Hans-Jürgen Syberberg: Leni Riefenstahl's Heir?
This 14th talk of mine is about a filmmaker called Hans-Jürgen Syberberg who’s not a household name, it has to be said, even within contemporary Germany. But if there was a title for this talk behind me, as there sometimes is at our meetings, the title would have been “Hans-Jürgen Syberberg: Leni Riefenstahl’s Heir?” Because there is a degree to which in these talks I always try to find figures occasionally who are contemporaneous, who are alive and amongst us now, who are in this most difficult of eras, this most liberal, most democratic, most egalitarian of eras, the eras that are in every sense post-modern and after the crash, perceived in every possible way, of 1945 and thereafter.
Syberberg is a filmmaker who is possibly at this moment in time one of, if not the, loneliest cultural figures in the modern unified Federal Republic. He’s most famous for a film called Hitler: Ein Film aus Deutschland released in 1978 which lasts seven and a quarter hours. Seven and a quarter hours! I saw it when I was 19 at the National Film Theatre, and it’s one of those things where . . . Richard Nixon once said you needed a cast-iron behind to read law, but you really needed some vitamin C anyway to watch this film for seven hours, just physically. Because when you come out after having sat for that length of time you really are sort of rigid.
He’s an East German, essentially, and he was born in 1935 of minor aristocratic and upper class parentage. He lived in Rostock until 1945. He was too young to have gone through, or have had to go through, the de-Nazification process as a focused individual, but, of course, he went through everything that happened later. Indeed, he experienced the beginnings of the communist statelet in the occupied east.
Syberberg was always—and is, because he’s still alive although very elderly now—a controversialist, in every sense. When he came west there was a large reception for him from the cultural apparatus of the new federal West German state, and he made some equivocal remarks about the Communist regimes of Ulbricht and Honecker. He talked about the fact that it’s one of the first countries to build a wall to keep its people in. “But at the same time,” he said, “they’ve managed to teach nearly all of us to read and write, which you over here in the west post-war don’t seem to quite master.” There was a slight pulling in of the welcome carpet, and people realized that Syberberg was in a sense a man who said what he liked, and that isn’t liked in contemporary Germany or most other countries.
He began with a thesis on Dürenmatt and the absurd which seemed to chart him out for a regular academic, non-artistic career. But he always had a yearning for total art, for the total art form of Wagner’s vintage of the late 19th century: the Gesamtkunstwerk. But the idea of a total form that combines all others: speech, poetic higher speech, song, dance, movement, the visual image of the human and nature and the two together, of narrative story, of action and drama, and so on.
And when you think about it, film and the use of film, particularly by radical and authoritarian governments of the 20th century, is the total artwork for this era, as Leni Riefenstahl knew and discovered and made use of, which is why she became the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century, the most vilified (if you turn it around) cultural propagandist as she was seen in that era; forbidden to make films in the post-war era.
Interestingly, a couple of years ago Mel Gibson was asked about her in the enormous brouhaha of controversy that blew up around his film The Passion of the Christ. He said that he would have given her a few tens of millions, because he’s got that sort of money now, to make some of the films that she wanted to make (although she did make Tiefland) post-war. This is because the amount of money that you need to start up production costs for films is so great prior to digital cameras coming on-stream in the last five to eight years (HD cameras and so on) that for small but very large amounts of capital you can be completely stymied. Most films before the internet, if you can’t disseminate them, it’s almost the vanity form of all vanity forms, and that’s what faced her after the war.
Syberberg’s career began with two very short films made in 1965 and 1966 respectively. One thing that he did is after the destruction . . . because although if you go to Germany today much of it looks like a poster tourist card, but that’s because everything has been lovingly rebuilt because it was smashed not just a little bit but to pieces, to atoms so that one brick hardly remained on another. North, south, east, and west Allied bombing, primarily British bombing, smashed city after city after city, so there was nothing left. Nothing left. Every urban area was like Grozny in Chechnya now where I believe even after the present clique have been in for quite a few years one street in the center has been rebuilt.
He wanted to go back to many of the great actors and actresses who were then nearing the ends of their lives in the ’60’s and put them on the screen for the last time. Sort of an addendum, a memorial, a thank you note. These were all short films shot on quite primitive equipment. Black and white.
