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‘The Architecture of Doom’ (NR)

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 24, 1992

Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's chief architect, preserved a quotation of Goethe's in his files: "Beauty arose regardless of its utility and of the damage which it could cause." Peter Cohen's film "The Architecture of Doom" is a brilliant two-hour documentation of the direct if paradoxical connection between "beauty" and evil in Hitler's Third Reich. The evil, of course, far surpassed mere damage.

Cohen, an award-winning filmmaker born in Sweden of parents who fled from Nazi Germany and Austria, believes that the National Socialist horror can be comprehended as a pervasive manifestation of a perverse aesthetic doctrine: to make the world beautiful by doing violence to it. This provocative thesis, systematically explored, gives compelling pace to the film.

Using archival footage and documents, familiar and unfamiliar, Cohen marshals his arguments and his evidence masterfully. He traces Hitler's failed career as an artist (and shows us his modest artistic attainments); he links this with the artistic aspirations of other high Nazis; he demonstrates the connection between the Fuehrer's fascination with Wagner and the spectacular Nazi ceremonies, and between Hitler's personal taste in art and the vacuous but immense output of artists favored by the regime; he examines the chilling Nazi obsession with personal hygiene, conceived as an antidote to class consciousness; and he notes the crucial early enlistment of the medical profession (45 percent of doctors were party members) in the Nazi cause.

The primary ideological glue binding together these diverse aesthetic fixations was a doctrine of racial purity. By inventing an abstraction -- the "body of the German Folk" -- the Nazis were able to rationalize all measures taken to purify that body. This explains the intensity of Nazi hostility to "degenerate" art. It wasn't just art they didn't like; rather, it was seen as evidence of the organic corruption of the race. A leitmotif of the film, which would be hilarious in another context, is the annual Great German Art Exhibition in Munich, with the year-by-year totals of Hitler's purchases -- more than 1,000 works, all told.

But the range and extremity of Nazi aesthetics were unlimited. Part of the effectiveness of the film is that it enables us to see, each step along the way, the vastness of the gulf between reality, as everyday humans conceive of it, and the Nazi fantasy world. Children with birth defects and mentally ill or retarded persons were eliminated in the name of this fantasy. "Murder," the narrator (Bruno Ganz) states, "became the ultimate form of therapy."

In this so-called euthanasia program, means were perfected for the ultimate Nazi task, the cleansing of the race via the eradication of the Jews. Perhaps the most horrific juxtaposition in a film replete with them is that of an official 1937 film extolling the killing of pests with a new insecticide, Zyklon B, with the notorious antisemitic pseudo-documentary "The Eternal Jew," made in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. Zyklon B was the gas settled upon for the concentration camp chambers.

Architecture, strictly speaking, doesn't play much of a role in the film, although Hitler's (and Speer's) megalomaniacal projects are mentioned. But there's an absorbing photo of Hitler, in February 1945, contemplating a model for the rebuilding of his provincial hometown of Linz, Austria, while the world burned. The conflagration, we understand, was Hitler's greatest artistic production!

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