Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren
Sich weiß Rechenschaft zu geben,
Bleib im Dunkeln, unerfahren,
Mag von Tag zu Tage leben.
[Anyone who cannot give an account
to oneself of the past three thousand
years remains in the darkness, without
experience, living from day to day.]
The Romantics thought of great art as a species of heroism, a breaking through or going beyond. Following them, adepts of the modern demanded of masterpieces that they be, in each case, an extreme case—terminal or prophetic, or both. Walter Benjamin was making a characteristic modernist judgment when he observed (writing about Proust): “All great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.”
However rich in precursors, the truly great work must seem to break with an old order and really is a devastating if salutary move. Such a work extends the reach of art but also complicates and burdens the enterprise of art with new, self-conscious standards. It both excites and paralyses the imagination.
Lately, the appetite for the truly great work has become less robust. Thus Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler, a Film from Germany is not only daunting because of the extremity of its achievement, but discomfiting, like an unwanted baby in the era of zero population growth. The modernism that reckoned achievement by the Romantics’ grandiose aims for art (as wisdom/as salvation/as cultural subversion or revolution) has been overtaken by an imprudent version of itself which has enabled modernist taste to be diffused on an undreamedof scale. Stripped of its heroic stature, of its claims as an adversary sensibility, modernism has proved acutely compatible with the ethos of an advanced consumer society. Art is now the name of a huge variety of satisfactions—of the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself. Where so many blandishments flourish, bringing off a masterpiece seems a retrograde feat, a naïve form of accomplishment. Always implausible (as implausible as justified megalomania), the Great Work is now truly odd. It proposes satisfactions that are immense, solemn, and restricting. It insists that art must be true, not just interesting; a necessity, not just an experiment. It dwarfs other work, challenges the facile eclecticism of contemporary taste. It throws the admirer into a state of crisis.
Syberberg assumes importance both for his art (the art of the twentieth century: film) and for his subject (the subject of the twentieth century: Hitler). The assumptions are familiar, crude, plausible. But they hardly prepare us for the scale and virtuosity with which he conjures up the ultimate subjects: hell, paradise lost, the apocalypse, the last days of mankind. Leavening romantic grandiosity with modernist ironies, Syberberg offers a spectacle about spectacle: evoking “the big show”called history in a variety of dramatic modes—fairy tale, circus, morality play, allegorical pageant, magic ceremony, philosophical dialogue, Totentanz—with an imaginary cast of tens of millions and, as protagonist, the Devil himself.
The Romantic notions of the maximal so congenial to Syberberg such as the boundless talent, the ultimate subject, and the most inclusive art—these notions confer an excruciating sense of possibility. Syberberg’s confidence that his art is adequate to his great subject derives from his idea of cinema as a way of knowing that incites speculation to take a self-reflexive turn. Hitler is depicted through examining our relation to Hitler. (The theme is “our Hitler” and “Hitler-in-us”), as the rightly unassimilable horrors of the Nazi era are represented in Syberberg’s film as images or signs. (Its title isn’t Hitler but, precisely, Hitler, a Film...)
To simulate atrocities convincingly is to risk making the audience passive, reinforcing witless stereotypes, confirming distance, and creating fascination. Convinced that there is a morally (and aesthetically) correct way for a filmmaker to confront Nazism, Syberberg can make no use of any of the stylistic conventions of fiction that pass for realism. Neither can he rely on documents to show how it “really” was. Like its simulation as fiction, the display of atrocity in the form of photographic evidence risks being tacitly pornographic. Further, the truths it conveys, unmediated, about the past are slight. Film clips of the Nazi period cannot speak for themselves; they require a voice—explaining, commenting, interpreting. But the relation of the voice-over to a film document, like that of the caption to a still photograph, is merely adhesive. In contrast to the pseudoobjective style of narration in most documentaries, the two ruminating voices which suffuse Syberberg’s film constantly express pain, grief, dismay.