The first one was called Romy [Schneider]: Anatomy of a Face. Rather unusual. A film about a woman’s face. It’s a film about this great German actress beauty from the past. The theatrical bone structure was still there. The whole film is essentially about her face. It’s rather interesting, isn’t it? Because there are certain modern theories about the contemporary face; its weakness and its flabbiness and its absence of structure. And that’s what he’s hinting at in that. There’s somebody who people here know in a small little group or sect, and she was called the Countess, and she was once asked about the modern face, and she made remarks like that. People were appalled.
But what Syberberg’s doing by that very small idea is he’s indicating that people didn’t always necessarily look as the way they do today, and the sensibilities that they articulate is not that which says that 1945 is a year zero for us all and that there’s nothing before, and we’ve all reinvented ourselves subsequently, and we’re all post-modern and reflexive and think every possible thought at every other possible instant. In other words, there’s something maybe classical that prefigures value.
But it’s a short film and didn’t get too much attention.
In 1966, he dealt with Fritz Kortner who was a very well-known actor, particularly of Shakespearean drama in Germany. He was very elderly then. This is just scenes of him rehearsing, almost a radio film in a strange sort of way. He’s going through the motions. His great performance in German theater was his Shylock, and Syberberg has him possibly in his last ever performance, because the point of film, as these elderly actors realized, is it memorializes them. Who remembers these people now, if there isn’t the film there of them?
Kortner’s an old man who’s quite clearly suffering of various illnesses that will take him away a year or two after filming in ’66. But he gets him to articulate this superhuman/inhuman scream of revenge; Shylock’s desire for revenge against the Gentile world. A sort of primal scream.
Remember in the ’60’s there was that cult called Primal Scream. You could go into your unconscious and draw it all out. Get rid of it through a big scream. That cult didn’t last. But it’s been replaced by something else.
Nevertheless, Kortner gives this scream in this film . . . and then it ends. That’s another little vignette of what’s coming later on in Syberberg’s career. At this moment he was just dismissed as a mildly academic eccentric making some odd revivalist films about previous German cultural figures. Inoffensive stuff.
As we move on, the obsession with the Romantic movement in the 19th century and the völkisch movement in the 19th century and their visual art and some of their religious ideas and their overlap into the Wandervogel movement of the 19th century where large numbers of youths would move around the countryside; it’s almost like an alternative society movement much of which prefigured German involvement in the Foreign Legion, in paramilitary organizations, in the enormous volunteering across the German-speaking parts of Central Europe for the Kaiser’s army in 1914 and thereafter. It’s quite clear that this is the area of culture that Syberberg wishes to concentrate on.
He did another famous documentary of Winifred Wagner, which caused enormous problems for the Bayreuth Festival and enormous problems for her family, because he kept the microphone on after the interviewers had left, but he did it with her consent because the microphone’s in front of her. And she talks and she talks and she talks, and then after a certain gap she starts talking about Adolf Hitler. And she talked about Adolf Hitler for four hours without a break, and quite a lot of this found its way into what would then be the final cut of the film. The family went utterly berserk when this film was distributed, and Syberberg was black-balled. He was never allowed to attend the festival again.
It was a scandal to a degree, although the scandal was slightly undercut by the fact that he was regarded as a revealer of something that had been widely known anyway; in other words, that she was extremely sympathetic, but also that Hitler had once told her that Wagnerism was his religion, or the nearest that he ever came to one.
Hitler cost £100,000 to make in 1977 prior to its release in ’78. You can get it on the internet. It takes ages to download, because it’s seven hours, and therefore most people just give up, but it is there up on the internet.
The BBC part financed it which is truly extraordinary in certain respects, but this is because of the disjunction between Western German culture and the rest of the West, even the rest of the NATO West, of which West Germany was indisputably a part, at that time. And not just East Germany, not just the Germany that existed before the collapse and destruction, but the difference between say the Anglophone world within the West and Germany proper, however defined in the multiple ways I’ve just delineated. So, from the English BBC sort of viewpoint the Germans were living an unmastered past. No one would talk about this material. Here is a man who’s prepared to make a virtually 8-hour film about it! Therefore, give him some money: £50,000. Quite a lot of money in the 1970s, but not an unbelievable amount for a state broadcaster.
