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Hitler, A Film From Germany, sits half way between the present and the end of World War II . It was made in 1977 by the German director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 30 years after the end of the war. What incredible things had happened to Germany in that time, and what incredible changes have happened in the years since 1977.

This DVD has been issued on the occasion of the film’s 30th anniversary so it is at times dated. Yet it remains a useful warning about national hubris. Above all, it is a source of unforgettable imagery.

Look Up and Look Out

At the end of WWII, what remained of the German nation figuratively turned up its collar, and trudged, head bent forward, into a snowstorm of events outside its control. Years later a few Germans like Syberberg, younger people who were born with their heads down, looked up and saw that the storm had slacked and the ground was thawing again. They wondered, “What is this place we are in and how did we come to be here?” The other older Germans marched on with heads bent, eyes down. Looking up was too painful, and looking back more painful still.

It is into this scene that Syberberg created his film about Hitler and announced that it was “a film from Germany.” He said, “It is now time for us to start talking about our Hitler.” Syberberg is a German speaking to other Germans about who and what Hitler was. We on the outside sit and listen in.

There are those who will dismiss this film as utter rubbish, hyperbolic kitsch, or pandering to revisionists, but I think Syberberg’s goal was to bring Hitler down from his dark Olympus (“humanize” seems an inappropriate word ) and try to understand, from the German perspective, how he came to be what he became. For people who like their worldview black and white, this is not welcome news.

Mixed Media

World War II is the keystone event of the 20th Century. If there is one central character to WWII and hence the 20th Century it is Adolph Hitler. As he recedes into the past and becomes diminished, his description will be accomplished with fewer and fewer words, and the enormity of his reality will be lost. By 1977, there had been enough time for Syberberg to look back to the war as an historical artifact yet it was still recent enough for at least half of his audience to remember it firsthand.

The subject of Hitler requires a very broad canvas and Syberberg’s 8-hour opus is just that. Smaller scale approaches have the “blind men and the elephant” problem where the detail is accurate, but it misses the overall effect. This film, however, is more about effect rather than a “truth” or a “fact.” To that end, Syberberg filmed staged set pieces filled with props, mannequins, puppets and odds and ends of Germanic chaff that are backed by projected images made heroic by their huge size. Each set is like rummaging in the collective attic of a nation, while the tone is of a grand opera production — an idea made real by the forceful use of Wagnerian music (appropriate, as Wagner’s works were the theme music to the whole Nazi package.)

Syberberg also uses a smattering of Beethoven and even Mahler for musical accompaniment. Poor Mahler, an Austrian Jew who wrote beautiful music that was later condemned by the Nazis as decadent and yet is here used in a film about Hitler. But it is the correct music for showing the sentimental side to the German character. With him and Beethoven we are also reminded that Germany was a place of grand civilization and culture.

Of special note are the puppets used in the first part. The caricatures of Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Goering, and even Eva Braun are remarkable. The hand gestures are performed by the puppeteer but as his arm and hand are as big as the puppet itself, the effect is surreal and wonderful. As the Hitler puppet says “this” and “that” the human hand moves expressing exactly the moment and concludes with a smart Nazi salute.

The Good with the Bad

As a filmmaker, Syberberg also brings his own cinematic grudge to the table. Throughout the whole film the Black Maria of Thomas Edison keeps appearing. I suppose it symbolizes the spirit of “film as art”; after all, it was in the 1970s that film was beginning to be taken seriously as legitimate art. It was also when a new German Cinema was appearing with the works of Herzog, Fassbinder, and Wenders. The legendary filmmaker Leni Refenstahl was being also being rediscovered. Her film Triumph of the Will about the 1934 Nazi Party Meeting in Nuremberg was film as art and propaganda and defined the modern documentary. Syberberg glumly acknowledges her, but goes on to say what great things the German film industry might have done were it not for the Nazis.

Syberberg ends Hitler, A Film From Germany with Beethoven’s musical setting of Shiller’s Ode To Joy, perhaps the climactic musical event of Western Civilization. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All men will become brothers), sings the chorus. If that music and that sentiment does not stir your heart, then there is something wrong with you. It is the grand romantic cause of modern Europe, ironically thwarted by the Germans themselves. I think Syberberg is saying, “Yes, Hitler and Wagner were ours, but so were Beethoven, Mahler, Mann and Shiller . Which is the real Germany?”

Seeing Hitler, A Film... is much like a going to a Wagnerian opera. It’s long, loud, and at any given moment it seems not to know where it’s going. But when you get to the end, you know you’ve been someplace special.

This is a phenomenal film, and worth the time it takes to see it and one that you will never forget.

DVD Extras

The only extra feature is some historical video footage of the New York City premier of Hitler, A Film From Germany in 1978. The quality of the tape is poor, but I suppose it’s all we’ve got.

Picture and Sound

Picture and sound quality are uneven. Parts of the film are razor-sharp and beautiful, others look like badly dubbed video. Also the English subtitles are shot full of typos, misspellings, and in some cases, German words instead of the English equivalent. This film deserves better.

How to Use this DVD

Give yourself a couple of nights to watch this one. On the last night, go back and watch the first disk again to pick up on all the stuff you missed while you were learning how to watch the film.