Rather than devise a spectacle in the past tense, either by attempting to simulate “unrepeatable reality” (Syberberg’s phrase) or by showing it in photographic document, he proposes a spectacle in the present tense—“adventures in the head.” Of course, for such a devoutly anti-realist aesthetician historical reality is, by definition, unrepeatable. Reality can only be grasped indirectly—seen reflected in a mirror, staged in the theater of the mind. Syberberg’s synoptic drama is radically subjective, without being solipsistic. It is a ghostly film—haunted by his great cinematic models (Méliès, Eisenstein) and antimodels (Riefenstahl, Hollywood); by German Romanticism; and, above all, by the music of Wagner and the case of Wagner. A posthumous film, in the era of cinema’s unprecedented mediocrity—full of cinéphile myths, about cinema as the ideal space of the imagination and cinema history as an exemplary history of the twentieth century (the martyrdom of Eisenstein by Stalin, the excommunication of von Stroheim by Hollywood); and of cinéphile hyperboles: he designates Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will as Hitler’s “only lasting monument, apart from the newsreels of his war.” One of the film’s conceits is that Hitler, who never visited the front and watched the war every night through newsreels was a kind of movie maker. Germany, a Film by Hitler. Syberberg has cast his film as a phantasmagoria: the meditativesensuous form favored by Wagner which distends time and results in works that the unpassionate find overlong. Its length is suitably exhaustive—seven hours; and, like the Ring, it is a tetralogy. The titles of its four parts are: Hitler, a Film from Germany; A German Dream; The End of a Winter’s Tale; We, Children of Hell. A film, a dream, a tale. Hell. In contrast to the lavish de Millelike décors that Wagner projected for his tetralogy, Syberberg’s film is a cheap fantasy. The large sound studio in Munich where the film was shot in 1977 (in twenty days—after four years of preparation) is furnished as a surreal landscape. The wide shot of the set at the beginning of the film displays many of the modest props that will recur in different sequences, and suggests the multiple uses Syberberg will make of this space: as a space of rumination (the wicker chair, the plain table, the candelabra); a space of theatrical assertion (the canvas director’s chair, the giant black megaphone, the upturned masks); a space of emblems (models of polyhedron in Dürer’s Melencolia I, and of the ash tree from the set of the first production of Die Walküre); a space of moral judgment (a large globe, a life-size rubber sex-doll); a space of melancholy (the dead leaves strewn on the floor). This allegory-littered wasteland (as limbo, as the moon) is designed to hold multitudes, in their contemporary, that is posthumous, form. It is really the land of the dead, a cinematic Valhalla. Since all the characters of the Nazi catastrophemelodrama are dead, what we see are their ghosts—as puppets, as spirits, as caricatures of themselves. Carnivalesque skits alternate with arias and soliloquies, narratives, reveries. The two ruminating presences (André Heller, Harry Baer) keep up, on screen and off, an endless intellectual melody—lists, judgments, questions, historical anecdotes, as well as multiple characterizations of the film and the consciousness behind it.The muse of Syberberg’s historic epic is cinema itself (“the world of our inner projections”), represented on the wasteland set by Black Maria, the tarpaper shack built for Thomas Edison in 1893 as the first film studio. By invoking cinema as Black Maria, that is, recalling the artisanal simplicity of its origins, Syberberg also points to his own achievement. Using a small crew, with time for only one take of many long and complex shots, this technically ingenious inventor of fantasy managed to film virtually all of what he intended as he had envisaged it; and all of it is on the screen. (Perhaps only a spectacle as underbudgeted as this one—it cost $500,000—can remain wholly responsive to the intentions and improvisations of a single creator.) Out of this ascetic way of filmmaking, with its codes of deliberate naïveté, Syberberg has made a film that is both stripped-down and lush, discursive and spectacular. Syberberg provides spectacle out of his modest means by replicating and reusing the key elements as many times as possible. Having each actor play several roles, the convention inspired by Brecht, is an aspect of this aesthetics of multiple use. Many things appear at least twice in the film, once full-sized and once miniaturized—for example, a thing and its photograph; and all the Nazi notables appear played by actors and as puppets. Edison’s Black Maria, the primal film studio, is presented in four ways: as a large structure, indeed the principle item of the master set, from which actors appear and into which they disappear; as toy structures in two sizes, the tinier on a snowy landscape inside a glass globe, which can be held in an actor’s hand, shaken, ruminated upon; and in a photographic blowup of the globe. Syberberg uses multiple approaches, multiple voices. The libretto is a medley of imaginary discourse and the ipsissima verba of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Speer, and such backstage characters as Himmler’s Finnish masseur Felix Kersten and Hitler’s valet Karl- Wilhelm Krause. The complex sound track often provides two texts at once. Interspersed between and intermittently overlaid on the speeches of actors—a kind of auditory backprojection— are historical sound documents, such as snatches from speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, from wartime news broadcasts by German radio and the BBC. The stream of words also includes cultural references in the form of quotations (often left unattributed), such as Einstein on war and peace, a passage from Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto—and the whole verbal polyphony swelled by excerpts from the pantheon of German music, mostly Wagner. A passage from, say, Tristan und Isolde or the chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth is used as another kind of historical quotation which complements or comments on what is being said, simultaneously, by an actor. On the screen, a varying stock of emblematic props and images supplies more associations. Doré engravings for the Inferno and the Bible, Graff’s portrait of Frederick the Great, the