It’s true that in the ’70’s very few people would deal with any of this material at all. Indeed, he was so short of actors that in the final sequence, the fourth quarter because it’s divided into four pillars, four sections of which We Children of Hell is the fourth one, puppets appear. When somebody asked him why he used puppets he said, “Well, I’d run out of actors.”
The thing about this film is that it’s quite visually extraordinary because it’s based in one set. If you’ve ever seen Derek Jarman’s film, Caravaggio, which is in Latin, it’s set in one set, which of course means that from a cost basis, you can keep costs to an absolute minimum, and you can also perhaps film for a month, seal it up, three months later you come back and in some respect everything’s still in situ.
Henri Langlois, the French set designer, had a lot to do with the set, because it’s noticeable that a lot of back projection is used, because it’s a very theatrical film. For a long time, it was treated as an essentially avant-garde and modernistic film, because it’s not narrative based. It’s episodic. It’s slightly Mannerist. It superficially appears to be very anti, whereas its real crime is neutrality about matters that you can’t be neutral about. Not in the contemporary or post-modern Federal Republic.
Aesthetically, Syberberg’s in love not with a particular government between ’33 and ’45 but with the aesthetics from which it originated. He’s a sort of Germanic race-soul artist really, of that sort of yearning, transcendental, and instrumental spirituality which you sense the Germans as possibly the primary, central, originating European character reference possesses. He wants to go to those areas that contemporary Germany has cast as off limits to most of its artists and writers since the war.
Why is this important? It’s important because, as Ezra Pound said, genuine creators are the antennae of their entire populations. If you want to find a contemporary art, art in the broadest of senses—I mean creation that has a social dimension—in a society that’s deracinated or broken down or self-questioning, doubts everything about itself, doubts everything about its past, which is why it doubts its present moment, and so on, you’ll find the sort of art that’s epitomized by something like the Turner Prize, whereas if you look at the sort of art that he’s dealing with, you see a more communitarian, more organic, more restorationist art. Art that’s closer to representational fantasy in the mind and beyond it.
Dream is extraordinarily important to Syberberg, because he believes that in a sense the real truths are deeper than reason, which is why he is a quasi-religious artist, whatever his actual statements about religion may be.
We know quite a bit about his actual views. Something which many artists don’t put on record either because they don’t have them in a formal way or because if they do they reveal too much, and it’s difficult to get funding and this and that. Because he wrote a book in 1990 called On the Misfortunes and Fortunes of Art in Germany after the Last War. Now, this is a remarkable book, but we need to discuss Hitler in detail before we come on to it.
The film stars an actor called Heinz Schubert. It also stars Syberberg himself in the fourth quadrant and his own daughter, various puppets, and minor figures. The first section deals with Hitler’s personality cult. The second section deals with völkisch romanticism in the 19th century. The third section deals with the Shoah, particularly as it’s seen from Himmler’s perspective. The fourth section deals with the aftermath and the generation who feels it with incredible acuteness because Syberberg’s generation mentally comes of age in the immediate aftermath of these events. So, for them, the year zero for Germany is the beginning of adult consciousness with an occupied society that’s divided hemispherically in accordance with the two world blocs and hyper-powers that then exist.
There is a collection of short stories written by a young German who died relatively soon after the war called Wolfgang Borchert which Calder published in the 1960s which is Germany in the Ruins, something like that. It’s largely the stories of people scampering about, survive living in cellars, shooting rats, there’s no water, there’s no electricity. During these three years between ’45 and ’48, at least two million Germans died during that period because there was very little food. Parts of the Morgenthau Plan were implemented in certain sections of American zones of occupation. Other American commanders were completely opposed to that plan and subverted it. So, it was a mixed picture. But, nevertheless, at least according to the contemporary German historical record, two million Germans perished during that time. Nearly always the people liberals say they care most about: the weakest, the illest, the oldest, women, children, the infirm, and so forth.
Syberberg’s mental space of reference, if you like, in terms of maturation, his immediate pre-adult to adult beginnings, is that, and yet he is an anti-realist and a luscious romantic of the most extreme and German type in a way that almost strikes the slightly ironic attitude that the English always partly have to things as very Teutonic, almost overbearingly serious. The seriousness of it. Sort of pietistic romance.
