Elsaesser, Thomas. “Myth as Phantasmagoria of History. H. J. Syberberg, Cinema and Representation.” New German Critique, no. 24–25 (Winter–Spring 1982): 108–154.

Myth as Phantasmagoria of History - H. J. Syberberg, Cinema and Representation

Thomas Elsaesser

from New German Critique 82


Art is now the name of a huge variety of satisfactions – it has come to stand for the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation of satisfaction itself. Where so many blandishments flourish, bringing off a masterpiece seems a retrograde feat, a naive form of accomplishment. (.. .) Syberberg assumes importance both for his art (the art of the twentieth century: film) and his subject (the subject of the twentieth century: Hitler).
Susan Sontag, reviewing "Our Hitler." New York
Review of Books, February 21, 1980.

A good deal of interest aroused by the so-called New German Cinema lies in the expectation that the films of Herzog, Fassbinder, Syberberg, Wenders and others are renewing not just the art-cinema circuit, but the art of cinema. In recent years, several films by Fassbinder, and the controversial, brooding, melancholy Our Hitler (1978) by Hans Jürgen Syberberg have been interpreted as Germany's long-overdue cultural reparation for Nazism, a reparation which German post-war writers like Grass, Böll, Walser or Handke never quite seemed to deliver.

The paradox, that it should be the cinema – the art-form most tainted by fascism ("from Caligari to Hitler") in the general mind – which now appears to speak on behalf of German culture, has not received sufficient attention. For how is it, at this late stage, that a 'national cinema' should emerge that rather self-consciously has put on the mantle of art? Susan Sontag, attentive reader of Benjamin that she undoubtedly is, comes close to being aware of the problem, when she points out that there is something anachronistic and self-contradictory about the very ambition of producing a cinematic masterpiece. Art and cinema in West Germany today stand in a complex dialectic to each other, whose mediating instance is the extensive state subsidy system for film-production, which allows films to be made almost entirely outside box-office mechanisms and direct commercial considerations. In fact, by apparently removing films from the sphere of economic distribution and circulation, the State has adopted the cinema as part of culture, of the kind it customarily supports with grants to theatres, museums, opera-houses or symphony orchestras.1 Yet it thereby obliges the film-maker to become, even if reluctantly or anachronistically, an "artist" of the traditional kind who has to legitimate himself with unique and 'auratic' works: he attempts masterpieces, if only by showing his willingness to court failure, or he tackles serious subjects on the assumption that they will provoke debate and controversy. The circumstances are very reminiscent of those described by Horkheimer and Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).

In Germany the failure of democratic control to permeate life had led to a paradoxical situation. Many things were exempt from the market mechanisms which had invaded the Western countries. The German educational system, universities, theatres with artistic standards, great orchestras, and museums enjoyed protection. The political powers, state and municipalities, which had inherited such institutions from absolutism, had left them with a measure of the freedom from the forces of power which dominates the market, just as princes and feudal lords had done up to the nineteenth century. This strengthened art in this late phase against the verdict of supply and demand, and increased its resistance far beyond the actual degree of the protection. (. . .) But what completely fettered the artist was the pressure (...) always to fit into business life as an aesthetic expert.2

Today, by contrast, the cinema is achieving cultural status in Germany at the very time when the bourgeoisie has acquiesced in the liquidation of its own historic culture; at a time when the ambiguous spoils of a troubled but distinctive national tradition have been unburdened of history and equitably divided up into information, spectacle and opinion ("Sachbuchwissen," "Unterhaltung," "Zeitgeschehen") so as to fit television time-slots, publishers' catalogues, and other channels of mass-media circulation.

Germany, whose celebrated "inwardness," as Adorno reminds one, translated a peculiarly virulent political and social backwardness in the face of industrialization, into philosophical idealism and phenomenological existentialism, held on to a formal notion of high culture as a realm of spiritual values longer and more tenaciously than other European countries. Particularly West Germany, in its anxious attempt to demarcate itself from both its Nazi past and the German Democratic Republic (itself strenuously in search of a cultural pedigree) could not but cling, for the first two decades after the war, to a defensive and particularly stuffy version of "Kultur" and "Geist." Student activism around 1968, however, when every Germanistik seminar was busy taking down another part of that ruin called "Bildungsbürgertum," did much to relieve the middle class of any nagging guilt that the values of Goethean humanism or the political ideals of German Romanticism might represent the nation's conscience and a proper moral focus for emancipation justice. The angry, iconoclastic enlightenment of the late 1960s may tingly have lent a hand in helping instrumental reason and rationalization install itself in West Germany so thoroughly as Europe's most efficient “one-dimensional" society.