signature still from Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, Runge’s Morning, Caspar David Friedrich’s The Frozen Ocean are among the visual references that appear (by a canny technique of slide projection) behind the actors. The image is constructed on the same assemblage principle as the sound track except that, while we hear many historical sound documents, Syberberg makes sparing use of visual documents from the Nazi era. Méliès in the foreground, Lumiere was very much in the background. Syberberg’s meta-spectacle virtually swallows up the photographic document: when we see the Nazi reality on film, it is as film. Behind a seated, ruminating actor (Heller) appears some private 8 and 16mm footage of Hitler—indistinct, rather unreal. Such bits of film are not used to show how anything “really” was: film clips, slides of paintings, movie stills all have the same status. Actors play in front of photographic blowups that show legendary places without people: these empty, almost abstract, oddly scaled views of Ludwig II’s Venus Grotto at Linderhof, Wagner’s villa in Bayreuth, the conference room in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, the terrace of Hitler’s villa in Berchtesgaden, the ovens at Auschwitz, are a more stylized kind of allusion. They are also a ghostly décor rather than a “real” set, with which Syberberg can play illusionist tricks reminiscent of Méliès: having the actor appear to be walking within a deepfocus photograph: ending a scene with the actor turning and vanishing into a backdrop that had appeared to be seamless. Nazism is known by allusion, through fantasy, in quotation. Quotations are both literal, like an Auschwitz survivor’s testimony, and, more commonly, fanciful crossreferences—as when the hysterical SS man recites the child murderer’s plea from Lang’s M; or Hitler, in a tirade of self-exculpation, rising in a cobwebby toga from the grave of Richard Wagner, quotes Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Like the photographic images and the props, the actors are also standins for the real. Most speech is monologue or monodrama, whether by a single actor talking directly to the camera, that is, the audience, or by actors half talking to themselves (as in the scene of Himmler and his masseur) or declaiming in a row (the rotting puppets in hell). As in a Surrealist tableau, the presence of the inanimate makes its ironic comment on the supposedly alive. Actors talk to, or on behalf of, puppets of Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, Eva Braun, Speer. Several scenes set actors among department-store mannequins, or among the life-size photographic cut-outs of legendary ghouls from the German silent cinema (Mabuse, Alraune, Caligari, Nosferatu) and of the archetypal Germans photographed by August Sander. Hitler is a recurrent multiform presence, depicted in memory, through burlesque, in historical travesty.
Quotations in the film; the film as a mosaic of stylistic quotations. To present Hitler in multiple guises and from many perspectives, Syberberg draws on disparate stylistic sources: Wagner, Méliès, Brechtian distancing techniques, homosexual baroque, puppet theater. This eclecticism is the mark of an extremely self-conscious, erudite, avid artist, whose choice of stylistic materials (blending high art and kitsch) is not as arbitrary as it might seem. Syberberg’s film is, precisely, Surrealist in its eclecticism. Surrealism is a late variant of Romantic taste, a Romanticism that assumes a broken or posthumous world. It is Romantic taste with a leaning toward pastiche. Surrealist works proceed by conventions of dismemberment and reaggregation, in the spirit of pathos and irony; these conventions include the inventory (or open-ended list); the technique of duplication by miniaturization; the hyper-development of the art of quotation. By means of these conventions, particularly the circulation and recycling of visual and aural quotations, Syberberg’s film simultaneously inhabits many places, many times—his principle device of dramatic and visual irony. His broadest irony is to mock all this complexity by presenting his meditation on Hitler as something simple: a tale told in the presence of a child. His nine-year-old daughter is the mute somnambulistic witness, crowned by loops of celluloid, who wanders through the steam-filled landscape of hell; who begins and closes each of the film’s four parts. Alice in Wonderland, the spirit of the cinema—she is surely meant as these. And Syberberg also evokes the symbolism of melancholy, identifying the child with Dürer’s Melencolia: at the film’s end she is posed inside a plump tear, gazing in front of the stars. Whatever the attributions, the image owes much to Surrealist taste. The condition of the somnambulist is a convention of Surrealist narrative. The person who moves through a Surrealist landscape is quixotic—hopeless, obsessional; and, finally, self-regarding. An emblematic image in the film, one much admired by the Surrealists, is Ledoux’s “Eye Reflecting the Interior of the Theater of Besançon” (1804). Ledoux’s eye first appears on the set as a twodimensional picture. Later it is a three-dimensional construction, an eye-as-theater in which one of the narrators (Baer) sees, projected at the rear, himself—in an earlier film by Syberberg, Ludwig—Requiem for a Virgin King, in which he played the lead. As Ledoux locates his theater in the eye, Syberberg locates his cinema inside the mind, where all associations are possible. Syberberg’s repertory of theatrical devices and images seems inconceivable without the freedoms and ironies introduced by Surrealist taste, and reflects many of its distinctive affections. Grand Guignol, puppet theater, the circus, and the films of Méliès were Surrealist passions. The taste for naïve theater and primitive cinema as well as for objects which miniaturize reality, for the art of Northern Romanticism (Dürer, Blake, Friedrich, Runge), for architecture as utopian fantasy (Ledoux) and as private delirium (Ludwig II)—the sensibility that encompasses all these is Surrealism. But there is an aspect of Surrealist taste that is alien to Syberberg—the surrender to chance, to the arbitrary; the fascination with the opaque, the meaningless, the mute. There is nothing arbitrary or aleatoric about his décor, no throw-away images, or objects without emotional weight; indeed, certain relics and images in Syberberg’s film have the force of personal talismans. Everything