The Big Show

David Blackbourn

While Syberberg was making this film, over three thousand West German schoolchildren were asked to write an essay on the subject ‘What I have heard about Adolf Hitler’. The wording was not intended to elicit a prepared answer, but to trawl the everyday fragments and commonplaces gleaned by the children from parents and neighbours. The results prompted widespread hand-wringing in the serious press. Hitler’s birth was variously placed between the 16th century and 1933, his nationality given as Swiss, Dutch and Italian, his politics as Communist and Christian Democratic. Alongside sharp and telling detail (‘No more bicycle thefts’) came involuntary testimony to thoughts which had been put out of mind: the Jews had ‘had their ears boxed’; some had been killed (‘many hundreds’, ‘several thousand’), but they had asked for it, and anyway the Germans were not the only ones. Unacknowledged guilt perhaps explains why Hellmut Diwald’s reassuringly apologetic Geschichte der Deutschen was a recent best-seller. It certainly reinforces the moral imperative behind this film and explains some of Syberberg’s lyrical intensity. Mad Germany has hurt him into poetry, as it did Heine, quoted at the beginning and the end of the film. Syberberg wants to confront Germans with their collective responsibility for Hitler, conceiving his art as a ‘work of mourning’. As Susan Sontag notes in her introduction to this book of the film, he is close to the position of Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich, who argued in The Inability to Mourn that the Germans remain the victims of a collective melancholia which follows from their refusal to accept and work through the grief of their own recent history.

This is normally dubbed coming to terms with the German past. It is anything but straightforward and brings its own snares. The Third Reich is chic. We have recently had a Hitler boom, works which peddle sex in the concentration camp and orgies in the bunker. Syberberg is not alone in his contempt for this. Less obviously pernicious, but arguably no more helpful, is a long-standing form of ritual German self-abasement which ends by implying the opposite of what it states: qui s’accuse s’excuse. Hans-Magnus Enzenberger has written eloquently on this. At a higher level of moral and academic ambition, tough-minded analysis of the Third Reich readily generates its own apologetics. Isolating ‘bad’ Germans exonerates the ‘good’. Talk about capitalism can mean silence on Hitler’s popular support, talk about the revolt of the masses can mean silence on capitalism. Interpretations centred on Nihilism, Totalitarianism or simply on Hitlerism have all found their critics. And so on. Recent acrimonious debates among German historians demonstrate how quickly charges of apologism and ‘trivialisation’ can be touched off. This is a game for any number of players and shows no sign of losing its appeal.

History and civics can never be innocent or unproblematic – as Syberberg would agree. But what does he offer in his turn? He has certainly courted universal hostility with this gigantic and provocative dream-poem. Syberberg has deployed the aesthetics of excess to come to terms with the excesses of the Third Reich, and the result is easy to dislike. This seven-hour extravaganza is hyperbolic, repetitious, wilful, verbose; and it offers a wearying cornucopia of styles, images, allusions and quotations. Sontag notes Syberberg’s reluctance to give anything up, his desire to suck everything out of his subject and leave it empty. It is an ambition he indulges deliberately and confidently; and that certainly lends the film a unity which, given its length, is remarkable. Syberberg nevertheless risks exhausting his public along with his theme. Even in draughty cinema clubs, many of those exposed to this total work of art will be tempted to nod off at some point between the papier-mâché penises and the Ice Cosmologist’s monologue. The publishers talk of a ‘monumental discourse and a necessary act of reflection on Hitler and the Third Reich’: the unkind will see incontinent rumination. Syberberg is the thinking man’s Ken Russell. Yet his rich and ambiguous images do penetrate the mind rather than simply blasting the surface of it. The latest Reith lecturer would applaud the mystery at the heart of the work. And it is surely the difficulty of reducing it to an obvious content that so recommends the work to Sontag. Syberberg resists programmatic readings of the kind she anathematised in Against Interpretation. What he demands is criticism which takes both the form and the content of the work seriously.

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