Devoted in part to the presentation of “unshowable” movies, Anthology Film Archives has become the unofficial New York venue for one of the greatest and least-shown of contemporary filmmakers, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. From September 9 through 14, Anthology will screen Syberberg’s “German Trilogy”: Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972), Karl May (1974), and, for the first time in New York this century, his magnum opus, the seven-hour-plus Hitler, a Film From Germany (1977)—in 35mm.
Syberberg’s originality lies in his use of art as the basis for historical assemblage. Exploring the legacy of German romanticism by rummaging through its rubble, Ludwig, bio of Bavaria’s last king, is a conjuring act at once grandiose and threadbare, brooding and ironic. Karl May is somewhat more conventional in approaching the life of another German visionary—the prolific author of wildly popular Wild West adventures—although the casting of aged Third Reich cinema personalities as May and his wife gives the movie a spooky, fairy-tale quality.
Ludwig and Karl May were rehearsals for Syberberg’s most audacious work—an amazingly layered and allusive illustrated-lecture-cum-puppet-play magic-lantern show staged as if by Dr. Caligari on a detritus-littered sound stage or, alternately, inside a snow globe. Hitler‘s Hitler appeared in a variety of guises—a house painter, a ventriloquist’s dummy, Chaplin’s Great Dictator, the Frankenstein monster, Parsifal, a ranting, carpet-chewing crank, a stuffed dog in the arms of democracy, a toga-shrouded corpse rising from Wagner’s grave, and the subject of his valet’s 40-minute discourse. Syberberg’s concern is not Hitler’s life so much as the myths and fantasies that gave him life and continue to do so.
Hitler had its New York premiere at Avery Fisher Hall in January 1980 under the auspices of distributor Francis Ford Coppola and with the endorsement of Susan Sontag, whose critical judgment (“one of the great works of art of the 20th century”) emblazoned the ad. Unavoidably, this continually provocative but anti-sensationalist meditation on the subject of the 20th century fell victim to its own hype and the public’s thwarted expectations. On one hand, Hitler was shocking for Syberberg’s unflinching willingness to locate the cultural origins of the Third Reich in a heady mix of utopian yearning, anti-industrial nostalgia, and totalizing aesthetics, to which the filmmaker was himself susceptible; on the other, Hitler was confounding in relentlessly alienating the audience from the subject of its fascination.
Too underground for Lincoln Center, Hitler demands to be seen—in its entirety—in a suitably post-apocalyptic setting. (Anthology’s no-frills big space will do.) As melancholy and ritualistic as it is, the movie would be the perfect midnight attraction in a deserted movie house, with the nightmare of German history lasting until dawn.