means, everything speaks. One mute presence, Syberberg’s child, only sets off the film’s unrelenting verbosity and intensity. Everything in the film is presented as having been already consumed by a mind. When history takes place inside the head, public and private mythologies gain equal status. Unlike the other mega-films with whose epic ambitions it might be compared—Intolerance, Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible I & II, 2001—Syberberg’s film is open to personal references as well as public ones. Public myths of evil are framed by private mythologies of innocence, developed in two earlier films, Ludwig (1972, two hours twenty minutes) and Karl May—In Search of Paradise Lost (1974, three hours), which Syberberg treats as the first two parts of a trilogy on Germany that concludes with Hitler, a Film from Germany. Wagner’s patron and victim, Ludwig II, is a recurrent figure of innocence. One of Syberberg’s talismanic images—it ends Ludwig and is reused in Hitler, a Film...—shows Ludwig as a bearded, weeping child. The image that opens the Hitler film is of Ludwig’s Winter Garden in Munich—a paradisiacal landscape of Alps, palm trees, lake, tent, gondola, which figures throughout Ludwig. Each of the three films stands on its own, but so far as they are regarded as comprising a trilogy, it is worth noting that Ludwig feeds more images to Hitler, a Film from Germany than does the second film, Karl May. Parts of Karl May, with its “real” sets and actors, come closer to the linear, mimetic dramaturgy than anything in Ludwig or in the incomparably more ambitious and profound film on Hitler. But, like all artists with a taste for pastiche, Syberberg has only a limited feeling for what is understood as realism. The pasticheur’s style is essentially a style of fantasy. Syberberg has devised a particularly German variety of spectacle: the moralized horror show. In the excruciating banalities of the valet’s narrative, in a burlesque of Chaplin’s impersonation of Hitler in The Great Dictator, in a Grand Guignol skit about Hitler’s sperm—the Devil is a familiar spirit. Hitler is even allowed to share in the pathos of miniaturization: the Hitler-puppet (dressed, undressed, reasoned with) held on a ventriloquist’s knees, the cloth dog with the Hitler-face, carried mournfully by the child. The spectacle assumes familiarity with the incidents and personages of German history and culture, the Nazi regime, World War II; alludes freely to events in the three decades since Hitler’s death. While the present is reduced to being the legacy of the past, the past is embellished with knowledge of its future. In Ludwig, this open-ended historical itinerary seems like cool (Brechtian?) irony—as when Ludwig I cites Brecht. In Hitler, a Film from Germany the irony of anachronism is weightier. Syberberg denies that the events of Nazism were part of the ordinary gait and demeanor of history. (“They said it was the end of the world,” muses one of the puppet-masters. “And it was.”) His film takes Nazism at its (Hitler’s, Goebbels’) word, as a venture in apocalypse, as a cosmology of a New Ice Age, in other words as an eschatology of evil; and itself takes place at a kind of end-of-time, a Messianic time (to use Benjamin’s term) which imposes the duty of trying to do justice to the dead. Hence, the long solemn roll call of the accomplices of Nazism (“Those whom we must not forget”), then of some exemplary victims—one of several points at which the films seems to end. Syberberg has cast his film in the first person: as the action of one artist assuming the German duty to confront fully the horror of Nazism. Like many German intellectuals of the past, Syberberg treats his Germaness as a moral vocation and regards Germany as the cockpit of European conflicts. (“The twentieth century…a film from Germany,” says one of the ruminators.) Syberberg was born in 1935 in what was to become East Germany and left in 1953 for West Germany, where he has lived ever since; but the true provenance of his film is the extraterritorial Germany of the spirit whose first great citizen was that self-styled romantique défroqué Heine, and whose last great citizen was Thomas Mann. “To be the spiritual battlefield of European antagonisms—that’s what it means to be German,” Mann declared in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, written during World War I, sentiments that had not changed when he wrote Doctor Faustus as an old man in exile in the late 1940s. Syberberg’s view of Nazism as the explosion of the German demonic recalls Mann, as does his unfashionable insistence on Germany’s collective guilt (the theme of “Hitler-in-us”). The narrators’ repeated challenge, “Who would Hitler be without us?”, also echoes Mann, who wrote an essay in 1939 called “Brother Hitler” in which he argues that “the whole thing is a distorted phase of Wagnerism.” Like Mann, Syberberg regards Nazism as the grotesque fulfillment—and betrayal—of German Romanticism. It may seem odd that Syberberg, who was a child during the Nazi era, shares so many themes with someone so ancien-régime. But there is much that is old-fashioned about Syberberg’s sensibility (one consequence, perhaps, of being educated in a Communist country)—including the vividness with which he identifies with that Germany whose greatest citizens have gone into exile. Although it draws on innumerable versions and impressions of Hitler, the film offers very few ideas about Hitler. For the most part, they are the theses formulated in the ruins: 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 Horkheimer in The Eclipse of Reason, that Auschwitz was the logical culmination of Western progress. Starting in the 1950s, when the ruins of Europe were rebuilt, more complex theses—political, sociological, economic—prevailed about Nazism. (Horkheimer eventually repudiated his argument of 1946.) 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 proposes 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 filiations: 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 the 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. It could also be argued that Syberberg has unduly simplified his moralist’s task by the extent to which, like Mann, he identifies the inner history of Germany with the history of Romanticism. Syberberg’s notion of history as catastrophe recalls the long German tradition of regarding history eschatologically, 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.”
