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.

Syberberg eschews a naturalistic or documentary style of presentation. There may be more hard facts than soft focuses in the film, but the facts are woven into images from which they are inseparable. They would not be much help in passing an exam in history or civics. In a work as full of conceit as it is of conceits, Syberberg shows an Olympian contempt for predecessors such as Erwin Leiser and Joachim Fest who have addressed the same subject through a documentary mode. It is implied that they are merely part of the grubby Hitler industry – ‘our Disneyland’. Instead we are presented with a film spectacle in which the Third Reich itself is conceived as ‘the big show’. There is no pretence at surface realism: Syberberg has set a myth to catch a myth. His Hitler is protean, constantly reworked and recycled through the film, reappearing in different forms and from different angles. We see the private Hitler through the long monologue of his valet, the public Hitler through speeches by Goebbels and other members of the entourage – these played non-naturalistically by actors. This is intercut with news broadcasts, with backdrop projections of buildings, paintings and other films, and with an array of symbolic props; the major dramatis personae of the Third Reich appear as puppets. Fictitious characters like Hitler’s film projectionist (‘SS-man Ellerkamp’) and the Cosmologist (a Strangelove figure set in a Caspar David Friedrich icescape) add to the richness of the texture while reinforcing the central ideal that what we are seeing is no more than a film about a film. Hitler, muses Ellerkamp, was ‘the greatest film-maker of all time’. Two principal narrators, Harry Baer and André Heller, bind these elements together. They introduce, reflect, bear witness and soliloquise.

In Fest’s case the book preceded the film: here the film preceded the book. More important, however, is the different way the balance has been struck in the two films between distance and identification on the part of the audience. Fest’s naturalistic biography/biopic of Hitler invites unwitting identification, even while its authorial voice/voice-over exhorts moral distance. We can hardly avoid a tacit complicity as we follow the unfolding life – Fest called his film Hitler: A Career. This is the naturalist mode, life imitating Buddenbrooks, with speculation about illegitimate origins and dog-stroking interludes with Eva at Berchtesgaden offering a variant on the family chronicle. Syberberg compels a quite different mixture of distance and identification. At one level he wants to disabuse us entirely of the idea that we are seeing ‘how it really happened’, in some finite, Rankean sense. Grand Guignol and the piling up of surreal signs and symbols work very clearly in this direction. And we understand his point that mythic extravagance is appropriate to the extravagance of the myth. Parallels with some of Heinrich Mann’s black comedies, with the use of fable and grotesquerie in The Tin Drum, perhaps with Marquez, come to mind. Syberberg uses Brechtian techniques of alienation (placards, back-projection, narrative monologue) to achieve the same distancing effect.

But he does not only wish to hold up the myth at a distance and ask us to reflect on it – although he certainly achieves that. He also wants his audience to step inside the myth and participate. Syberberg records in his introductory notes: ‘I sought an aesthetic scandal: combining Brechtian doctrines of epic theatre with Richard Wagner’s musical aesthetics, cinematically conjoining the epic system as anti-Aristotelian cinema with the laws of a new myth.’ The second part of this slightly opaque programme is as important as the first. Where Brecht went wrong – that modest touch again – was in harnessing the possibilities of epic theatre to mere didacticism. For Syberberg, we can exorcise irrational myths only with irrationalism itself. The malevolence of German history can only be dispelled by recovering its sources and trying to turn their potency to benign ends. Like any good white magician, Syberberg insists that rationalist denials of evil can only end in specious evasion. Hence his bold use of Wagner throughout, not so much to point a historical lesson as to invade and numb the senses. We are encouraged to let ourselves become intoxicated by the music, rather as we might turn to the hair of the dog the morning after (Wagnerholics will doubtless appreciate the point). The motif of the child is partly a symbol of culpable historical innocence, but also an injunction that we must ‘ultimately bring ourselves to a dreadfully simple, almost childish naivety, if that is still possible, on the basis of our memories of ourselves’. If the film seems dream-like, that is perhaps because one of Syberberg’s intentions was to present it as a nightmare – but one from which, once we have admitted and felt its terrors, we can be released.