At the end of his career, his last major fictional film was of Wagner’s opera Parsifal with an extraordinary performance as the female lead, Kundry, in that opera.
But back to Hitler. The first section involves all sorts of scenes, some taken from circus and vaudeville, some drawing on Weimar culture, some drawing on what inevitably replaces it, use of dolls, use of sets that are lit in red, use of a lot of flame, use of a lot of sort of occultistic Thule gothic imagery; to create a sort of sensibility about the nature of the German biological Romanticism, really. Quintessentially a Central European artistic sensibility which has been completely voided. Completely voided in the post-war dispensation.
Syberberg has become almost a cultural unperson, although people know he’s there, and he lives as an old man in contemporary Germany and so on, because he’s gone back into the area that that movement originated from. It’s not that, in some ways, that movement is the culmination of that area, but it comes out of it. The dilemma that Syberberg has is he’s not a politician. He’s not a political partisan. He’s a German partisan. He’s a partisan for German culture, and therefore his perspective is you cannot have German artistic culture with this voltaic energy, this storm sense of this sort of condenser battery removed from the circuit. The energy, even to rebel against it, of what it is to be German comes from this vortex. Therefore, to disprivilege it is to cut it out completely.
It’s like Elizabethan tragedy without the example of the Greeks in the past or Seneca as a sort of low Roman version that Shakespeare was aware of. You have to have that primary fodder, that primary material. Fuel upon which to feed. If you can’t have it, because it’s been denied to you in a particular era, then you can’t express nationally what you are.
This is the real thesis of this film, which people saw in the ’70’s and thought, “Eh, interesting critique of the fact Germans won’t mention their past by a fringe German director.” That’s how it was first regarded. That’s why the BBC used to show it insofar as you show things extensively when they’re over seven hours. But I remember . . . you know what Christmas day is like when you get sick of your relatives, so you go up to another room and watch the film on BBC 2, and I remember in 1980 watching Syberberg’s Hitler for seven-and-a-half hours on a grainy black and white set. And you know, it was quite extraordinary in all sorts of ways.
The second section also has a significant, if potted, filmic history of German 19th century art, sort of pictorial art, added into the general mixture.
If anyone logs into Syberberg’s site . . . He’s got several and there’s a significant Wikipedia entry concerning him, which details all the controversies that ever engulfed him; the first section is “Syberberg: interesting and provocative German director”; the second section is Syberberg’s films; the third section is “Comparison and Criticism”; and the fourth section is “Controversy—The Danger of Anti-Semitism,” so you can see the chronology as it sort of goes down. But there’s links to his sites and your ability to, if you’ve got the patience or the machinery so to do, download Hitler: A Film from Germany.
One of his more outrageous ideas is that the entire experience to someone who comes culturally of age, who is mentally born if you like, just after it is so extreme, is so devastating, that his way of dealing with it is to internalize it and view it as a film. That’s why he calls it Hitler: A Film from Germany. So, he actually sees the past as a film.
Now, many people, particularly people who are not particularly artistic, would consider this to be either a non sequitur or a disprivileging of reality or the sort of thing that artists do to cope with life or whatever. But in actual fact, for somebody who’s such as him [???] and his sensibility, it’s because he privileges these things more than anything else that he’s prepared to make a film of them because he has an essentially spiritual view of art. He doesn’t see it as a money-making exercise or a trivialization or a fake authentification or something to do with one’s time between birth and death or an attempt to please others or gain ??? to one’s self. He actually sees it as a sort of spiritual and moral transcription.
The third section is very interesting because this is about the Shoah, which is totally accepted as a fact in this section of the film, for which there is no apology. This is the interesting thing about it. That it’s dealt with in a tone and in a briskness that’s almost identical to the way Menachem Begin describes the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in his autobiography which is called My Life, I believe, just like Sir Oswald Mosley’s. When asked about these events, Begin said, “We did what we had to.” Let there not be talk of morality! There is only the necessity of action and vigor! That’s it. Let ’em talk.
And that’s the sort of attitude that you get in that third section. I think that a few worrying bells went off when that section was seen, but because . . . it’s not in any sense revisionist or even pre-revisionist. It’s again, the view that you get subliminally from that section is that if Germany is to ever have a future it has to master his view, filmically nonetheless, of the consequences of these events.