The devil story that Mann devised to sum up the Nazis demonic was narrated by someone who does not understand. Thereby Mann suggested that evil so absolute may be, finally, beyond comprehension or the grasp of art. But the obtuseness of the narrator of Doctor Faustus is too much insisted on. Mann’s irony backfires: Serenus Zeitblom’s fatuous modesty of understanding seems like Mann’s confession of inadequacy, his inability to give full voice to grief. Syberberg’s film about the devil, though sheathed in ironies, affirms our ability to understand and our obligation to grieve. Dedicated, as it were, to grief, the film begins and ends with Heine’s lacerating words: “I think of Germany in the night and sleep leaves me, I can no longer close my eyes, I weep hot tears.” Grief is the burden of the calm, rueful, musical soliloquies of Baer and Heller; neither reciting nor declaiming, they are simply speaking out, and listening to these grave, intelligent voices seething with grief is itself a civilizing experience. The film carries without any condescension a vast legacy of information about the Nazi period. But information is assumed. The film is not designed to meet a standard of information but claims to address a (hypothetical) therapeutic ideal. Syberberg repeatedly says that his film is addressed to the German “inability to mourn,” that it undertakes “the work of the mourning” (Trauerarbeit). These phrases recall the famous essay Freud wrote during World War I, “Mourning and Melancholia,” which connects melancholy and the inability to work through grief; and the application of this formula in an influential psychoanalytic study of postwar Germany by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn, published in Germany in 1967, which diagnoses the Germans as afflicted by mass melancholia, the result of the continuing denial of their collective responsibility for the Nazi past and their persistent refusal to mourn. Syberberg has appropriated the well-known Mitscherlich thesis (without ever mentioning their book), but one might doubt that his film was inspired by it. It seems more likely that Syberberg found in the notion of Trauerarbeit a psychological and moral justification for his aesthetics of repetition and recycling. It takes time—and much hyperbole—to work through grief. So far as the film can be considered as an act of mourning, what is interesting is that it is conducted in the style of mourning—by exaggeration, repetition. It provides an overflow of information: the method of saturation. Syberberg is an artist of excess, thought is a kind of excess, the surplus production of ruminations, images, associations, emotions connected with, evoked by, Hitler. Hence the film’s length, its circular arguments, its several beginnings, its four or five endings, its many titles, its plurality of styles, its vertiginous shifts of perspective on Hitler, from below or beyond. The most wonderful shift occurs in Part II, when the valet’s forty-minute monologue with its mesmerizing trivia about Hitler’s taste in underwear and shaving cream and breakfast food is followed by Heller’s musings on the unreality of the idea of the galaxies. (It is the verbal equivalent of the cut in 2001 from the bone thrown in the air by a primate to the space ship—surely the most spectacular cut in the history of cinema.) Syberberg’s idea is to exhaust, to empty his subject. Syberberg measures his ambitions by the standards of Wagner, although living up to the legendary attributes of a German genius is no easy task in the consumer society of the Federal Republic. He considers that Hitler, a Film from Germany is not just a film, as Wagner did not want the Ring and Parsifal to be considered operas or to be part of the normal repertory of opera houses. Its defiant, seductive length, which prevents the film from being distributed conventionally, is very Wagnerian, as is Syberberg’s reluctance (until recently) to let it be shown except in special circumstances, encouraging seriousness. Also, Wagnerian are Syberberg’s ideals of exhaustiveness and profundity; his sense of mission; his belief in art as a radical act; his taste for scandal; his polemical energies (he is incapable of writing an essay that is not a manifesto); his taste for the grandiose. Grandiosity is, precisely, Syberberg’s great subject. The protagonists of his trilogy about Germany—Ludwig II, Karl May, Hitler—are all megalomaniacs, liars, reckless dreamers, virtuosi of the grandiose. (Very different sorts of documentaries Syberberg made for German television between 1967 and 1975 also express his fascination with the self-assured and self obsessed: Die Grafen Pocci, about an aristocratic German family; portraits of German film stars; and the five-hour interviewfilm on Wagner’s daughter-in-law and Hitler’s friend, The Confessions of Winifred Wagner.)
