Thursday, June 12, 2008

On Syberberg's Hitler

I have been struggling with Syberberg's Hitler, A Film from Germany for the last couple of days. I don't think I will be able to see the whole film. It is daunting not just because of its length (seven hours) but the sheer breadth of critical, historical and cultural resources it draws on. I am not the intended viewer of the film it seems. Reading Susan Sontag's brilliant essay on it is also not enough though it might be a very good start.

Just a couple of fragmentary thoughts. One of Syberberg's main aims in the film is to explore the various ways Hitler retroactively haunts European culture. Syberberg is of course not the first artist to have done this but the audio-visual medium of cinema and its attendant complexities does give his indictment a kind of immediacy and hence power which a more dispassionate academic study can't have. He is convinced that one can't separate European culture from the European crimes. (Hitler is not the only one - there is also imperialism and communism both of which get short shrift in these kinds of discussions but then in this case they are not its subject). At a basic level, the film can be said to be an interpretation of a particularly despairing version of philosophy of history which sees in Hitler a culmination of European civilization. Syberberg is not the first German intellectual to propose this, even before Hitler many German philosophers were writing treatises in this apocalyptic and eschatological vein.

Another important motif of the film is the way it treats Hitler not a person with a special existent in place or time but rather as an Idea or a representation which just got embodied in the persona of historical Hitler once. The film through various monologues, speeches, historical and cultural analogies tries to pin down what this idea of Hitler might be.

Susan Sontag says in her essay:

Syberberg asks that we really listen to what Hitler said—to the kind of cultural revolution Nazism was, or claimed to be; to the spiritual catastrophe it was, and still is. By Hitler Syberberg does not mean only the real historical monster, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. He evokes a kind of Hitler-substance that outlives Hitler, a phantom presence in modern culture, a protean principle of evil that saturates the present and remakes the past. Syberberg's film alludes to familiar genealogies, real and symbolic: from Romanticism to Hitler, from Wagner to Hitler, from Caligari to Hitler, from kitsch to Hitler. And, in the hyperbole of woe, he insists on some new ones: from Hitler to pornography, from Hitler to the soulless consumer society of the Federal Republic, from Hitler to the rude coercions of the DDR.

His denunciation of consumer societies and commercialism (taking Hollywood as an example) left me perplexed and unconvinced. I even found them bizarre on many occasions. I am of course not a fan of consumerism at all and there is indeed a disease of soullessness that is common to both isms but this strain of argument didn't fit very well with the rest of the film. Zygmunt Bauman is more convincing in his critique of consumerist society as a continuum of societies functioning under fascism.

I will try to revisit it sometime in future after (hopefully) I am able to accumulate the necessary critical mass of knowledge that seems to be prerequisite to watching it. I also need to develop an appreciation of Wagner's music. Unlike Woody Allen he doesn't make me want to invade Poland, he just gives me a terrible headache. I had to lower down the volume while watching but I still couldn't go on after a while.

Susan Sontag's essay on the film is really one of her finest, worth reading even if you haven't seen the film. An extract here:


Although Syberberg draws on innumerable versions and impressions of Hitler, the film in fact offers very few ideas about Hitler. For the most part they are the theses formulated in the ruins of post-World War II Germany: the thesis that "Hitler's work" was "the eruption of the satanic principle in world history" (Meinecke's The German Catastrophe, written two years before Doctor Faustus); the thesis, expressed by Max Horkheimer in an essay written just after the war, that Hitler was the logical culmination of Western progress. Starting in the 1950s, when the ruins were rebuilt, more complex theses—political, sociological, economic—prevailed about Nazism. (Horkheimer, for example, repudiated his essay.) In reviving those unmodulated views of thirty years ago, their indignation, their pessimism, Syberberg's film makes a strong case for their moral appropriateness.

Syberberg asks that we really listen to what Hitler said—to the kind of cultural revolution Nazism was, or claimed to be; to the spiritual catastrophe it was, and still is. By Hitler Syberberg does not mean only the real historical monster, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. He evokes a kind of Hitler-substance that outlives Hitler, a phantom presence in modern culture, a protean principle of evil that saturates the present and remakes the past. Syberberg's film alludes to familiar genealogies, real and symbolic: from Romanticism to Hitler, from Wagner to Hitler, from Caligari to Hitler, from kitsch to Hitler. And, in the hyperbole of woe, he insists on some new ones: from Hitler to pornography, from Hitler to the soulless consumer society of the Federal Republic, from Hitler to the rude coercions of the DDR.

