Award-winning Israeli documentary about camera-hungry Nazi Albert Speer opens in New York and Los Angeles

In her acclaimed 2014 documentary, “The Decent One,” filmmaker Vanessa Lapa used the private family letters of SS leader and Final Solution architect Heinrich Himmler to expose just how deep his wickedness ran.

Now she is again using the words of a Nazi against him, this time with audio recordings made by Hitler’s chief architect and the minister of armaments. Albert Speer, while working on the script for a feature film based on his hit memoir from 1970, “Inside the Third Reich”.

In his new movie, “Speer goes to Hollywood” Lapa shows how cunning the manipulative Speer was in covering up his crimes, which included enslaving 12 million Jewish, Polish and Soviet prisoners and forced laborers, at least a third of whom died of starvation, injury or exhaustion, to produce German weaponry during World Second War. Earning the reputation of being “the good Nazi,” he was sentenced to just 20 years in prison at the Nuremberg trials, while his co-conspirators and subordinates were hanged.

Speer spent his time in prison writing extensive memoir notes on paper napkins, and captivated sympathetic guards who illegally removed them from prison for him.

Still brimming with excitement to have won the 2021 Ophir Award for Best Israeli Documentary Film earlier this month, Lapa recently spoke to The Times of Israel from his Tel Aviv studio as he prepared for the US theatrical release of “Speer Goes to Hollywood.” The film opens in New York on October 29 and in Los Angeles on November 5.

“I’m sitting here with my coffee and the award right here in front of me. It’s very rewarding, ”Lapa said.

Vanessa Lapa (second from right) receives the award for best documentary film for ‘Speer Goes to Hollywood’ at the Ophir Awards, the Israeli version of the Academy Awards, October 5, 2021. (Biran and Eliran Avital)

As with Himmler’s letters, the 46-year-old Belgian-born Lapa stumbled upon Speer’s recordings. At a 2014 screening of “The Decent One” at the Film Forum in New York, a lawyer named Stanley Cohen approached her and told her that he had purchased the film rights to the English edition of “Inside the Third Reich” from Speer and who had come closer Paramount images in 1971 about making a movie based on it.

Paramount commissioned the British writer Andrew Birkin, a protégé of the director Stanley kubrick, to develop a script. To do so, Birkin, who was only 26 at the time, traveled to Heidelberg to interview Speer. (At the time, after being released from prison in 1966, Speer was living comfortably in the German countryside and making frequent media appearances.)

Cohen was unaware that Birkin had recorded his conversations with Speer, but Lapa discovered that there were 40 hours of tapes recorded in 1971-1972, when he went to visit Birkin in Wales in February 2015.

“After Andrew gave me five minutes of the tapes, it was clear to me that he wanted to listen to all of them and make a movie out of them,” Lapa said.

According to the filmmaker, Birkin wanted the recordings to be used and was happy to deliver them to him.

“He had never heard them again in the last half century, but he digitized them at some point in an effort to preserve them,” Lapa said.

Albert Speer speaks to the press after being released from Spandau Prison, Berlin, 1966. (Realworks LTD)

On the tapes, Speer and Birkin are heard discussing various scenes from a draft script for the possible Paramount project. It is clear that this was going to be a scripted drama and not a documentary.

“It must be a long way from a documentary. The further the better, ”listeners hear Speer say.

Birkin talks about the need for audiences to identify with Speer, the “hero,” in the first five minutes of the film. The notion of an audience identifying with a person responsible for the enslavement and murder of millions of people may be shocking today, but in the early 1970s people were captivated by Speer’s book, in which he positioned himself like an impressionable young Nazi leader who really cared. about the German people.

‘Inside the Third Reich’ by Albert Speer. (Macmillan, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In a 2017 New Yorker piece, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Danger AdichieShe reflected on why she was so fascinated by “Inside the Third Reich” as a child, but so disgusted by it 30 years later.

“Speer shows clever honesty whose goal is to disarm. If he disarmed me as a child, he disgusts me as an adult. His repentant recognition of his dedication to Hitler, and his philosophical perplexity at his own complicity, seeks to cast a glow of innocence on him, ”Adichie wrote.

“…[Speer] with serene cunning, he gathers his follies in a flattering light. His self-criticism has too soft an edge; it’s as if he had considered all the possible criticisms he might face and had come to terms with them, and there is a selfish undertone to this that is perverse, “he continued.

According to Lapa, “Inside the Third Reich” still sells 2,000 copies a year.

“It is amazing that there is not yet a preface in the book that puts it in context for today’s readers,” he said.

In Lapa’s movie, we hear Birkin talking to a mentor, who warns him that the script he’s working on with Speer is a cover-up, especially regarding Speer’s denial of knowing about Auschwitz and the Final Solution. But Birkin seems indifferent.

Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production Albert Speer (far right) at an airfield in the east, watching the demonstration of a newly developed weapon from the protection behind deck, October 1943 (Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons ).

“I think Birkin did the best he could. Was he credulous? I was young and it was a time when people knew less about the war and the Holocaust than we do now, ”Lapa said.

“Speer managed to charm and manipulate Birkin, just as he charmed and manipulated everyone, including the Nuremberg judges. Even Speer’s biographer Gitta sereny I believed in his repentance, ”he said.

In contrast, Lapa, who was also initially under Speer’s dominance, found extensive archival documentation that contradicted Speer’s claims. It led her to view his repentance as completely false and to criticize him for his historical lies.

Albert Speer testifying at the Nuremberg trials, 1945-1946. (Realworks LTD)

“What I found was a man for whom human life had no intrinsic value … We also see this from the fact that he convinced Hitler to prolong the war for two and a half years, when he knew that Germany was losing.” Lapa said.

Lapa and Joelle alexis He wrote the script for “Speer Goes to Hollywood,” based on 40 hours of discovered audio, and then Lapa and his team spent several years doing extensive archival research to find still and moving images that matched and juxtaposed with the audio.

The dissonance between the lies in the audio and the truths in the images is powerfully effective. Although the actors lend their voices to Speer and Birkin because the quality of the original recordings was not good enough to use, Lapa assured The Times of Israel that every word is pronounced verbatim from the exact transcripts on the tape.

Vanessa Lapa. (Aline Frisch)

Lapa is passionate about using only pre-existing material, which she lets the story tell. His films have no narrators, talking heads, or freshly shot footage.

“When you have so much footage to show the world, it’s a waste not to,” said the filmmaker.

Realizing that Speer was trying to play fast and easy with facts and truth, Paramount finally decided not to give the green light to the film based on the Nazi memoirs.

“If this movie had been made, it would have rewritten the story of a historical injustice and transformed its villain into its undisputed hero,” Lapa said.

Speer maneuvered to avoid the death penalty in Nuremberg and died free in 1981 at the age of 76. Forty years later, Lapa, with his incisive film, has left him hanging by his own rope.

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