Syberberg is a great Wagnerian, the greatest since Thomas Mann, but his attitude to Wagner and the treasures of German Romanticism is not only pious. It contains more than a bit of malice, the touch of the cultural vandal. To evoke the grandeur and the failure of Wagnerism, Hitler, a Film from Germany, uses, recycles, parodies elements of Wagner. Syberberg means his film to be an anti-Parsifal, and hostility to Wagner one of its leitmotifs: the spiritual filiations of Wagner and Hitler. The whole film could be considered a profaning of Wagner, undertaken with a full sense of the gesture’s ambiguity, for Syberberg is attempting to be both inside and outside his own deepest sources as an artist. (The graves of Wagner and Cosima behind Villa Wahnfried recur as an image; and one scene satirizes that most ineffectual of profanations, when black American GIs jitterbugged on the graves after the war.) For it is from Wagner that Syberberg’s film gets its biggest boost—its immediate intrinsic claim on the sublime. As the film opens, we hear the beginning of the prelude to Parsifal and see the word GRAIL in fractured blocky letters. Syberberg claims that his aesthetic is Wagnerian, that is, musical. But it might be more correct to say that his film is a mimetic relation to Wagner, and in part a parasitic one—as Ulysses is in a parasitic relation to the history of English literature. Syberberg takes very literally, more literally than Eisenstein ever did, the promise of film as a synthesis of the plastic arts, music, literature, and theater—the modern fulfillment of Wagner’s idea of the total work of art. (It has often been said that Wagner, had he lived in the twentieth century, would have been a filmmaker.) But the modern Gesamtkunstwerk tends to be an aggregation of seemingly disparate elements instead of a synthesis. For Syberberg there is always something more, and different, to say—as the two films on Ludwig he made in 1972 attest. Ludwig—Requiem for a Virgin King, which became the first film in his trilogy about Germany, pays delirious homage to the ironic theatricality and overripe pathos of such filmmakers as Cocteau, Carmelo Bene, and Werner Schroeter. Theodor Hirneis, the other film, is an austere Brechtian melodrama of ninety minutes with Ludwig’s cook as its one character—it anticipates the valet’s narrative in Hitler, a Film from Germany—and was inspired by Brecht’s unfinished novel on the life of Julius Caesar narrated by his slave. Syberberg considers that he began as a disciple of Brecht, and in 1952 and 1953 filmed several of Brecht’s productions in East Berlin. According to Syberberg, his work comes from “the duality Brecht/Wagner”; that is the “aesthetic scandal” he claims to have “sought.” In interviews he invariably cites both as his artistic fathers, partly (it may be supposed) to neutralize the politics of one by the politics of the other and place himself beyond issues of left and right; partly to appear more evenhanded than he is. But he is inevitably more of a Wagnerian than a Brechtian, because of the way the inclusive Wagnerian aesthetic accommodates contraries of feeling (including ethical feeling and political bias). Baudelaire heard in Wagner’s music “the ultimate scream of a soul driven to its utmost limits,” while Nietzsche, even after giving up on Wagner, still praised him as a great “miniaturist” and “our greatest melancholic in music”—and both were right. Wagner’s contraries reappear in Syberberg: the radical democrat and the right-wing elitist, the aesthete and the moralist, rant and rue. Syberberg’s polemical genealogy, Brecht/Wagner, obscures other influences on the film; in particular, what he owes to Surrealist ironiesnd images. But even the role of Wagner seems a more complex affair than Syberberg’s enthrallment with the art and life of Wagner would indicate. Apart from the Wagner that Syberberg has appropriated, one is tempted to say expropriated this Wagnerianism is, properly, an attenuated affair—a fascinatingly belated example of that kind of art which grew out of the Wagnerian aesthetic: Symbolism. (Both Symbolism and Surrealism could be considered as late developments of the Romantic sensibility.) Symbolism was the Wagnerian aesthetic turned into a procedure of creation for all the arts; further subjectivized, pulled toward abstraction. What Wagner wanted was an ideal theater, a theater of maximal emotions purged of distractions and irrelevancies. Thus Wagner chose to conceal the orchestra of Bayreuth Festspielhaus under a black wooden shell, and once quipped that, having invented the invisible orchestra, he wished he could invent the invisible stage. The Symbolists found the invisible stage. Events were to be withdrawn from reality, so to speak, and restaged in the ideal theater of the mind.* And Wagner’s fantasy of the invisible stage was fulfilled more literally in that immaterial stage, cinema. Syberberg’s film is magistralrendering of the Symbolist potentialities of cinema and probably the most ambitious Symbolist work of this century. He construes cinema as a kind of ideal mental activity, being both sensuous and reflective, which takes up where reality leaves off: cinema not as the fabrication of reality but as “a continuation of reality by other means.” In Syberberg’s meditation on history in a sound studio, events are visualized (with the aid of Surrealist conventions) while remaining in a deeper sense invisible (the Symbolist idea). But because it lacks the stylistic homogeneity that was typical of Symbolist works, Hitler, a Film from Germany has a vigor that Symbolists would forgo as vulgar. Its impurities rescue the film from what was most rarefied about Symbolism without making its reach any less indeterminate and comprehensive. The Symbolist artist is above all a mind, a creator-mind that (distilling the Wagnerian grandiosity and intensity) sees everything, that is able to permeate its subject; and eclipses it. Syberberg’s meditation on Hitler has the customary overbearingness of this mind, and the characteristic porousness of the overextended Symbolist mental structures: softedge arguments that begin “I think of…,” verbless sentences that evoke rather than explain. Conclusions are everywhere but nothing concludes.
(*“Instead of trying to produce the largest possible reality outside himself,” Jacques Rivière has written, the Symbolist artist “tries to consume as much as possible within himself . . . . he offers his mind as a kind of ideal theater where [events] can be acted out without becoming visible.” Rivière’s essay on Symbolism, “Le Roman d’Aventure” (1913), is the best account of it I know.)
