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Hans-Jürgen Syberberg—Leni Riefenstahl’s Heir

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, b. 1935

1,085 words

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, the enfant terrible of modern or post-war German cinema, was born in 1935 of vaguely upper class stock. His father owned landed estates in Eastern Germany before the war, and his son lived in Rostock until 1945.

Syberberg’s doctoral thesis—very much in the Germanic tradition—concerned the notion of existentialism or the absurd in Dürrenmatt’s drama. He himself seems to have been influenced by two vast and yet “monstrous” paradigms: these were Brecht’s notion of epic theater and Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the total art-work.

Without doubt, his seminal achievement has to be Hitler: A Film from Germany (Our Hitler) which appeared in 1978. Although Syberberg was to later furnish a retrospective and documentary feel to his ideas in a non-fiction treatment, The Ister, in 2004. It comes across as a companion piece or dialectical counter-point to the previous work. It’s definitely not a mea culpa.

Hitler—ein Film aus Deutschland ran to 442 minutes and happened to be co-produced by the BBC (somewhat paradoxically). It starred Heinz Schubert and had no definite plot other than an intriguing series of tableaux. In a different set of circumstances (or primarily dealing with variegated meats) many would have found it avant-garde or occult. Its matter proved to be episodic, mannerist, arcane, and dream-like. Syberberg, its director, made extensive use of rear projection amid an orgy of declamation, dramaturgical feel, and topical onrush. Tropes are introduced, not like Natalie Sarraute, but after the fashion of a flickering magic camera or F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in 1924. (A film which came to be suppressed by the German authorities owing to copyright tiffs.)

The first part deals with the issue of Hitler’s personality cult; it’s dark, deliberately baroque and romantic in its aesthetic. It is quite clear that Syberberg wishes to plunge headlong into the thicket of what George L. Mosse called Nazi Culture; that’s to say, the völkisch underpinnings of German “irrationalism” in the 19th century. National Socialism emerged out of this heady stew, but contemporary Germany has repudiated it or deliberately buried this memory. It allows itself the backward glance of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé when spliced with Henze’s agit-prop.

The second part of this monumental piece of cinema (which is almost as long as Gance’s silent Napoleon from the ’20s) explores Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century in every sense.

The film’s third section deals with the Shoah and Himmler’s various attitudes towards it—the latter very much seen in vignette.

Whereas the epic’s fourth quartet—sign-posted as “We Children of Hell”—consists of a personal appearance by Syberberg as the director. This is by no means either solipsist or Hitchcock-like, merely a desire to intrude an authorial and personal insistence. Having done so, he strides around with a large Hitler puppet (ventriloquism originated in Germany) and enters into debates over the bitter harvest of German Romanticism and the plight of artists in the Federal Republic.

What does Hans-Jürgen Syberberg hope to achieve by means of this activity? Well! His enormous filmic canvas sets up a challenge to every known rule of Hollywood cinema. Whereupon the work’s visual Weltanschauung also happens to be partly French, being strongly influenced by Henry Langlois’ set designs. Likewise, the fact that the work’s stasis or static vortex involves one location—one set—brings it very close to Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio in Latin.

Influential critics pontificated about its significance upon arrival, but neither Susan Sontag nor Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe could hammer out definite conclusions. Most of them miss the fact that the clue to this piece lies in its visualization: its medium is truly the message in terms of Marshall McLuhan’s hectoring.

For the film’s visual language exemplifies its deeply romantic, roseate, ethereal, Germanic race soul, anti-modernist, dream-like, oneiric, and Wagnerian climacteric. It happens to be deeply fascistic but purely on an auric or eye-sensitive level; at once happening to be lit up by a post-modern mantra. The film comes across as heroic in its anti-heroic indeterminacy.

Superficially—and with the objective part of the mind—Syberberg appears to be opposed to what Moeller van den Bruck called The Third Empire. But not really . . . since, if we enter into back-brain subjectivity, then we are dealing with a fantasy or phantasmagoria which mourns the fact of Germany’s defeat. What Syberberg is doing literally confuses the rational, practical, and political mind (perforce). For, by virtue of adopting an apodictic structure, he can remain aesthetically entranced while preserving a strict ideological neutrality.

Like the Australian effort Romper Stomper, this film is ultimately neutral and neither for or against—at the level of the journalist’s page. In reality, such a transgression proves to be deeply blasphemous under Bonn’s republic . . . if we conceive of Adenauer’s construction as a second Weimar.

Moreover, the inner methodology of Syberberg’s attitude can be seen in various articles—one in particular, “Spiritual Reactionaries after German Reunification” by Diederichsen and Cametzky, springs to mind. Likewise, Syberberg sought to clear up any confusion with his own polemic—Vom Unglück und Glück der Kunst in Deutschland nach dem letzten Kriege (On the Misfortune and Fortune of Art in Germany after the last War, 1990). This contained a strong attack on Bonn’s philo-Semitism.

Michael Walker, the editor of Scorpion magazine and by then a German citizen, warned that Syberberg faced “un-person” status as a result. For his filmography has little real appeal either on behalf of NDP supporters or contemporary liberals. In this overall regard, his visualization might be considered to be a splicing of Caspar David Friedrich and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. It’s not a tabernacle of the ruins, à la Wolfgang Borchert’s stories about the “year zero” of 1945, but an aesthetic Germanicism which remains cool, cynical, acidic, upper class, and even “subversive.”

Hitler: ein Film aus Deutschland appears to be “anti-” on the surface of its discontinuous images; themselves a kaleidoscope of Cranach, Pacher, and Kraceur’s over-flowing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Yet the inner or sub-conscious mind that directs this movie proves to be spiritually, not factually, revisionist in character.

His earlier cinema history testifies to this. For example, his first effort—Romy, Anatomy of a Face (1965)—deliberates on a classic German actress’ profile. It is an exercise in phrenology which concentrates on Romy Schneider. Whereas his second example in 1966 deals with the aged actor Fritz Kortner—a star of German theater earlier in the 20th century who specialized in one event: Shylock’s eternal scream of vengeance. Syberberg described the rushes for such an epiphany as “superhuman.”

You can view Hitler: ein Film aus Deutschland for free online at


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