The most experimental and radical of the New German Cinema bad boys, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg makes movies about German history and its decay into genocidal mania and nothing else, if you consider that he makes "movies" at all, as we normally define them. The behemoths that make up his most famous "trilogy"—Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972), Karl May (1974), and Our Hitler (1977; also called Hitler: A Film from Germany)—are more like evidentiary stockpiles, antiqued PowerPoint presentations on the alpha-wave undulations of Prussian consciousness. Forever roping in the poisoned spirit of Wagner, the films vie for gesamtkunstwerk but without drama, dreamily and endlessly questioning history and never daring to answer.
Our Hitler (1977), a seven-plus-hour mega-essay, is his skyscraper and warship, a discourse-voyage through the meanings and ramifications of der Führer via stage tropes, puppet theater, re-enacted history, philosophical speculation, interviews, masquerade, vaudeville lampoon, Nazi film and audio clips, symbolist tableaux, German Expressionism, ad friggin’ infinitum, all of it shot in a wreath of mist and in front of a giant projection screen in a cavernous Munich warehouse. Dull or hypnotic or sometimes both at once, it’s a movie that creates its own way of watching, inoculated and unconcerned about progression, and it might be best looked upon like a Warhol marathon, a contemplative day-trip accommodating naps and dope and phone calls and digressions of your own. (Rumination is inevitable, as when Syberberg makes the point that Hitler never went to the front but in fact "saw the war only in newsreels, as a movie he was making.) Susan Sontag famously compared it to, well, nothing else on Earth, and as with so many things it seems impossible to argue with her.
The two earlier films are not nearly as humongous or sustained—Ludwig is in fact a solid hour-and-a-half shorter than Visconti’s Ludwig, and far less annoying. Syberberg comes at his historical inquisitions from an angle, and Ludwig dallies as much with the infamous monarch’s narcissistic biography as it does with Jarmanesque camp, Wagnerian kitsch, nude girls, 19th-century graphics (projected as background sets), cabaret schtick, children with mustaches, stuffed swans, etc., all of it assembled and explored on a proscenium stage that recalls Méliès in more ways than one. Wry and snarky, Ludwig scans like an epic carny sideshow orchestrated by a soul-sick Teutonic aesthete, happening as an enigmatic theater piece that happened privately, obsessively, without an audience or camera.
Karl May is different—its baroque warehouse-stage shenanigans are kept to a minimum, and instead Syberberg ruminates on the legacy of the titular writer, a kind of hyperpopular, turn-of-the-century German hybrid of Robert E. Howard and Jack London, who specialized in American Indian stories. Inspired and emboldened by May his whole life, Hitler may’ve been the author’s biggest fan, and so May’s fate appears permanently entangled with the fate of Germany as a whole. Probably the most conventional of Syberberg’s films (unless you consider his masterful interview doc The Confessions of Winifred Wagner and his opera-on-film version of Parsifal, both of which require rediscovery, conventional), Karl May is almost an ordinary period film, shot in genuine locations. But there are knockout drops in the cocktail: the cast are all German industry vets who made films for and under the Third Reich, including director Helmut Kautner (as May), Caligari’s Lil Dagover, Kristina Soderbaum (star of, among other Nazi films, Jud Süss), Kathe Gold, and so on. Beneath the longueurs and historical contemplations, real cultural guilt creeps like a killer mold.
September 9-14 at Anthology Film Archives