by Allan Fish
(West Germany 1977 429m) DVD1/2 (Germany only)
Aka. Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland
You are the executioner of the western world
p Hans-Jurgen Syberberg d/w Hans-Jurgen Syberberg ph Dietrich Lohmann ed Jutta Brandstaedter m Gustav Mahler, W.A.Mozart, L.Van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Joseph Haydn art Hans Gailling
Heinz Schübert, Andre Heller, Helmut Lange, Amelie Syberberg, Harry Baer, Peter Kern,
When debating the masters of modern German cinema, most critics would concentrate on the canonical trio, Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog (with a passing nod to Reitz and Schlöndorff). And yet arguably the most individual, ingenious and undoubtedly the most demanding, was Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. His films are hard to see, largely unavailable on DVD anywhere in the English speaking world, but in a film that parallels Arthurian legend, the Grail analogy is a worthy one. To see your first Syberberg is a life-changing experience, and if his entire oeuvre cannot mean as much as it would to one of his nation, his films remain idiosyncratic treatises of incredible complexity, individual “J’accuse” testimonies to provoke outrage, anger and, occasionally, a nod of acknowledgement.
Syberberg’s masterpiece consists of four parts, and was shown as such on West German television in the seventies; “The Grail”, “A German Dream”, “The End of a Winter’s Tale” and “We Children of Hell.” Each part probes, examines, and generally performs a post-mortem on the reasons behind the rise and fall of Hitler, his doctrine and iconography, the psyche of the German people and even turns the accusation on the individual viewer. As the narrator observes, it wasn’t Hitler’s ideals that were beaten but his army. The ideals stood fast to the very end.
There are allusions to so many aspects of German culture as to almost verge on sensory overload, but you are hypnotised, in much the same way as the German nation were by Hitler. As the film proposes, Hitler presented to the German people the realisation of a fairy tale nightmare, a totalitarian state destined to rule the world. We are continually shown a puppet or dummy of Hitler whose very passivity still strikes fear into the hardiest of hearts. Even the simple recitation of quotes from the Nazi bigwigs is done in such a matter-of-fact way as to chill. The actors, too, are merely puppets to the puppet-master, with various actors reminding one of Laird Cregar and Peter Sutcliffe, individuals who became infamous as serial killers (on screen and in reality). Then throw in the remembrances of old cinema, from the snowstorm recalling Citizen Kane to the tales of Hitler’s obsessive film-viewing at the Berghof to the direct re-enactments from old German films, most famously, and appropriately, the final underworld trial of Peter Lorre’s Dusseldorf murderer in M. The accusers are accused and, though Hitler is indeed shown to be a monster, how could we allow him into power in the first place and turn a blind eye to his antics prior to September 1939?
Above all aspects of the film, it’s the imagery that transcends and spellbinds the viewer on each viewing. We find our anger summoned, but also our responses to savage beauty and, though several composers’ work are heard, from Beethoven to Mozart over the final cosmic credits, it’s Hitler’s – and Syberberg’s – beloved Wagner who dominates. (Quite appropriately it’s Parsifal that provides most of the sweeping majestic music, the same opera filmed by Syberberg five years later.) The whole visual style is pure Syberberg, and seems to have also been influential on the last part of that other great masterpiece of German television history, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. However, the filmic virtues of Fassbinder and Syberberg could not be further apart. Syberberg is not interested in individuals, but ideals, emotions and national culture. “Did we insult anybody, offend anyone?” one of the actors asks the audience. We can only respond with a gesture, akin to that of the little girl at the fadeout, covering her eyes with her hands. This is the theatre of the cinema and vice versa, and its greatest surviving example.