They had gathered on a wet Saturday afternoon to watch the commercial American debut of a seven-hour German movie about Adolf Hitler - a premise so compelling that the reactions began before the house lights had darkened.

"I'm curious," said San Francisco photographer Robert Altman, sipping coffee in the lobby before the screening and explaining why he would spend $10 and the next nine hours on the film - including a dinner-and-discussion break for the nearly 2,000 spectators.

"I'm fascinated with horror and with power. Hitler is one of those men who reached almost omnipotent power.Almost everyone has some desire to have that power themselves, and I'd have to include myself."

Opinions were as varied as the crowd of hundreds who gathered outside the baroque Palace of Fine Arts. Four American Nazis, in uniforms, helmets and swastika armbands, handed out leaflets. One of them addressed the crowd with a bullhorn:

"If you witness this seven-hour spectacle of hate today, remember, we told you so. They accuse us of everything that's despicable and horrible and violent. Just remember this: Everything they accuse us of, they're guilty of themselves."

The filmmaker would have been pleased. "It is a picture about us, about Hitler in us, and this is really what should concern us," wrote Hans Jurgen Syberberg, the movie's author and director, who spent four years writing "Our Hitler, a Film From Germany," and had traveled to San Francisco to discuss it with the audience during the debut.

"We are not pointing an accusing finger saying it was all Hitler's fault, and the rest of us can retire behind the cloak of his shame. We should spread the guilt around, the collective guilt nobody wanted to assume after that war. As I look around our world, I can see that we are still in love with the kind of thing Hitler once propagated."

The seven-hour surrealist dream of facism - neither documentary nor biography but a new and totally eccentric form combining puppets, collage, special effects in a long series of monologues, generated a storm of controversy in Germany where it was first released to a lukewarm audience and fierce critical disdain. In England, France and Israel, however, it becamse a cause celebre, until it was hailed in the United States by an ecstatic Susan Sontag. Francis Coppola picked up the American distribution, cosponsoring the American commercial premier at the University of California's Pacific film archives.

The Palace of Fine Arts has an immense theater and even at the price, it was filled to overflowing. Not surprisingly: The image of the Holocaust remains an inescapable obsession of the American consciousness. In the 35 years since Hitler's death, thephenomenon has been explored in biogarphies, novels and films, rnaging from "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," to "The Boys from Brazil," to the recent television series, "Holocaust." And there is still an apparently unlimited demand.

"Seven hours is nothing," said one film-goer. "It's just a nice break."

I think the length of the film is another technique of getting people interested," Syberberg had explained the previous evening at a part in his honor at Coppola's Pacific Heights mansion. "People see it's a seven-hour film, and it needs your attention for a whole day. From the beginning, they have to make up their minds to see it, so as a result, very few people leave."

Coppola couldn't come to the party or the showing - he was in traction after a back operation - but his involvement in the film was critical. In San Francisco, Coppola borders on royalty; he sets the style, and his interest is a near guarantee that others will be interested. As the expansive director of the sweepingly operatic "Godfather" films and the Wagnerian "Apocalypse Now," Coppola is an ideal distributor for "Our Hitler."

At the party, Werner Herzog wandered past one of his own shoes, encased in lucite in Coppola's living room. Herzog, director of "Aguirre, The Wrath of God," "Mystery of Kasper Hauser," et al, publicly had eaten the other shoe (cooked in garlic, olive oil and rosemary) a few months ago on a bet.

"Werner is a crazy German who ate his shoe," said one of the guests, contemplating the entombed sneaker. "Now Francis is picking up this other crazy German, and his seven-hour movie. He probably hopes that this crazy German will be as successful as the other one."

According to Syberberg, however, Coppola doesn't care whether "Our Hitler" succeeds commercially or not. This spring, on the morning after the movie's first American showing at Los Angeles' FILMEX, Coppola phoned Syberberg, filled with excitement. "All films up to now are obsolete!" "This has to be seen in this country." Coppola then offered to buy the American rights.

The film was not edited for the final version. "Everything that was written we were able to get on celluloid," Syberberg said. "And everything on celluloid we kept.... It's as personal as if I made a poem at home on paper."

The film itself is an endless dream. Overtly artificial images, pastiches of fascist symbolism, fill the screen.In the foreground, actors carrying puppets representing Hitler and his generals address the audience directly in lengthy, complex monologues. On the sound track, there's the music of Wagner, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Mahler, or radio broadcasts from the war years or literate voice-over narration.

An actor dressed as a ringmaster says, "There'll be no heroes, except ourselves, no human stories but the story of mankind. Never has so much been projected by so many on one man. It's about us, all of us."

Hitler, portrayed by various actors, appears as a wall-paperer, as a film fan, as Atlas, as Napoleon, as Hamlet. He tries to bite a rug, he confesses to being Rumpelstiltskin, he dresses up as the Sphinx. An actor portraying Hitler's valet describes for an hour Hitler's preferences in clothing and grooming aids, in the most minute detail. And the voice-over narration and the speeches to the audience go on and on, over extraordinary and static surrealist visuals.

At the dinner break, four hours into the film, Syberberg circulated through the lobby, surrounded by clumps of questioners. "It was the kind of eulogy that we give to truly great people," a woman in a fur hat said urgently, speaking of the valet sequence. "I thought it was out of place."

"Not great," Syberberg said, "A human being. The background is bigger than reality. Lots of private life very small."

On the floor, in small picnics of cantaloupe and quiche, the arguments went on. Three quarters of the audience was still there by the end of the movie - delayed by a series of false climaxes which seemed to go on like a Wagnerian opera for a good 40 minutes. "All right, I confess!" shouted a woman from the audience at the 30th apparent finale. When the end credits at last come on, the audience cheered - but the monologue continued. "He just won't shut up," said a young bearded man moving toward the door.

When he finally did, it was nearly midnight. The audience filed out at last, looking like the haggard survivors of a war. CAPTION: Picture 1, Hans Jurgen Syberberg, author and director of the seven-hour film "Our Hitler, A Film From Germany," a combination of puppets, collage, special effects and monologue; photo by Stephen Kelley for The Washington Post.; Pictire 2, no caption