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Stunning 7-hour epic about Hitler gets rare screening

Written by The Anand Market

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This weekend, the hottest ticket in New York is a seven-hour-plus film about Adolf Hitler.

Presented only once at Film at Lincoln Center, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s rarely screened epic, “Hitler, a German film“, is, according to the programmers, exhausted despite its colossal running time (which includes a few pauses). It is a curious sort of event film.

Distributed by Francis Ford Coppola, it was first released in the United States in 1980, when it also played to sold-out audiences. Presumably, these viewers were intrigued by the scale of his ambitions. Susan Sontag’s seal of approval was the icing on the cake; she considered it a masterpiece. “There is Syberberg’s film, and then there are the other films that we admire,” she writes.

Some 442 minutes later, even as the audience leaves the theater agreeing with Sontag, one thing remains true: There is no such thing.

Divided into four parts, the film is a Wagnerian acid opera, composed of theatrical sketches inspired by the life of the German dictator. Images from German cinema classics like “Nosferatu” and “M” are interspersed with archival footage from World War II, creating a surreal collage made even more disorienting by bursts of Beethoven and layered stream-of-consciousness narration. If this “primal scream therapy,” as a voice in the film says, sounds overwhelming, it’s only a taste of the film’s dizzying powers. Syberberg was not without humor either: in one scene, steam escapes from a sculpture representing the rear of the vehicle. The caption reads: “The biggest fart of the century”.

Based on these details, it’s no surprise that the director isn’t interested in portraying the real Hitler. For him, realistic depictions of Nazi Germany satisfy our morbid fascination and simplify a disturbing and complicated reality.

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For its American release, Coppola renamed the film “Our Hitler” because it explores the mythologies and images we associate with the German dictator, meaning that Hitler is not presented as a single man but as a projection of the fantasies and the darkest desires of humanity throughout history. . Several actors play him, as do puppets, cardboard cutouts and a dog. The film is about “the Hitler in all of us,” Syberbeg once said.

As Sontag writes at length in his article in the film, Syberberg envisions the Nazi leader as a director. The real Hitler “never visited the front and never watched the war every night through newsreels,” she wrote, drawing attention to how the images, even in a documentary, blur our grip on reality.

Movies, books, and television shows about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany implore us to never forget. Keeping fresh in our minds the memory of the victims – as well as that of the forces that conspired to commit such atrocities – is widely seen as a historical obligation, lest amnesia condemn us to repetition. At the same time, there is an inordinate fixation on Hitler that gives these works a disturbing force of seduction. Consider the cliché of suburban dads glued to the History Channel, which tends to emphasize shows about World War II. Or Hollywood’s tendency to attach prestige and importance to Holocaust films, which some would call “awards bait.”

I’m not sure Syberberg would have liked Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” one of several recent films that seem to actively oppose traditional Holocaust dramas that rely on pathos, like “The Pianist” or “Schindler’s List”. .” On the one hand, Glazer’s hypnotic vision of denial, in which a Nazi couple goes about their lives in staged ignorance of the massacre just beyond the walls of their property, refuses to recreate the violence of the camp for our voyeurism . On the other hand, there is something frustrating and morally righteous about the drama. His ideas that evil is a condition of extreme self-centeredness only reconfirm our damning assumptions about the perpetrators of history’s worst crimes. In other words, it’s a horror film that unsettles but never really offends.

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“Hitler, a German film” offends. “The Zone of Interest” and its Oscar-nominated siblings “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Oppenheimer” explore the collapse of moral compasses and show protagonists confronting their place in history, dealing (some better than others) of their choices at a given moment. existential pitch. In the age of the smartphone, there is a heightened awareness of global injustice, making art that takes into account our varying degrees of complicity in atrocities.

Syberberg’s phantasmagoria touches a different nerve, having to do with the way works of art—movies in particular—filter reality, creating heroes and villains who soothe our troubled relationship with the past. “Hitler” is a mirror held up towards a world saturated with images taken from their usual containers. No wonder it’s rude, loud and uninhibited. It’s the closest the films come to creating a direct missive from hell.

Syberberg’s film is part of a series devoted to French film critic Serge Daney on the occasion of a new translation of his writings, “Footlights,” by Nicholas Elliott. The Film at Lincoln Center program presents a selection of provocative and politically charged titles from the 70s. “Histoires d’A”, a fascinating documentary on the fight for the right to abortion in France (it was banned upon its release and sparked protests after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival), shows an abortion procedure in its entirety. “Sàlo, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious last work, is a sexually deranged theater of cruelty on the perverse foundations of the fascist mentality.

“Hitler, a German Film” is part of “Never Look Away: Serge Daney’s Radical 1970s,” which runs through Feb. 4 at Lincoln Center. For more information, visit filmlinc.org.

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