HANS-JURGEN Syberberg's "Our Hitler, a Film From Germany" is an unparalled endurance test for iron-willed, iron-bottomed culture vultures.
The pedantic spectacle is composed of illustrated musings, orations and dramatizations (employing actors in multiple roles, puppet shows and suggestive arrangements of scenery and props) on the Myth and Meaning of Adolf Hitler. aResisting its stultifying intellectual pretensions may make one appear as philistine as Hermann Goering, whose famous witticism, "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol," is quoted in the course of the movie's unconscionable running time of 71/2 hours, excluding intermission.
While I've never packed a rod, only a masochistic sense of professional obligation prevented me from fleeing the screening for "Our Hitler," which is having the second of two special showings today at 2:30 p.m. at the K-B MacArthur under the auspices of the American Film Institute. Syberberg himself is scheduled to appear during the interval, which occurs between Parts II and III of four seemingly interchangeable, redundant parts, called "The Grail," "A German Dream," "The End of a Winter's Tale" (promises, promises) and "We, the Children of Hell," a magnificent tease that threatens to conclude about two dozen times before Syberberg finally liberates you from the death-grip of his fatilistic, chauvinistic (in the good old classic sense) ruminations.
Syberberg is a compulsive reiterater. He chews over each reflection until it seems as tasty as a wad of gum after an hour of hard use. During one of his cosmic meditations, Syberberg has an actor rhapsodize, "Innumerable stars are wandering through the endless depths of the universe." A celestial backdrop illustrates this passage. You can't help reflecting in self-defense that you've got enough time to count every one of those blasted stars.
He surpasses himself during a long barren stretch in which we watch one of the actors simply read from his screenplay, which is in the nature of a thesis anyway. As the pages turn, the suspense becomes uniquely unbearable. You can't help straining to see how many more pages he's got to go. Always too many.
From the outset Syberberg contrives to make this static meditative epic feel like The Longest Lecture Ever Given. Assuming his meditations are worth absorbing, it would be more agreeable to acquire them by recording -- during a good night's sleep. The movie's illustrative material is always supplementary to the text as heard and/or read. Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish the text this season. Believe me, you won't miss a thing by waiting for the book.
I began suffering restless vibrations as soon as Syberberg invoked a couplet from Heine, "Thinking of Germany in the night/All my dreams are sent in flight," and began racking up dubious hypotheses and overblown metaphors while warming up to his subject:
"The good old democracy has been the source of misery in the 20th Century . . .Then someone came who knew that blood sacrifices were required . . . Satan and the eternal tempter of democracy . . . the last attempt of Old Europe to assert itself in the theater of the new masses . . . The Man of the 20th Century . . . Hurrah! The Devil is loose . . . Tell us something about our wolfish society . . . There'll be no story, only our story, our inside story . . . It's about Mephistofeles, playing to a full house, which is burning."
Syberberg's ideas (both philosophical and artistic) are deadly. But some people regard "Our Hitler" as an indispensable intellectual document and towering cinematic achievement. For the sake of fairness, let me recommend learned appreciations of his work by Susan Sontag in the Febr. 21 issue of The New York Review of Books and Stanley Kauffman in the Febr. 2 issue of The New Republic. Sontag concludes, "Syberberg's film belongs inthe category of noble masterpieces which ask for fealty and can compel it. After seeking 'Hitler, a Film From Germany,' there is Syberberg's film -- and then there are the other films one admires . . . As was said ruefully of Wagner, he spoils our tolerance for the others."
Syberberg's film could be a phenomenal pretentious touchstone. It's not surprising that Francis Coppola acquired the film for American distribution. Syberberg would seem to appeal to the pompous streak in Coppola, who might have subjected us to three or four hours of Capt. Kurtz intoning solemn platitudes about good and evil and their mystic interrationships in "Apocalypse Now" if he'd dared.