In using Hitler thus, there is some truth and some unconvincing attributions. It is true that Hitler has contaminated romanticism and Wagner, that much of nineteenth-century German culture is, retroactively, haunted by Hitler. (As, say, nineteenth-century Russian culture is not haunted by Stalin.) But it is not true that Hitler engendered the modern, post-Hitlerian plastic consumer society. That was already well on the way when the Nazis took power. Indeed it could be argued—contra Syberberg—that Hitler was in the long run an irrelevance, an attempt to halt the historical clock; and that communism is what ultimately mattered in Europe, not fascism. Syberberg is more plausible when he asserts that the DDR resembles the Nazi state, a view for which he has been denounced by the left in West Germany. Like most intellectuals who grew up under a communist regime and moved to a bourgeois-democratic one, he is singularly free of left-wing pieties.

Syberberg's notion of history as catastrophe recalls the long German tradition of regarding history moralistically, as the history of the spirit. Comparable views today are more likely to be entertained in Eastern Europe than in Germany. Syberberg has the moral intransigence, the lack of respect for literal history, the heartbreaking seriousness of the great illiberal artists from the Russian empire—with their fierce convictions about the primacy of spiritual over material (economic, political) causation, the irrelevance of the categories "left" and "right," the existence of absolute evil. Appalled by the extensiveness of the German support for Hitler, Syberberg calls the Germans "a Satanic people."


And her final recommendation


Syberberg is a genuine elegiast who knows how to use the allegorical props, the symbols and talismans of melancholy. But his film is tonic. The poetic, husky-voiced, diffident logorrhea of Godard's late films discloses a morose conviction that speaking will never exorcise anything, and an inhibition of feeling, both of sympathy and repulsion, that results from this sense of the impotence of speaking. Syberberg, with a temperament that seems the opposite of Godard's, has a supreme confidence in language, in discourse, in eloquence itself. The result is a film altogether exceptional in its emotional expressiveness, its novel aesthetic, its visual beauty, its moral passion, its concern with contemplative values.

The film tries to say everything. Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, CĂ©line, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on. (Beckett would belong to this race too were it not for some inhibitory force—sanity? elegance? good manners? less energy? deeper despair?) Syberberg's unprecedented ambition in Hitler, A Film from Germany is on another scale than anything one has seen on film. It is work that demands a special kind of attention and partisanship; and invites being reflected upon, reseen. The more one recognizes of its stylistic references and lore, the more the film vibrates. Syberberg's film belongs in the category of noble master-pieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeing Hitler, A Film from Germany, there is Syberberg's film—and then there are the other films one admires. (Not too many these days, alas.) As was said ruefully of Wagner, he spoils our tolerance for the others.

6 comments:

puccinio said...

I have never seen Syberberg's Hitler film. By the way for the US release, Francis Ford Coppola marketed the film under the title "Our Hitler", it's a way better title than "Hitler : A Film from Germany".

My main reason being that the film is too damn long, sure I've seen ''Satantango'' three times but why do I want to spend so much time watching a film about Hitler?

But yeah I'll see it sometime I suppose. I hear the film is full of people impersonating various impressions of Hitler, some based on Chaplin's ''The Great Dictator''.

By the way you should really see Alexandr Sokurov's ''Moloch'' which is a day in the life of Adolf Hitler. It's great and it's less than 90mns.

I haven't seen the film really but Susan Sontag arguing that 19th Century Germany is corrupted by Nazism seems to strike me as facile. 19th Century Germany culminated in the First World War(a war which Germany was neither the main warmonger nor the only guilty party), Hitler was a product of the failures of the countries around the world of the 20s, if he cast himself as the scion or the continuum of 19th Century Wagnerian heroes or the romantics of the 19th Century that's only how he wanted to be seen.

By the way, another film that you should see is...it's only 4hrs long but Fritz Lang's ''Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler'' made in 1922 but the film is about how a criminal mastermind undermines a modern society to re-create a world shaped in his image. That film anticipated Hitler and it's a must-see really.

Especially since it contains one of the most chilling dialogues(titles in actual fact) in film history,

"In the long run, nothing matters except this, to play with human beings and control their fates."

Alok said...

I have seen Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. I have also read about Sokurov's film, will see if I can find it somewhere.