In some ways, he’s preaching what Nietzsche called self-overcoming, whereby you say yes to life, you accept even the most unpleasant things, you absorb them just as you absorb rubbish and trash in a fire. You step over it to other things and to other glories. It’s the creative use of destruction or the refusal to be imprisoned by the consequences of the destructive urge seen as part of the human potentiality. In other words, it’s a non-dualist view of morals of an explicitly non-Christian viewpoint but not belabored as such.
In the fourth section, We Children of Hell, he talks about, with his daughter and Heinz Schubert who remains ubiquitous as a varied sort of presence and trickster wearing multiple hats and playing multiple parts, including Himmler, throughout the film, the legacy of what it means to be German in the modern world. The interesting thing is that this film deals very bluntly and very explicitly with the fact that for almost everyone outside Germany since 1945 whenever a German is presented to them they have an almost implacable urge to ask them about these events.
I remember I was at some party or something when I was about 18 and some German students turned up and various people made a bee line for them, and the first thing that they were really asked of any substance, beyond how they were and what the weather was, was “What’s your view of what happened between 1933 and 1945?” And, of course, most contemporary Germans want to make money, they want to get away from as much of that as possible, they want to redefine the nature of who and what they are, and so on. They don’t even want to discuss it.
Syberberg’s in a sense going straight for that heart of darkness in Conrad’s sense of the term. He’s going straight there, without equivocation, but artistically. Because he knows that if you don’t in a sense bring this material to the surface art in post-war Germany, in other words morally truthful creativity, is impossible.
You see this in many careers, actually. Look at the famous Leftist to Green novelist Günter Grass, who, seen as an anti, seen as a sort of Center-Left stalwart of the Adenauer post-war government and so on, then it’s suddenly revealed, it was right at the end of his cultural trajectory, almost the last book, that he served for a fraction of time when he was a youth (he had no choice) in the Waffen-SS and how this almost led to a perspectival altering not just of one book or one incident when he was a late teenager, but of his whole career.
In other words, truly the unmastered past. Because, bluntly, this is what Syberberg has been dealing with since the very beginning not the end when it’s sort of looked back on when you’ve written a shelf-load of books to prepare for the moment, but as the first step to dealing with the possibility of the last moment.
The film had a reasonable success and was shown in art cinemas all over the world. It was shown extensively in the United States, where it was seen as an elegy and an indictment. You know, that sort of thing.
Susan Sontag wrote extensively about it. She wrote an essay called “Fascinating Fascism” which is largely based on that film. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, the reasonably well-known French critic, also wrote a review of it. It seemed reasonably successful. Far too artistic and obscure for many people. Some of the German is very complicated and the translation terse and so on, although the English language version isn’t too bad, because the BBC got some expert German linguists in, because they half financed the thing in the first instance.
After Hitler, he moved on to do this film of the Wagner opera [Parsifal], which again is an attempt at what Brecht would call epic theater and also what Wagner had wanted with the idea of total art and high opera which obviously would have lent itself to the idea of total film, total theater, total art. Brecht had the concept of epic theater, and Syberberg has always been very pro-Brecht. Not ideologically, but because it’s the desire to make great statements that are great German statements. Indeed, his views of Brecht were quite unfashionable once Brecht went east and became almost the sort of privileged puppet-master of the Berlin ensemble, where they all said they were oppressed and made to do it now, but in actual fact because they loved every minute and he had his own chauffeur, private public flat, guards, limousine. You know, the whole works.
He went to the East and did a film about Brecht and his legacy, because he was a great German. Again, you almost sense that equivocal element in Syberberg as well as the pride of an Easterner as well. Because, as we all know, there is a distinction between the East and West German sensibilities, which has been exaggerated and exacerbated by the fractured nature of their experience in the post-war period. Even politically today, there’s a disjunction between the amputated limb of the East that’s been put into sort of cryogenic storage and repositioned back on the rest of the trunk.
Syberberg’s opera of Parsifal was a truly extraordinary opera. It can be obtained on Amazon and so on for very small amounts of money now. That opera, which essentially preaches not just total art but total redemption through love and the creation of a Germanicized Christianity (a sort of dejudaized Christianity in many ways), is a chance for Syberberg to luxuriate (his critics would say fetishistically wallow) in Germanicism and in culture of deep linguistic Romanticism that is outside politics, but types of extreme politics grow from it.
