Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 28, 2021 12:51 pm 
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An attempt to expose the slickest Nazi that fizzles

How did the most powerful Nazi in the Nuremberg trials become "the good Nazi"? This documentary delves into the details of his successful post-prison life. Well, sort of. In fact this documentary seems ineffectual and even an out-and-out mistake. Its ironies are at once too subtle and too obvious to be of much interest.

Vanessa Lapa made a previous documentary about Heinrich Himmler, The Decent One. When she was approached by Stanley Cohen, a man who was originally going to promote a film dramatizing the memoir of Albert Speer, the architect of the Third Reich, she has recounted that she couldn't face more exposure to the mind of evil, but eventually she was drawn into it.

The pretext for this film is 40 hours of tapes recording discussions between Andrew Birkin and Albert Speer in the early seventies. Cohen had bought the film rights of Speer's memoir. Paramount was interested. Hence these discussions.

Speer never went to Hollywood. The Birkin-Speer talks took place at Speer's home in Germany. Speer had evaded hanging at the Nuremberg trials and served 20 years at Spandau for his war crimes, then become famous and financially successful as "the good Nazi" for his books about the Third Reich whitewashing his role in it. Andrew Birkin, brother of Jane, then 25, was a protégé of Stanley Kubrick and cousin of Carol Reed, and Birkin was a young screenwriter. On the tapes they are going over the screenplay Birkin had composed dramatizing Speer's memoirs.

Lapa's idea was to recreate these discussions - degraded quality required that they be dubbed by other voices - and provide visuals that alternately illustrate and contradict Speer's claims as they go through a screenplay outline.

Lapa uses a wealth of archival material for this that shows Speer and his wife in their comfortable home alternating with images of Germany before and during the war and images of the Nuremberg trials, with special emphasis in the latter on Speer's behavior.

As before, at Nuremberg and in his memoirs, Speer dodges issues constantly. He tries to persuade Birkin to present him in a more innocent light, the man who claimed not to have known about the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews, not to know about the death camps.

We get the outlines of Speer's remarkable rise to power from being a young, minor architect to a favorite of Hitler, and then when the chief or armaments Fritz Todt died in a plane crash, being chosen to replace him and thus become one of the most powerful figures in the Third Reich. It is now believed that Speer's falsification of his armament production and artificial increase of it, through slave labor of prisoners, was effective in extending the war and causing the deaths of millions of additional war victims when Speer knew early on, which he partially admits in these talks, that the war was lost and Germany would only be further destroyed. He acknowledges knowing horrible things were happening in the camps. He says he approved their introduction though, because the jails weren't big enough.

But Speer doesn't dramatically admit such a thing. On the contrary he smoothly covers it over, as was his way. There are some stunning admissions. He says, for instance, that he wasn't anti-Semitic; he just was disgusted by Jews and their money-grubbing ways. He had claimed not to have been present when Himmler made his notorious speech announcing that the Jews must be exterminated, claiming that he left the dinner early. But in the tapes he asks Birkin if it would be better for the movie if he was shown to have been there. The truth clearly is to be tweaked as the situation requires. He wavers on whether he was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. He describes visiting a shabby, worn down Hitler in the bunker to say goodbye and disapproves of his coldness on this occasion.

But so what? Some of this is mildly shocking; a surprise only if you're thoroughly ignorant of the Third Reich ;and of Speer. Tergiversations don't make very good dialogue. Birkin is mild, accommodating. His wishy-washiness is a strong hint that this project is doomed. He reminded me vaguely of Truffaut in the famous tapes interviewing Hitchcock, except that Speer, unlike Hitch, has nothing illuminating to say, nor does Birkin have truly penetrating questions. At some point both Kubrick and Reed are cited as warning Birkin that his screenplay supports Speer's lies or tergiversations and that if Speer doesn't admit his culpability this movie won't work. Indeed so.

Where is the illumination here? What we get is another, more suave and dodgy version of "the banality of evil" famously delineated in Hannah Arendt's famous 1963 New Yorker profile, "Eichmann in Jerusalem." Only Vanessa Lapa, dedicated and sincere though she clearly is, is no Hannah Arendt.

In her Variety review Jessica Kiang points out that the sound, the basic foreground of the film, is weakened in two major ways: by the stilted performances of Anno Koehler and Jeremy Portnoi, who voice the dialogue of Speer and Birkin, respectively; and by the unnecessary added sound effects to accompany historical footage, which creates an artificial "over-foleyed" effect. These things undermine the fine job Lapa has done in unearthing rare Third Reich-period footage of Speer in action. Kiang believes that this film is a good idea, but has failed in the execution. I am doubtful that it was even such a good idea. People who admire it seem to be seeing what they want to see - as they can because one can read different meanings into the ambiguous material.

Speer Goes to Hollywood, 97 mins., debuted at the Berlinale, as did Lapa's 2014 Himmler film The Decent One. It also showed at Moscow, Jerusalem and Telluride in Apr., Aug., and Sept. 2021 respectively. It opens theatrically Opens at Film Forum, New York, Oct. 29, 2021; at Laemmle Royal & Town Center, LA, Nov. 5.

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