Insofar as it is part of the "Kulturbetrieb" (or culture-industry), th New German Cinema has achieved a somewhat pyrrhic victory. Its 'independence' is comparable to Kafka's hero K in The Castle, who eventually manages to bribe his way into the powerful Klamm's waiting carriage, only to discover, hours later, that Klamm had long ago taken another carriage and driven off in the opposite direction. But there are signs in West Germany – and the cinema is one – that in the face of the strong law-and-order state, the "assimilated society" is perforce reinventing for itself a certain degree of heterogeneous political activity and rediscovering long buried cultural traditions. These impulses have in some instances produced a less neurotic relation to German history, and while the actual social impact may be slight, and indeed may be overshadowed by the much talked about "Tendenzwende," the media and the publishing industries nonetheless bear witness to a revival of romantic, irrational motifs, in the name of a subjectivity which the New Left of the 1960s had been determined to consider obsolete baggage on the road to emancipation. This assessment, as is now clear, turned out to be premature.


The polarities in the work of a director like Hans Jürgen Syberberg fully unfold themselves only as part of such a political stance on the side of subjectivity. They emerge in the context of a reaction against the growth-oriented economies of both East and West, but also against the narrow rationality used to justify as well as criticise them. In this respect, Syberberg is a disciple of the scepticism that characterizes The Dialectic of Enlightenment. His films seem to be about the past, but the pressure of interrogation which he puts on this past comes from very contemporary predicaments. And the inner logic of his films constructs itself quite dialectically out of the question as to why the cinema, at this point, should seemingly find itself at the forefront of a cultural and counter-cultural renewal. In all his films, Syberberg appears stoically to uphold a rather naive idea of a national culture, and a faith in "art" as a legitimate critique of social and political reality. But the ironic situation of the German cinema, which is well on the way towards becoming a wholly state-sponsored art-form, whose independence is directly related to its political harmlessness, insofar as this society now reproduces itself ideologically through the mass-media and less and less through art or even its formal education system, actually serves Syberberg as a strategic position, which gives him the confidence to stay on the offensive, and to make himself a prophet despised in his own country. He has consistently tried to brush the notion of culture against the grain, as it were, until it bristles again with such taboo words as "myth," "redemption," "destiny," "irrationality." And he is evidently quite proud of a blasphemous version of the Lord's Prayer that appears in his Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King (1972), where the Holy Trinity of the German soul is "Sehn-Sucht" (yearning), "Heim-Weh" (Homesickness) and "Wahn-Sinn" (delirium).

It is not at all difficult to see why Syberberg has drawn more ill-tempered criticism and dismissals in Germany than any other film-maker. His films demand from the viewer exceptional intelligence and concentration, if only by their length and their relentless, self-conscious seriousness.3 What humour there is, is on the whole structural, in the form of dramatic irony, and as such not meant to provide light relief or evoke spontaneous laughter. Strained to the point of physical discomfort, after four hours or more, the spectator finds that his grudging admiration has turned into exasperation and abuse: but making difficult films is the deliberate liberty that Syberberg takes with a cinema institutionalized in order to become a "cultural" experience. His intransigence has (undeservedly) earned him the reputation of a pretentious aesthete and a foggy spiritualist.4

What, then, is the inner logic of his films, or rather, can there be a merely internal logic to a work that dramatizes consistently a notion of cultural and historical crises, as it affects "art" in the age of industrially produced consciousness? An obvious understanding is close at hand: that Syberberg is the last in a long line of cultural pessimists – the conservative German tradition extending from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wagner to Spengler and Thomas Mann. Here is how Hitler is introduced:

And there came one who knew – the greater the sacrifice, the greater the God. And who knew that blood-sacrifices were required, with the most sacred values of art and morality on the altar of faith. And they also knew, out of an old feeling, and because he told them that those who sacrifice, are part of the elect. An elected people. (. . .) Devil and eternal tempter of democracy, or hypnotized medium of the world's masses, or tool of capitalist exploitation and social explosions, where is his beginning, and how can we grasp it, represent it, through the old images for our time? Once more, the old rites of Dionysous of self-sacrifice. Western ceremonies, celebrations of decline, a last memory distant myths about the nearness of the Gods during blood-sacrifices and Fathers slay their own sons. For they know not what they do, waking in the as if from a dream, distantly aware of their own guilt. Final attempt of Europe realize itself through its ancient traditions in the age of the new law masses. In despair, fainting, a puzzle and a mystery to all spectators (. . .).5 (Syberberg, Hitler-ein Film, p. 74/76)

The language has the ring of incantation, the rhapsodic-prophetic tone is reminiscent of Nietzsche, and the diffident, respectful questions echo Serenus Zeitblom, the narrator in Mann's Dr. Faustus. Can Hitler really be considered "a puzzle and a mystery . . . forever" – after more than thirty years of Faschismusdebatte? But in Syberberg's films, economic or Marxist analyses seem to get mentioned only to be dismissed. Brecht's anti-Hitler plays are explicitly cited as inadequate models:

So, no private scenes about Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and nothing about the cauliflower trust and the political life of gangsters during the 30s. Rather (our show) is about faith that can move mountains. Of a people's tribune without precedent.6

As the film prologue continues, one begins to grasp the point. The rhetorical stance is itself ironic, carving out a space of negativity: the show opens to close expectations, and to deny conventional notions of spectacle; the characters appear on stage in order to disclaim that they are characters. Likewise, the cinema must not attempt to flesh out narratives or give the illusion of redeeming by recreating what is past redemption. When one reviews this part of German history as to its relevance for the present, Hitler is not the main protagonist, nor is fascism the plot.