All the parts of a Symbolist narrative are simultaneous; that is, all coexist simultanteously in this superior, overbearing mind. The function of this mind is not to tell a story (at the start the story is behind it as Rivière pointed out) but to confer meaning in unlimited amounts. Actions, figures, individual bias of décor can have, ideally do have, multiple meanings—for example, the charge of meanings Syberberg attaches to the figure of the child. He appears to be seeking, from a more subjective standpoint, what Eisenstein prescribes with his theory of “overtonal montage.” (Eisenstein, who saw himself in the tradition of Wagner and the Gesamtkunstwerk and in his writings quotes copiously from the French Symbolists, was the greatest exponent of Symbolist aesthetics in cinema.) The film overflows with meanings of varying accessibility, and there are further meanings from relics and talismans on the set which the audience can’t possibly know about.* (*For example, on Baer’s table Syberberg put a piece of wood from Ludwig’s Hundinghütte, the playhouse at Linderhof (it burned down in 1945) inspired by the designs for Act I of Die Walküre in the first two productions; elsewhere on the set are a stone from Bayreuth, a relic from Hitler’s villa at Berchtesgaden, and other treasures. In one instance, talismans were furnished by the actor: Syberberg asked Heller to bring some objects that were precious to him, and Heller’s photograph of Joseph Roth and a small Buddha can just be made out (if one knows they’re there) on his table while he delivers the cosmos monologue at the end of Part II and the long monologue of Part IV.)
The Symbolist artist is not primarily interested in exposition, explanation, communication. It seems fitting that Syberberg’s dramaturgy consists in talk addressed to those who cannot talk back: to the dead (one can put words in their mouths) and to one’s own daughter (who has no lines). The Symbolist narrative is always a posthumous affair; its subject is precisely something that is assumed. Hence, Symbolist art is characteristically dense, difficult. Syberberg is appealing (intermittently) to another process of knowing, as is indicated by one of the film’s principal emblems, Ledoux’s ideal theater in the form of an eye—the Masonic eye; the eye of intelligence, of esoteric knowledge. But Syberberg wants passionately wants his film to be understood; and in some parts it is overexplicit as in other parts it is encoded. The Symbolist relation of a mind to its subject is consummated when the subject is vanquished, undone, used up. Thus Syberberg’s grandest conceit is that with his film he may have “defeated” Hitler—exorcised him. This splendidly outrageous hyperbole caps Syberberg’s profound understanding of Hitler as an image. (If from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Hitler, then why not from Hitler to Hitler, a film from Germany? The end.) It also follows from Syberberg’s Romantic views of the sovereignty of the imagination, and his flirtation with esoteric ideas of knowing, with notions of art as magic or spiritual alchemy, and of the imagination as a purveyor of the powers of blackness. Heller’s monologue in Part IV leads toward a roll call of myths that can be regarded as metaphors for the esoteric powers of cinema—starting with Edison’s Black Maria (“the black studio of our imagination”); evoking black stones (of the Kaaba, of Dürer’s Melencolia—the presiding image of the film’s complex iconography); and ending with a modern image: cinema as the imagination’s black hole. Like a black hole, or our fantasy about it, cinema collapses space and time. The image perfectly describes the excruciating fluency of Syberberg’s film: its insistence on occupying different spaces and times simultaneously. It seems apt that Syberberg’s private mythology of subjective cinema concludes with an image drawn from science fiction. A subjective cinema of these ambitions and moral energy logically mutates into science fiction. Thus Syberberg’s film begins with the stars and ends, like 2001, with the stars and a star-child. Evoking Hitler by means of myth and travesty, fairy tales and science fiction, Syberberg conducts his own rites of deconsecration: the Grail has been destroyed (Syberberg’s anti-Parsifal opens and closes with the word GRAIL—the films true title); it is no longer permissible to dream of redemption. Syberberg defends his mythologizing of history as a skeptic’s enterprise: myth as “the mother of irony and pathos,” not myths which stimulate new systems of belief. But someone who believes that Hitler was Germany’s “fate” is hardly a skeptic. Syberberg is the sort of artist who wants to have it both—all—ways. The method of his film is contradiction, irony. And, exercising his ingenious talent for naïveté, he also claims to transcend this complexity. He relishes notions of innocence and pathos—the traditions of Romantic idealism; some nonsense around the figure of a child (his daughter, the infant in Runge’s Morning, Ludwig as a bearded, weeping child); dreams of an ideal world purified of its complexity and mediocrity.
The earlier parts of Syberberg’s trilogy are elegiac portraits of lastditch dreamers of paradise: Ludwig II, who built castles which were stage sets and paid for Wagner’s dream factory at Bayreuth; Karl May, who romanticized American Indians, Arabs, and other exotics in his immensely popular novels, the most famous of which, Winnetou, chronicles the destruction of beauty and bravery by the coming of modern technological civilization. Ludwig and Karl May attract Syberberg as gallant, doomed practitioners of the Great Refusal, the refusal of modern industrial civilization. What Syberberg loathes most, such as pornography and the commercialization of culture, he identifies with the modern. (In this stance of utter superiority to the modern, Syberberg recalls the author of Art and Crisis, Hans Sedlmayr, with whom he studied art history at the University of Munich in the fifties.) The film is a work of mourning for the modern and what precedes it, and opposes it. If Hitler is also a “utopian,”as Syberberg calls him, then Syberberg is condemned to be a post-utopian, a utopian who acknowledges that utopian feelings have been hopelessly defiled. Syberberg does not believe in a “new human being”—that perennial theme of cultural revolution on both the left and the right. For all his attraction to the credo of romantic genius, what he really believes in is Goethe and a thorough Gymnasium education.