As I said in the post, the film is actually about the Idea of Hitler and not the actual historical figure... it is interested in the real Hitler only in so far as it can extract some essence out of him. Most of the film is indeed actors impersonating, or playing with puppets of, Hitler, Himmler, Speer, Goebbels etc, a couple even doing the role of Hitler's valet or Himmler's masseur .. all reading from their speeches with the backstage full of images showing on rear projection and Wagner blowing all the time on the soundtrack.

there are many references to Chaplin. Also to all those expressionist classics, Caligari of course and Lang and Murnau too I think. Also to George Melies' Trip to Moon and may be other early experimental silents that I am not aware of. There are also a few sequences in which he takes swipes at commercialism of Hollywood and Erich von Stroheim's experience there in particular. He seems to be suggesting that commercialism is a Hitlerian idea too, in the way it crushes individual spirit and individual soul. It came across as a little bizarre not because i don't agree with it but it seemed out of place in a film about Hitler even if it is about Hitler as an idea and not really the historical figure.

Watching a film like this is much more difficult and demanding than reading a book of similar depth and range of cultural references because you can't slow down, look up a dictionary or internet or repeat whatever you have just read. It really requires lot of mental work to process all that is going on the screen. May be reading the script (at least the narration) beforehand will help.

About Susan Sontag's comment it is more about German romanticism and the way it repudiated pragmatism and rationalism and legitimized illiberalism, nationalism, even racism. It is not really about the real concrete historical events but the abstract ideas. Of course those abstract ideas could never have come to concrete reality if historical circumstances had been otherwise but there is definitely a continuity in the history of ideas in German culture... it is also more a retrospective analysis rather than a strictly causal one.

puccinio said...

Well Stroheim being a major egomaniac certainly helped his own downfall. Not that it justifies the mutilation of ''Greed'' and his other woes but it's not that he was persecuted by the "state" either.

I'll see if I can make time to see it. It's rahter hard to talk about a film when one person hasn't seen the damn thing.

Interesting about Susan Sontag is that while she praised Syberberg's film she later was resentful to Syberberg because of Syberberg's rather controversial(re:anti-semitic) statements.

The funny thing is Sontag once-upon-a-time also defended Leni Reifenstahl's ''Triumph of the Will'' as a great film and years later repudiated that as well.

Fassbinder hated Syberberg's guts as well.

km said...

Alok: Does Wagner really give you a headache? :) You may want to explore a compilation like "Wagner Without Words". A very good introduction to a great composer, IMO.

Alok said...

puccinio: Don't know much about Syberberg's background actually but these anti-semitism allegations are pretty common in German intellectual circles (and sadly elsewhere too). One of Fassbinder's plays had also created lot of scandal and was accused of being anti-semitic...

Sontag was a pure aesthete in her youth, suspicious of over-intellectualizing and defender of surface beauty and sensuous pleasure in works of art... she changed her position later as she saw how that kind of aesthetic position was no longer viable in a consumer society. Her later essays are written in a serious moralistic vein.

km: thanks for the tip. Will see if i can find it somewhere. I am familiar with the ring cycle and some other music in bits and pieces...some day need to sit down quietly and need to listen to it systematically. I don't know if that's the right word but I find it too "aggressive"... specially for a a passive, peaceful fella that I am.

Anonymous said...

Sontag's essay is definitely easier to understand and more coherent than the film, but I found a strange pleasure - even elation - in watching it at times. Maybe it's because I'm a filmmaker and I'm amazed at his sometimes virtuosity and his consistent boldness. In spite of the two years of planning that went into the film - as Sontag and other sources describe it, the planning was very detailed so they could shoot on an incredibly low budget and do most of it in one take - in spite of this planning, the film still often seems like a stream of consciousness. It is very dreamlike and mesmerizing at times. I saw a five hour version on VHS a few years back so I can't say how the other two might affect me, but I think the film is worth it if you want to really see something that is truly original and inspiring in its way. I also have the script (in both German and English) and it is also amazing to read it. I guess the main reason that I want to comment is to say to anyone who is on the fence about it that they should definitely see it. For me, it was a genuine pleasure in many ways and all the talk of ideology or its real relation to Hitler actually has no bearing on the experience of watching such a free and wild and strange film. Only the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky are anywhere near as interesting for their original use of the film medium to talk about serious subjects.