The thing about his type of work is that there is no distinction as there usually is between political statements, aesthetic statements, ideological statements, philosophical ones. They’re all merged into . . . if not a total attitude towards the world, a sort of Weltanschauung, but a total attitude towards art, because for Syberberg art is the world. It’s the view that it’s more important than creativity at that level. It’s more important than life and death, which to most people is just high-faluting nonsense, but Syberberg believes in it with a passion, and this has made him, particularly with the material that he wishes to deal with, very, very unfashionable.
After about 1990, he found it increasingly difficult, certainly in the Federal Republic, to raise money to make films. Possibly, he’d come to the end of his trajectory. Made a film about Karl May. Made a film about the Wagner family. Made a film about Ludwig II. Made a film of Wagner’s opera Parsifal. Made his enormous film Hitler. Did the shorter films when he was younger.
He was in a philosophical, narrative based, and yet largely linguistic film where people discuss their ideas, including some famous elderly German actors, called The Ister which was made in 2004, and he has a producer role in that and a performance role as one of the philosophical spokesmen.
Since then he’s done not very much, or been allowed to do too much, in film which always costs money if you’re going to have it disseminated with any public prominence beyond the internet.
He published this book, however, in 1990, which I’ve already referred to, called On the Misfortunes and Fortunes of Art in Germany after the Last War. This created an enormous culture war, as they’re called, in Germany at the time. It’s largely forgotten now, but not quite some of its protagonists. Many people who were associated with Syberberg until then dropped him after that, and he became a little bit of an unperson.
During this book, he says that contemporary Germany is essentially culturally rotten and has destroyed itself and is self-hating, and, ironically in relation to everything connected with the past, is philo-Semitic. Excessively so.
And this is not really [???]. I remember Michael Walker of Scorpion magazine, who I think had become a German citizen by then, writing in one issue of that publication that Syberberg better know what he’s doing, because the way things are going he won’t be making too many films in the future.
Syberberg’s politics is less important than the spirituality of the artistry that he represents. As with all extremely visual artists like him, describing what he’s done makes a lot more sense if you’ve actually seen the material, but of course very few people are entirely aware that this material exists, even though probably a lot of that comes up on the internet almost instantaneously in English.
But the reason for this is because people understand what he’s doing. He’s positioned himself to be the repository of the sort of sensibility, which didn’t come to an end in 1945, that certain forms of German classicism that are not particularly redolent of it. There are certain forms of German medieval art that don’t really relate to it. There’s something rather trans-German and quasi-Catholic and German in the European sense, in Nietzsche’s sense of being European as against German, about him. And there’s not very much Protestant in my view about his art aesthetically, for example. But he is the repository of the Romantic völkisch sensibility which people know is quintessentially German and yet is largely denied apart from tourism and a few prissy things now. But it is ideologically denied in contemporary Germany.
What’s wanted are endless novels of guilt and expiation and anti-Romanticism and Existentialism and writers like Robert Walser, Elias Caneiti’s Auto da Fé and this sort of thing. “We’ve destroyed ourselves, and we’ve deserved it!” This sort of stuff, endlessly. This is what’s wanted. Needed. Required. Expiation before the possibility of a primary statement. Even before the possibility of a primary statement. It’s the sort of Angela Merkel, never be proud to say that you’re German, without an enormous preliminary screed of apologetics that has to be read out before you can even get to the moment you enunciate in a quiet voice.
Now, the truth is you can’t create anything in a culture without that element of fire-in-the-belly and without that element of prior authentication.
After German unification, there were quite a few articles about Syberberg. There was one well known one by Diedrichsen and Chametsky called Spiritual Reactionaries after German Reunification: Syberberg, Foucault, and Others. Many people, of course, saw a great danger in the nationalisms, as petty and futile though some of them were, that were released when Communism was taken off and there was lots of angst building in allegedly quality journals all over the world about the dangers of this and that. So, Syberberg had his moment in his book in 1990.