There will be no hero, only us. And there will be no story, only ours, within us. (. . .) Those who want to see Stalingrad once more, or the lone Wolf in his bunker (. . .) will be disappointed. We do not show the non-repeatable reality, not the emotions of the victims and their histories, not history as it appears in non-fiction best-sellers, not the industry that cashes in on morality and horror, fear and death, penitence and arrogance and righteous anger.7

The misunderstanding, then, is that Our Hitler is about Hitler. In this respect, the film advances evidence and arguments that are familiar even to those who are only cursorily acquainted with the debates about the origins of fascism. In the context of these debates, the film cannot but seem ideologically ambiguous. On the one hand, Syberberg appears to revive the psychological-psychoanalytical explanations of fascism, without any of the methodological rigour or empirical documentation of say, The Authoritarian Personality. On the other hand, the formulations are too close to a certain metaphysical manichaeism not to invite suspicion about a possible mystification of the issues. Susan Sontag writes:

Although Syberberg draws on innumerable versions and impressions of Hitler, the film offers in fact very few ideas about Hitler. For the most part they are the theses formulated in the ruins of post-World War II Germany: the thesis that Hitler's work was "the eruption of the satanic principle in world history," the thesis . . . that Hitler was the logical culmination of Western progress. . . . In reviving those unmodulated views of thirty years ago, their indignation, their pessimism, Syberberg's film makes a strong case for their moral appropriateness.8

This line of defence does the film a considerable disservice, especially if another center of Syberberg's work is not brought out equally clearly. As the programmatic-polemical title Hitler A Film From Germany with its various subsidiary titles, like Our Hitler, or Hitler within Us – We in Hitler wants to make evident, the film is also about the mechanisms of identification and the structures of identity, about spectatorship and participation, about screens, mirrors and the Medusa-face of fascination.9 Hence the elaborate framing metaphor of the show. The paraphernalia of telescope, crystal ball, back-projection and of Edison's Black Maria movie studio make, from the opening, a grandiose gesture at an essentially empty stage, where only puppets, voices, projections and cut-outs will be allowed to appear. Hitler A Film: it is as if Syberberg is interested in Hitler as the imaginary construct of intersecting lines, as the zero-degree of a system of co-ordinates ("from the legendary nullity of nothingness,")10 whose axes are projection and identification.

The conjunction Hitler/cinema is much more pervasive and central than any of the commentators have been willing to consider, and it certainly does not exhaust itself in a series of suggestive facts or anecdotes about Hitler's sponsorship of Riefenstahl, or Hitler the movie fan, or even the extended analogy of the War conducted in the cutting rooms of newsreel studios for the Führer's private projection booth. These are emblems rather than symbols, and the relationship between Hitler and the cinema is what takes Syberberg seven hours to clarify. And it is – to stay within the geometric image – an asymptotic relationship. Which is why Susan Sontag is seriously wrong when she presents it as a parallelism, ("the art of the twentieth century - the subject of the twentieth century")11 thereby hinting, if only rhetorically, at some sort of inevitability.

Hitler, in Syberberg's film, dissolves as a "subject" – in both senses as a historical individual and as a subject for further research – and is posited instead provocatively as a "nullity," in order for another subject to project itself onto the blank, onto the absence. The imaginary lines intersect in a space that designate "us": (German) spectators in the cinema, (German) participants in history. The subject of the film is us: fascism and film – two imaginary constructions of the subject, two equally problematic and related structures of identity.

