Perhaps not seasonally appropriate but a gift all the same, Facets’ 30th- anniversary release of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s phantasmagoric, seven-and-a-half-hour Hitler, a Film From Germany makes one of the great, audacious, all-but-impossible-to-see movies of the 1970s generally available for the first time.
Syberberg’s Hitler—which was misleadingly retitled Our Hitler by its American presenter, Francis Ford Coppola, and is now packaged in an infelicitous compromise as Our Hitler, a Film From Germany—was the culmination of Syberberg’s ongoing meditation on the myths, fantasies, and desires that resulted in the Third Reich and continue to fuel fascination with the Nazi period. Following movies on Ludwig of Bavaria and Karl May and an extended interview with Winifred Wagner, Syberberg brought his mock-epic style—puppets, props, rear-screen projection—to bear on 20th-century Europe’s most alarmingly seductive personality.
Syberberg is not without artistic antecedents, but nothing else in movies quite resembles this underground extravaganza—populated by stand-ins and shot entirely on a soundstage cluttered with the symbolic detritus of German culture. Syberberg was the only filmmaker of the German neue kino to successfully synthesize the spirit of Wagnerian romantic megalomania and that of Brecht’s sardonic cabaret theatricality, infusing both with a sense of cosmic melancholy. Hitler often seems to be a circus staged by and for a single impoverished aristocrat pondering the mystery of Germany in the night.
The Facets transfer has an unexpectedly ethereal quality wholly appropriate to both the artist’s anti-monumental aesthetic and his belief in cinema as an artifact. The two discs are accompanied by a booklet that includes Susan Sontag’s early influential essay on the film; the major extra is a German video doc on Hitler‘s much-ballyhooed American premiere at Lincoln Center in 1979.
Hitler is not the lone neue kino historical marathon newly out on DVD. Criterion’s seven-disc set of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 mini-series Berlin Alexanderplatz is less a stocking-stuffer than a stocking-buster. Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s experimental novel—the story of an ex-con’s progress through the Weimar underworld—was arguably the most ambitious undertaking of the director’s frantic, foreshortened career. Fassbinder was obsessed with Döblin’s book, first published in 1929, and identified with its stolid anti-hero, Franz Biberkopf. Although faithful to his source, he imbues it with considerable autobiographical resonance—not least in the casting (most of Fassbinder’s regulars make appearances over the course of the movie’s seven episodes).
Berlin Alexanderplatz was made for TV, and that’s how its 15 hours should be savored. Criterion’s HD transfer is typically excellent. Extras include a book of essays on both film and novel, several documentaries on the film’s making and restoration, and, most thoughtfully, the 1931 version of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Directed by Phil Jutzi from Döblin’s own adaptation, it’s an innovative, significant movie in its own right—not to mention an evocative time capsule.