There are obvious objections to this therapeutic cult of the irrational, and Syberberg anticipates some of them – the risk involved in portraying ‘the beauty of evil’, for instance, the danger of ‘heroising’ his black magicians. He is careful to extol and to use the tools of irony. But he suggests that irony and doubt have their limits. With passionate seriousness he stresses the importance of courage (another hostage to fortune, that word), challenging viewers and reviewers alike to put their hands in the fire as he has done, to grapple with a personal Faust. Nowhere is this clearer than in the constant reminders about ‘our Hitler’, ‘the Hitler within us’. The Hitler beneath the skin is to be exorcised by stepping into Hitler’s skin. A chilling example of this occurs when Hitler speaks from beyond the grave, passing judgment on his own legacy and pronouncing it good. Syberberg does not only suggest historical continuities we would rather suppress: this is also a point where the Faust legend seems exceptionally potent.

But there is another problem here. Thomas Mann, preparing Doctor Faustus, warned of the danger of creating ‘a new German myth, flattering the Germans with their own “demonism”’. Syberberg might be thought to have fallen into this trap, especially when he refers to the Germans as a ‘Satanic people’. Flattering Faust is only one manifestation of a more general problem: that of exaggerating the fateful uniqueness of the German mind. Ostensibly at least, Syberberg merely reinforces a misleading stereotype of the Third Reich when he ties it to the symbols of German cultural peculiarity. We have passed this way before. A string of guides have issued us with their confident directions about the straight road that runs from Barbarossa to Hitler, via Luther, Romanticism, Wagner, Nietzsche and Caligari. The case against the German mind, its errors and omissions, represents one of the most common mega-explanations of the German Catastrophe. We are familiar with the indictment: the rejection of the Enlightenment and Western rationalism, the tormented relationship to nature, the cultivation of inwardness, the preference for ‘spiritual’ music over the ‘prosaic’ novel, the yearning for the organic rather than the mechanical society. The list of supposedly fateful German peculiarities could be endlessly catalogued and often has been. The problems with this loose kind of Nazi pedigree-hunting are also familiar. It is not only that German singularity is exaggerated. Figures are also ripped out of context and intellectual movements conflated; scant regard is paid to problems of the reception of ideas; and what does not fit in is left out (the infatuation with the mechanical and technological?).

In fact, Syberberg offers an advance on this sterility in two respects. In the first place, he most effectively conjures up the vulgarised Romanticism which arguably provided the deeper cultural roots of National Socialism, manifested in the film by Karl May, the Gartenlaube (‘The Arbour’), sentimentality towards animals and kitsch in general. Syberberg evokes, through its detritus, a philistine, petit-bourgeois milieu with its painful combination of cloying provincialism and latently brutal intolerance. Embodied in a Hitler or Himmler, we have what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’. That, not the brooding genius of Wagner or the Superman, is the real problem of the German mind. And it raises both moral and artistic problems. How do we bring, say, the VW beetle (tellingly affectionate name) and the funny costumes into the same picture as the terror and the six million? How hold simultaneously in our minds the triviality and the world-historical flatulence of Nazism? As historians increasingly look at the everyday life of the Third Reich, their opponents insist that we should focus on the big facts, the central evil. That is understandable, but misses the point: we need to see the conjunction of the evil and the banal. That is one of Syberberg’s major achievements, in the conversations between Himmler and his masseur and astrologer, or in the cut from Hitler’s complaints about his socks falling down to musings on the cosmos.

