experimental. But it is an important film and it does deserve to be seen.

(Note: Grading this is really rather unfair -- any movie that can hold my notoriously wandering attention rapt for six hours running deserves nothing less than an A, and this is, if nothing else, a grand artistic achievement. But the fourth section lost me almost completely. The breakdown goes like this: Parts 1 & 3 get an A, Part 2 gets a B+ and Part 4 gets a C-.)

Grade: B


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