After 13. edition
Festival Spotlight
26 July 2013
Festival Spotlight - A Portrait of Hitler

How do you represent the life of the most vilified figure of the 20th century? Hitler has been a ubiquitous presence in cinema, portrayed as the personification of all that is wrong with humanity, a paranoid madman or an object of ridicule. In Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) Hans-Jürgen Syberberg chose to examine every aspect of the dictator's life through the prism of the society he came to dominate. The result is a complex and exhaustive work that eschews realism in favour of artistic interpretation.

The film is the final part of Syberberg's German trilogy, following on from Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) and Karl May (1974). Divided into four parts, the film's eponymous first section deals with the Reich's projection of their leader as a mythic figure. 'A German Dream' looks at Germany's past, or those elements the Nazi's cherry-picked in order to support their cause. 'The End of a Winter's Tale' focuses on the Holocaust, particularly from Himmler's point of view. And 'We, Children of Hell' analyses Germany since Hitler's downfall and how the nation's obsession with its recent past is unhealthy for its future.

Syberberg's Gesamtkunstwerk, drawing on opera, theatre, puppetry and early cinema is a fascinating experiment in art informing history. Ridiculing the myth Hitler and his cohorts created around them, characters recite memoirs and diaries of underlings close to the Nazi elite, including Hitler's valet and adjutant, and Himmler's masseur and astrologer. The head of the SS is played by various actors, with each portraying a certain aspect of his personality or military role. Heinz Schubert, who plays one of these characters, is also the only performer to play Hitler. Not that it is a Hitler that we recognise from documentary or narrative cinema. Here he is less a man than a symbol - a tool that allows Syberberg to better explore his themes.

Syberberg's work, much of which has been screening over the last week and culminates on Sunday with his filmed performance of Wagner's Parsifal (1982), demands a great deal of its audience. A long and challenging work - the film's running time exceeds seven hours - Hitler: A Film from Germany is also one of cinema's most ambitious undertakings. As Susan Sontag said of it, "Such a work extends the reach of art but also complicates and burdens the enterprise of art with new, self-conscious standards. It both excites and paralyses the imagination."

Ian Haydn Smith

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