Second, and potentially (although creatively) at odds with this, Syberberg has done much to rescue the main line of German Romanticism from the tyranny of hindsight. Whatever one’s judgment on his advocacy of therapeutic irrationalism, he is surely right to try and redeem Novalis, the Grimms, Runge from the pedigree-hunters: ‘Give everything to Hitler and Goebbels? And is Caspar David Friedrich right-wing and a fascist?’ In a moving lament in the final part of the film. André Heller indicts Hitler for soiling and corrupting such works, as well as concepts like Heimat. He completes the charge with an attack on the soulless cities, fast food and road movies for which Hitler and defeat paved the way. We are uncomfortably reminded (and are meant to be) of Hitler’s own attacks on arid materialism and the concrete jungle. But we are also reminded that hostility to Mammon and the machine is, at the least, politically ambiguous – even in Germany. Perhaps the utopian writings of Mühsam and Toller, no less than those of the Frankfurt School, should have taught us that lesson already. Certainly the advent of Green politics drives the lesson home in a new way, however we may view the choice (if it is a choice) between fast food and the Greening of Germany.

For all his grasp of cultural mentalities and artefacts, Syberberg himself is the epitome of the Unpolitical German. We see this clearly in the way he uses, and fails to use, the allusive possibilities of those puppets with which he litters his sets. When German literary critics hear the word ‘puppet’, they reach for their Kleist. On the Marionette Theatre offers a symbol of fallen man aspiring to a grace and completeness embodied in the puppet. The power of the story resonates through subsequent literature: it can be seen in the dolls and acrobats of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and it is the same story which fires Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn. Indirectly through the Faust legend, and ironically through Syberberg’s graceless and tarnished puppets, this metaphor of the marionette has a place in the present work. But there is another important associative layer which Syberberg disregards. When German historians hear the word ‘puppet’, they reach for their Marx. Marxist discourse has enormously enriched our political understanding by deploying the vocabulary of drama, the stage and roles: more specifically, it has given us Hitler as the puppet of German capitalism. Syberberg explicitly rejects the idea that this can tell us anything. It is admittedly difficult to feel enthusiastic about the woodenly manipulative theories of the Third International. But other Marxist approaches have done much to illuminate the rituals and forms as well as the functions of German fascism, deepening our understanding of what Walter Benjamin called the aestheticisation of politics. If this is one stage Syberberg chooses to leave bare, that can hardly be because he finds it impossible to represent artistically. He does, after all, have a narrator talk us through Max Weber’s three pure types of domination. Syberberg addresses the role-playing of Hitler and his entourage through Freud, but not through Marx. His puppets remain correspondingly less expressive. Syberberg is altogether shakier on the drama of politics than on the drama of the soul. The Sieg Heils which punctuate the film are a rather hackneyed shorthand for mass politics, and in the depiction of Hitler as the man with the staring eyes (‘Two glowing eye-stars, fulminating’) inventiveness yields to a routinely misleading image of the Führer as snake-charmer.

Syberberg has made a film for Germany. But, as the title announces, it is also a film from Germany, for the rest of us. It is true that the depiction of Hitler’s universal legacy suffers from Syberberg’s compulsion to include everything; and it also carries the burden of his tendency to free-associate wildly on political matters. The legacy in the USSR, the PLO, Israel, South Africa – why not include them all, along with Hollywood, commissars, property-developers and German road movies? This is a little like watching Norman Mailer define any residual meaning out of totalitarianism by cataloguing his personal dislikes. The moral vision nevertheless has force and integrity. And the film does turn the trick of showing Hitler’s Germany as a metaphor of our times. If Paris was the capital of the 19th century, Germany here is the ‘tragic land’ of the 20th.

Since 1945, of course, through the inexhaustible cunning of reason, both West and East Germany have come to stand as exemplars in a rather different sense – as models for economic miracle and socialist economic miracle respectively. Brought up in one German state and resident in the other, Syberberg has harsh words on Hitler’s legacy in each. No one could reasonably fail to disagree with at least half of what he has to say. But if coming to terms with the German past means coming to terms with the German present, then it is worthwhile also coming to terms with Syberberg’s Hitler.