Of course, one can find the usual contradictions in Syberberg’s film—the poetry of utopia, the futility of utopia; rationalism and magic. And that only confirms what kind of film Hitler, a film from Germany really is. Science fiction is precisely the genre which dramatizes the mix of nostalgia for utopia with dystopian fantasies and dream; the dual conviction that the world is ending and that it is on the verge of a new beginning. Syberberg’s film about history is also a moral and cultural science fiction. Starship Goethe-Haus.
Syberberg manages to perpetuate in a melancholy, attenuated form something of Wagner’s notions of art as therapy, as redemption, and as catharsis. He calls cinema “the most beautiful compensation” for the ravages of modern history; a kind of “ redemption” to “our senses, oppressed by progress.” That art does in sorts redeem reality, by being better than reality—that is the ultimate Symoblist belief. Syberberg makes of cinema the last, most inclusive, most ghostly paradise. It is a view that reminds one of Godard. Syberberg’s cinephilia is another part of the immense pathos of his film; perhaps its only involuntary pathos. For whatever Syberberg says, cinema is now another lost paradise. In the era of cinema’s unprecedented mediocrity, his masterpiece has something of the character of a posthumous event.
Spurning naturalism, the Romantics developed a melancholic style: intensely personal, the outreach of its tortured “I,” centered on the agon of the artist and society. Mann gave the last profound expression to this romantic notion of the self ’s dilemma. Post-Romantics like Syberberg work in an impersonal melancholic style. What is central now is the relation between memory and the past: the clash between the possibility of remembering, of going on, and the lure of oblivion. Beckett gives one ahistorical version of this agon. Another version, obsessed with history, is Syberberg’s.
To understand the past, and thereby to exorcise it, is Syberberg’s largest moral ambition. His problem is that he cannot give anything up. So large is his subject—and everything Syberberg does makes it even larger—that he has to take many positions beyond it. One can find almost anything in Syberberg’s passionately voluble film (short of a Marxist analysis or a shred of feminist awareness). Though he tries to be silent (the child, the stars), he can’t stop talking; he’s so immensely ardent, avid. As the film is ending, Syberberg wants to produce yet another ravishing image. Even when the film is finally over, he still wants to say more and adds postscripts: the Heine epigraph, the citation of Mogadishu-Stammheim, a final oracular Syberberg-sentence, one last evocation of the Grail. The film is itself the creation of a world, from which (one feels) its creator has the greatest difficulty in extricating himself—as does the admiring spectator; this exercise in the art of empathy produces a voluptuous anguish, an anxiety about concluding. Lost in the black hole of the imagination, the filmmaker has to make everything pass before him; identifies with each, and none.
Benjamin suggests that melancholy is the origin of true—that is, just— historical understanding. The true understanding of history, he said in the last text he wrote, is “a process of empathy whose origin is indolence of the heart, acedia.” Syberberg shares something of Benjamin’s positive, instrumental view of melancholy, and uses symbols of melancholy to punctuate his film. But Syberberg does not have the ambivalence, the slowness, the complexity, the tension of the Saturnian temperament. Syberberg is not a true melancholic but an exalté. But he uses the distinctive tools of the melancholic—the allegorical props, the talismans, the secret self-references; and with his irrepressible talent for indignation and enthusiasm, he is doing “the work of mourning.” The word first appears at the end of the film he made on Winifred Wagner in 1975, where we read: “This film is part of Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s Trauerarbeit.” What we see is Syberberg smiling.
Syberberg is a genuine elegiast. 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; in contrast to Godard’s off-camera musings, the musings of Syberberg’s personae (Heller and Baer) teem with calm assurance. Syberberg, whose temperament seems the opposite of Godard’s, has a supreme confidence in language, in discourse, in eloquence itself. The film tries to say everything. Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, Céline, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on. Beckett wouldbelong to this race, too, were it not for some inhibitory force—sanity? elegance? good manners? less energy? deeper despair? So might Godard, were it not for the doubts he evidences about speaking, and the inhibition of feeling (both of sympathy and repulsion) that results from this sense of the impotence of speaking. Syberberg has managed to stay free of the standard doubts—doubts whose main function, now, seems to be to inhibit. The result is a film altogether exceptional in its emotional expressiveness, its great visual beauty, its sincerity, its moral passion, its concern with contemplative values.
The film tries to be everything. Syberberg’s unprecedented ambition in Hitler, a Film from Germany is on another scale from 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. (Great art in the mode of pastiche invariably rewards study, as Joyce affirmed by daring to observe that the ideal reader of his work would be someone who could devote his life to it.) Syberberg’s film belongs in the category of noble masterpieces 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.