It’s also very important to consider his class position in a strange sort of way in post-war Germany. The sort of Germany he came from, and his father managed estates on behalf of other people, partly related to the people who owned them, partly not. That type of class background was destroyed several times over really. Destroyed by the collapse of the second empire, finished off by the first war, any savings pretty much decimated by the inflation, which is probably why his father was later managing other people’s estates, the Weimar period was sort of an interregnum they just got through, then there was a quasi-authoritarian, semi-militarist government between 1930 and ’33, then Hitler’s chancellorship thereafter, then the German world seemed to have come to an end with every city and every town in complete steaming rubble and tens of thousands of corpses under the rubble so that when the sun came up in the summer there was an incredible stink of all the carrion. Because first you had to get all the stone up, then you had to bury them in lime pits and that sort of thing. And this was before you could rebuild, in accordance with what would later be called the German Economic Miracle, that which had been destroyed before. Everything is a sort of simulacrum, a version, a film, a virtual version, a virtual reality version of what existed. It’s sort of Thunderbirds, you know. You blow it up, it’s still there. And that’s why he sees everything as a film.
The most outrageous thing of all, as Susan Sontag worked out long after she wrote her essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” is that maybe he regards the Shoah as a film. A film. A film from Germany. A film from Israel. A film from Palestine. A film from Germany. Which, if you like, of course a film is a fiction but it can be truer than fact and more important than fact, like a great religion is more important than fact because it can move millions of human beings to behave in ways they would never do otherwise. One man with an idea and certainty is worth fifty other men.
So, when you look at the artistic basis and the methodological premises of his cultural practice, as contemporary Marxist cultural studies types would call it, you suddenly see that there’s something actually slightly insidious to liberal order. But my view is that it’s less conscious than semi-conscious, in my opinion of his work. Because he’s somebody who’s total focus in life is artistic. In a very German way, he’s totalitarian about art, in a way someone like Otto Dix was, for example. It’s that desire to not just penetrate to the core in the way that the Elizabethans in our own dramaturgy would like to do, but to actually go to the limit of what is possible to say in a given trajectory. And his trajectory would be what Wikipedia calls “the dark side” of German Romanticism.
Is he, or can he at all be, described as Leni Riefenstahl’s heir? Firstly, the cinema that she made, the idea of making anything comparable in post-war Germany is utterly unthinkable. It’s unthinkable. Therefore, all that could ever be made is to approximate to the sensibility that she shows in her films as much before Triumph of the Will and Olympia parts I and II, Festival of the Peoples, as they’re congruent with these works themselves.
The first films were mountain films and films of extreme Aryan wistfulness in the sort of permafrost of the ice. She was a dancer before then. The last film is about the threnody of the body and opera/operetta and again a return to that which she knew best: when blocked, you go back.
Always with her you sense this yearning and transcendental idealism and desire to attain archetypal perfection visually. She’s an extreme visualizer and an extreme feminine visualizer, which is artistically unusual, which is why Hitler chose her to make that film in the teeth of all sorts of party opposition. Goebbels couldn’t stand the idea initially that a woman would make the film and was overruled. Because she viewed that movement with the religious eye, essentially speaking, of a female artist, which is why Hitler chose her. Because he wanted it seen in that way. And it’s very rare for the male world, if you like, for an extreme version of part of the male world, to be viewed by the female artistic eye from without with technical ability and genius as well. Editorially and so forth.
This, I feel, is the comparison that can be made between him and her. But with him, likewise, there’s a technical search of perfection given monetary and budgetary limitations, and there’s also a yearning idealism, which exists in many cultures, but I often quintessentially associate with Germanic forms of art and with the German sensibility without which north, south, east, or west there can’t really be a center.
It’s not that we’re all Germans really, although English people are primarily Germanic, but nevertheless, it’s that they’re the core to the European identity, which can have many outer chambers but without the core, doesn’t exist.
Despite the fact that we technically fought against them savagely two times in the 20th century, that is actually less important, in my view, than the spiritual damage which has been done to Germany since the Second World War and the degradation of Germany and of things German in casual British parliaments and American as well and much more subtly and culturally than that at every level; from the mass cultural level, things like graphic novels, to modernist opera and back again. At every level there has been this attitude of not just cynicism or disrespect but deconstruction, and willed and vigorous and sort of emotionally violent deconstruction at that.
