Israeli documentary shows delusions of ‘Hitler’s architect’

Historical memory, now and forever, is an extraordinarily messy thing. Most prefer wallpapering it rather than tackling it head-on. It is therefore not surprising that, when given the opportunity, a member of Hitler’s inner circle chose to ignore his own culpability in the Nazi regime, in favor of a glamorous Hollywood-style reinvention attempt – all the infamy of their associations, no guilt. .

The Israeli documentary Speer goes to Hollywood, directed by Vanessa Lapa, traces this reinvention attempt by Albert Speer in the 1970s, who served as Hitler’s architect and was sentenced during the Nuremberg trials to 20 years in prison for his role in helping the Nazi regime, in the process narrowly avoiding the death sentences of many of his fellow collaborators.

After his release, the self-styled Speer wrote a best-selling memoir that gave thrill-seeking readers a lurid inside view of the Third Reich (the book was literally called “Inside the Third Reich”), while he painted his own ascent. to the inner circle of the Nazis as a 12-year “mistake.” The film largely focuses on his later efforts to adapt the book into a Hollywood movie, which involved convincing the writers and directors that he was an understanding figure, rather than a perpetrator.

Winner of the 2021 Ophir Award (the Israeli Oscars) for Best Documentary, Lapa’s film takes an unusual approach to non-fiction about the Holocaust. It does not focus on the facts of what happened, but on the nature of its subject’s self-deception. after the fact. Instead of today’s talking heads, Speer goes to Hollywood is structured around a series of recorded conversations from 1972 between Speer and screenwriter Andrew Birkin, who is trying to adapt the book and, in the process, also trying to distinguish the man’s motives, to see if the public would buy it as a hero.

Lapa complements these discussions with archival footage from Nazi Germany and Nuremberg, and occasional movie clips intended to exaggerate Speer’s mood. The result is greater unreality: a flood of overlapping images in a brainstorming session by a writer who is also an interrogation of the soul.

Nazi defendants appear at the Nuremberg trials (credit: SNAPPY GOAT)

It’s a surprising approach to the material, even though the gimmick, which continues to play the same tongue-in-cheek notes, turns out not to be long enough to sustain 90 minutes. By witnessing Speer in conversation (via voice-over re-enactments), we can see the logical leaps that he takes to earn the dubious nickname “The Good Nazi.” Again and again he deviates, blames himself, acquits himself of responsibility.

Of course, he says, he did not like the Jews: “They did not come legally, they somehow smuggled in,” and many of them were “nouveau riche,” which evoked in him a feeling of mistrust. But he never saw the concentration camps, he says, even though his captives were often forced to work on his construction projects. Okay, maybe you used the forced labor of 12 million prisoners, but you didn’t know they were being brutally beaten at work, and all these other eyewitness accounts attesting to that treatment are exaggerations, outliers, or outright lies. He didn’t steal items from Nazi victims himself, but could have accepted items stolen from elsewhere … isn’t that better?

Alright, alright, Speer later confesses: “Indirectly, I learned from Hitler that he planned to annihilate the Jewish people. But I didn’t have direct knowledge until 1944. “Was he present at the Wannsee Conference, at any of the meetings where the Final Solution was discussed? Well, he doesn’t know. It must have been erased from his memory. And anyway, would never have agreed to mass extermination: “It’s a loss of job for us.” (Speer, whom witnesses in the film’s archival parts say had to know about the existence of Auschwitz, rejects a proposed scene by Birkin in which his morally conflictive character would look at the concentration camps themselves, considering it “too sentimental”).

Birkin himself, who is still alive but never heard from today, reveals his own anti-Semitism during the course of their conversations: he explains that he is having a difficult time making Speer’s film because “Paramount and the Jewish brigade” are not there. happy with it. We get the sense that the two men, when engaged in their intimate conversations, have created their own little oasis of denial, one that had a chance of being accepted by the general public in the decades immediately following the Holocaust.

Reality intervenes once Birkin invites his famous director friends Stanley Kubrick and Carol Reed to comment on the project; both are shown alternately incredulous and dismayed by the treatment that his script gives to Speer. Reed, whose “The Third Man” is perhaps the best postwar Europe film ever made, says the architect’s role in the killing fields is being “whitewashed,” and Kubrick, who is certainly no stranger to crafting. From beloved movies centered around unsympathetic characters, he has no desire to get close to any story that might absolve the Nazi. Did Hollywood do the morally right thing for once?

A postscript to the documentary notes that Speer’s memoir was eventually made into a 1982 television movie, a year after his death, without Birkin’s involvement; the film starred Rutger Hauer as Speer and Derek Jacobi as Hitler. Hollywood won in the end. But it’s hard to feel like Speer won, at least. His place in our historical memory, as a true Nazi, is secure.

Speer goes to Hollywood it is now screened at the Film Forum in New York and opens on Friday in Los Angeles.

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