Syberberg dares. He goes all the way, complacently predicting and even celebrating the apocalypse that Coppola merely toyed with. Ultimately, "Our Hitler" seems a peerless monument to German cultural chauvinism. Syberberg envisions Hitler as the logical, if rather hideous, summation of German nationality, which appears to be indistinguishable from Western civilization and the aspiring, dominating, idealistic aspects of human nature itself.
"He was the only solution," one of the actors sighs toward the conclusion. "The goddess of history and destiny had spoken. He was Germany and Germany was he . . . The spirit lives on. Many want to see it again, even the evil . . . The final victory of Hell with our Hitler in us . . . I predict the death of all nature, The End . . . Hitler, here is your victory, isn't it? You've taken away the sunsets . . . You are the executioner of Western civilization."
Yes, Hitler may have lost the war, but he's prevailed anyway. It's written in the stars, but if you look at things cosmically anyway, this planet is just a molecule in the universe, destined to be gobbled up by a black hole. Rest in peace, miserable earthlings.
The emotional satisfaction that Syberberg appears to derive from this kind of reflection makes my skin crawl, but its defeatist vanity and absolutism may help explain the cult appeal of the otherwise inexplicable New German Cinema.Syberberg's conviction that human evolution peaked with German culture and has nowhere to go but down after Hitler took it to corrupt extremes may strike sympathetic chords among American intellectuals who also find sustenance in a kind of nationalistic self-loathing. Americans who feel that not a sparrow falls but that the United States is somehow responsible should positively dote on Syberberg. "Our Hitler," simultaneously parading Nazi memorabilia and expressing solemn regrets, offers the pseudo-profound guilt-fix of their wildest dreams. Indeed, it's the definitive overdose.
I also suspect that no one would have relished it more than that shameless mythologizer Josef Goebbels. He could scarcely ask for a more imposing indication that his deliberate mythmongering had not been in vain. On "Manoeuvre"
Coming down for a little mundane relief and perspective, let me briefly salute Frederick Wiseman's latest documentary film, "Manoeuvre," which will be shown today at 10 p.m. on WETA-TV, Channel 26. Wiseman had begun to display alarming Syberbergian tendencies in his last two pictures, "Canal Zone" and "Sinai Field Mission." But there's nothing garrulous or prolix about his technique in "Manoeuvre," a sardonic account of an American armored unit participating in a NATO combat exercise in West Germany during the fall of 1978.
Comic ironies are built into the subject. We observe soldiers rehearsing what might be a scene from Act One of an imaginary World War Iii. Although it's obvious that this war game serves practical, useful purposes to military commanders and planners, it's equally obvious that the manuevering would be instantly obsolete on the day Soviet and NATO armored units were obliged to make this peaceful German terrain once again a real theater of combat.
The night before the two-day manuevers begin, a commander urges his men, "Don't hang back! Let it all hang out! Gentlemen, this is my last word: Be professional and let it all hang out!" All well and good, but certain obstacles to valorous play arise as soon as the tanks begin rolling the next morning. For example, a local farmer insists that they take another route. "We've got a German national," radios one of the soldiers, "who says we can't bring the tanks up this road. He said over on the other side it's still messed up from last year's manuevers."
It's even difficult to let it all hang out once you're in position and waiting to take blank shots at the mock enemy. The monitors have strict rules and guidelines. The results are determined by analyzing the relative positions of opposing units, as in a chess problem, and then assigning losses and casualties arbitrarily from a kind of battlefield actuarial table. The manuevers don't permit all that much manueverability.
As a monitor explains to a complaining participant, "I'm talkin' about what we're doin' for this exercise. You're talkin' about real life . . . This is not a real war, man. If this was a real war, half this ---- wouldn't be goin' on."
Trying to console his officers in the wake of an unfortunate call by the monitors, a commander advises, "Brief your people that they didn't do anything wrong. The book just came out that way." Wiseman's modest but revealing service on this occasion has been to capture the peculiar ambivalence of professional soldiers engaged in playing war "by the book," a text that they know all too well they'll be ignoring if push comes to shove.