Unless contemporary European people can, in the next years that face us, step over that, there will be a hole right in the heart of the European identity. Right in the hull of Caucasian identity. Because our identity without German culture is essentially unthinkable. Without its art, without its literature, without its music, without its philosophy, without its, at times to the English spirit, ponderous seriousness, without its fanatical attitude towards ideas, that streak of virulence that’s part of the Germanic nature and of which now they’ve been taught to be afraid.
Syberberg’s work is an artistic attempt to wrestle with what it is to be German, which, if you think about it, being a German artist or any sort of creator who’s not making shlock television just as sort of [???] mountains. What he’s actually trying to articulate is a vision of life.
There is no nationality in Europe, even in Russia under Communism, which is more difficult to bring off or even to deal with than the German identity. Because even the Bolshevik Revolution didn’t so disprivilege the very idea of what it was to be Slavic or Russian from the inside out. It destroyed and burned and blew up churches and destroyed artworks. I think every musician that Shostakovich was at the Moscow Conservatoire with in one particular year was shot. Every one, on Stalin’s orders. And when he asked, through party officials, because you had to be a member of the part of course, why he’d been spared, Stalin said, “Shostakovich can write film music. We need film music. Because we need film. Because with film we can go straight into the mind of the masses!”
There’s this Czech novel called The Engineer of Human Souls [by Josef Škvorecký], and that was a Stalinist term. We are the engineers of human souls, and we need men who can write the music for the films, where we can go straight into the brains of the masses.
Because with film you can go straight into the front cortex. Because that’s what visualization does. Before you hear a sound, before you hear the music, you see the image, an image gone straight into the mind. That’s why it is the form of the 20th century. It’s where representational art has gone in the 20th century. It’s why radical governments have used it in every way.
That’s why the Chinese use film extensively with the masses, but also of course in all other cultures; India as well, now coming up economically. In the United States, the whole dream factory has been created since basically the consolidation of the Hollywood studies as an industry perforce in around 1919 prior to creation by some of the artists like D. W. Griffith of United Artists.
It’s interesting just as a sideline in American cinema to think of what’s happened to D. W. Griffith’s films like Intolerance and above all Birth of a Nation parts I and II. The Golden Globe Awards and certain Hollywood awards up until the early 1990s used to have a D. W. Griffith prize.
Of course, for those who don’t know, in Birth of a Nation the Klan are the heroes. Not a film that would be made today.
In the early 1990s, certain Black Nationalists complained, and the D. W. Griffith prize . . . they didn’t get rid of it all, because he’s crucial to the development of world cinema with Lillian Gish in his major films and this sort of thing. So, the Shakespeare of American cinema, it’s a bit difficult to completely put him in the closet, but by this date in time, 15 years further on, the D. W. Griffith prize is no longer awarded.
That’s sort of Hollywood cinema, which over time and at certain times has had certain genuine European features, and yet over time also has changed to the degree that the amount of European sensibility that’s left in contemporary Hollywood is very small. The amount of it that was there in 1920, correspondingly, was quite significant. Indeed, there have always been many Hollywoods, and, as Gibson discovered with his film, if you make half a billion dollars in personal profit, criticism dries up.
John Wayne opposed racial desegregation. He gave money openly to the Klan in the 1960’s. He was such a big star, he was left alone. Because he’s a big brand, and you want them. But there’s a degree to which the sensibility which he represented, they just made sure it didn’t appear on the screen too much. That’s how it’s done.
Syberberg is not a Right-winger, in my view. He’s a conservative nationalist of a mild sort, but he’s an aesthetic German, and his real premise is that Germany is in all of us, and without its cultural inheritance as something to use and step beyond, we cannot have a coherent Europeanness. And without that trajectory, it is not possible to survive.
So, I would ask you next time you’ve got an hour or so on the internet to put Hans-Jürgen Syberberg into Google or one of the other search engines and bring up what you can and see what you make of it. Because he’s somebody who is obscure, but he’s obscure not because he’s no good and not because he needs to be obscure, or has been falsely kept so, but because he’s slightly dangerous. And in this era of standardization and of dumbing down and of conformity, there is a great need for those who are prepared to stand up for the inner lives of their own peoples. And he’s still alive.
Thank you very much!