A Mind-Bending 7-Hour Epic About Hitler Gets a Rare Screening

by The Technical Blogs

This weekend, the hottest ticket in New York is a seven-hour-plus movie about Adolf Hitler.

Showing just once at Film at Lincoln Center, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s rarely screened epic, “Hitler, a Film From Germany,” is, according to the programmers, sold out despite its behemoth running time (which includes a few breaks). It’s a curious sort of event movie.

Distributed by Francis Ford Coppola, it was first released in the United States in 1980, when it also played to sold-out houses. Presumably, these viewers were intrigued by the huge scope of its ambitions. Susan Sontag’s seal of approval was the cherry on top; she considered it a masterpiece. “There is Syberberg’s film — and then there are the other films one admires,” she wrote.

Some 442 minutes later, whether audiences stumble out of the theater agreeing with Sontag, one thing remains true: There is nothing like it.

Divided in four parts, the film is a Wagnerian opera on acid, composed of theatrical sketches inspired by the German dictator’s life. Images from classics of German cinema like “Nosferatu” and “M” are interspersed with archival footage from World War II, creating a surreal collage made extra disorienting by bursts of Beethoven and overlapping stream-of-consciousness narration. If this “primal scream therapy,” as one voice in the film puts it, sounds overwhelming, it’s only a taste of the film’s dizzying powers. Syberberg wasn’t without a sense of humor, either: In one scene, steam pours out of a sculpture of a rear end. The caption reads: “The biggest fart of the century.”

Based on these details, it should come as no surprise that the director wasn’t interested in portraying the actual Hitler. To him, realistic depictions of Nazi Germany indulge our morbid fascination and simplify a troubling and complicated reality.

For its American release, Coppola retitled the film “Our Hitler” because it explores the mythologies and images that we associate with the German dictator, meaning Hitler isn’t presented as a single man but as a projection of mankind’s darkest fantasies and desires throughout history. Multiple actors play him, as do puppets, cardboard cutouts and a dog. The film is “about the Hitler in all of us,” Syberbeg once said.

As Sontag writes about at length in her article on the film, Syberberg envisions the Nazi leader as a movie director. The real Hitler “never visited the front and watched the war every night through newsreels,” she wrote, calling attention to the way images, even in a documentary, confuse our grip on reality.

Movies, books and television shows about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany implore us to never forget. Keeping the memory of the victims fresh in our minds — as well as that of the forces that conspired to commit such atrocities — is widely understood as a historical obligation, lest amnesia condemn us to repetition. At the same time, there is an outsized fixation with Hitler that gives such works an unsettlingly seductive force. Consider the cliché of suburban fathers glued to the History Channel, which tends to emphasize World War II programming. Or Hollywood’s tendency to attach prestige and importance to Holocaust movies, which some would call the epitome of “awards bait.”

I’m not sure that Syberberg would have liked Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” one of several recent films that seem to actively place themselves in opposition to traditional Holocaust dramas that rely on pathos, like “The Pianist” or “Schindler’s List.” On the one hand, Glazer’s hypnotic vision of denial, in which a Nazi couple carry out their lives in staged ignorance of the slaughter just beyond the walls of their property, refuses to recreate the camp’s violence for our voyeurism. On the other hand, there’s something frustratingly manicured and morally self-righteous about the drama. Its ideas about evil as a condition of extreme self-absorption only reconfirm our damning assumptions about the perpetrators of history’s worst crimes. In other words, it’s a horror movie that unsettles but never really offends.

“Hitler, a Film From Germany” offends. “The Zone of Interest” and its Oscar-nominated brethren “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Oppenheimer” explore the breakdown of moral compasses and show protagonists confronting their places in history, dealing (some better than others) with their choices at an existential pitch. In the age of the smartphone, there is a heightened awareness of global injustice, which makes art that reckons with our varying degrees of complicity in atrocity feel especially resonant.

Syberberg’s phantasmagoria pokes at a different nerve, one connected to the way works of art — the movies in particular — filter reality, creating heroes and villains that soothe our troubled relationship to the past. “Hitler” is a mirror held up to a world saturated by images unleashed from their usual containers. No wonder it’s rude, loud and uninhibited. It’s the closest the movies have come to creating a direct missive from hell.

Syberberg’s film is part of a series dedicated to the French film critic Serge Daney on the occasion of a new translation of his writings, “Footlights,” by Nicholas Elliott. The Film at Lincoln Center schedule features a selection of provocative and politically charged titles from the ’70s. “Histoires d’A,” a rousing documentary about the fight for abortion rights in France (it was banned upon release and drew protests after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival), shows an abortion procedure in its entirety. “Sàlo, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious final work, is a sexually deranged theater of cruelty about the perverse underpinnings of the fascist mentality.

“Hitler, a Film From Germany” is part of “Never Look Away: Serge Daney’s Radical 1970s,” running through Feb. 4 at Lincoln Center. For more information, go to filmlinc.org.

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