The film does not assert a direct analogy between the dynamics of identification that captivate the spectator in the cinema, and whatever psychic structures held the German 'people' tied to Hitler. Its mode of argumentation is more roundabout. Foremost in what mediates and at the same time opens up the irrecoverable asymmetry between cinema and fascism is the concept of myth, itself janus-faced and ambiguous. It in turn can only be analyzed by having recourse to a notion of history, which in Syberberg is bound the structures of anticipation and memory, with utopia and the desire of origins. The startling contiguity of Hitler and Hollywood, of Nazi judges and West German film-critics, of Goebbels and pornography in Our Hitler appears a less gratuitous gesture when the submerged terms of Syberberg's cultural discourse can be reconstructed. Ideally this must happen not just in the Hitler film, but also in the other films that make up the “Trilogy,” especially Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) and Karl May (1975)


"It would be . . .an error and a mistake, to deny the necessity of myth, myth as the response to a reality forever beyond one's grasp . . . For us today history becomes the material for our new mythologies, even when communicated through the everyday rationality of scientific paperbacks. The artistic embroidery on history in the form of sublimation exists for us, because we need it and the conscious use of legends is the sign of a collective will . . . . Only myth makes irony possible, through wit, reason and passion. But myth is the mother of irony and pathos, whose incestuous love gives birth to irrationality . . . . The key to the success of modern myth lies in taking seriously the banality of kitsch and the popularity of the trite and trivial – the last traces disappearing world from the primeval depths of our historical past."12

From passages such as these, it almost appears as if Syberberg regards myth as a repository of fantasies, archetypes, wish-fulfilling dreams and popular superstitions in the manner of Jung's collective unconscious. Yet Syberberg emphasizes that he is concerned with "myth today," that is to say, myth as an aspect of modernity, and itself a historical phenomenon. If there is a hint of the Joycean dictum that "history is the nightmare from which we are trying to awake," there is also an echo of Michelet's phrase: "each epoch dreams the next." But perhaps the most pertinent subtext for the passage is a comment by T.W. Adorno on myth in Wagner.

"He belongs to a generation which for the first time became aware that living in a fully socialized world made it impossible to avert individually what came to pass over the heads of mankind. But it was denied to him to call by its right name the totality thus constituted. Instead, it became metamorphosed into myth. The opaqueness and omnipotence of the social processes are glorified as a metaphysical mystery by the individual who suffers them and at the same time identifies himself with the very powers that determine these processes."13

If myth is something like the quest for an identity (collective or individual) outside history, an escape from history into psychological time, then this attempt is doomed to failure, as Syberberg recognizes, when he makes "the banality of kitsch," "the popularity of the trite and trivial" the index of popular myth-making. Nothing is more saturated with the past than kitsch, whose passing it perpetually regrets and laments. Kitsch is the gesture that embraces what once was product of a living tradition, covering the gap between past and present which only historical understanding could otherwise rescue with a desperately fake aura. Kitsch and myth are both historical attempts to live outside history. Again, Adorno provides the context for such a view:

"(If) Wagner's mythology finds its logical realization in the imagery of Wilhelmine Germany: the Kaiser's motor-horn signal was a simplified version of the thunder motif from The Ring, (. . . then) one can say that the fake-element in this imagery, the disfigurement of the myths by those who came after, and who in them recognize themselves and mirror themselves, must also be a kind of truth about the myths. (. . .) What subjectively was wishful dreaming is objectively a nightmare.14

The attempts to "realize" myth in inadequate forms – be it kitschart or apocalyptic politics – is at the very core of Syberberg's dual critique of German fascism and commercial cinema. This core is dialectical, because it implies a notion of myth as the promise of a fulfillment, and – for those with hope and patience – the fulfillment of a promise, which history cannot take away, however much economic necessity and bourgeois rationality might outlaw, pervert or repress the promesse de bonheur. Syberberg wants to demonstrate how such hope ("Sehn-Sucht") attaches itself to whatever debased materials and outworn forms present themselves, and how it manifests itself in fragments, relics and fetish-objects. But such realization must remain outside politics, history or economics, and even outside the politics of culture – whichh is to say, it is not a subject for high art forms like the bourgeois novel. Instead, the cinema, as an intrinsically debased or impure artform must serve to construct an "opposing world" (Gegenwelt):

"This irrationalism does not try to capitulate, but to take its stand with art rather than with reality, in the form of an opposing world."15

Syberberg wants to rediscover art, this time imitating not the herois self- and world-denying stances of German idealism, but one that builds on the kitsch-debris of history, the material residue of the consequences of such heroism. Modern myth, as it appears in literature and totalitarian politics, is deeply involved with decadence, and as Adorno stresses in connection with Wagner, has to do with the bourgeoisie becoming aware of their own self-estrangement as a class and their looking for a mirror to explain the world they themselves brought into being. As bourgeois consciousness becomes a mystery to itself, myth – in its bold immediacy, brutality, and archaic form – is a mode of projection that allows the individual to think capitalism into the phantasmagoric image of his own identity, without having to think it as capitalism.16 Therefore, in the mythomania of the late 19th century the classical bourgeois ideology of self-transcendence is preserved, but negatively, as the aesthetics of self-estrangement, bombast and decadence.

A key to Syberberg's specific historical and dialectical conception of myth is to be found in the figures he chooses as protagonists of his films. Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus – the decline and fall of the classical ideal of self-transcendence – Syberberg fastens in the first instance on the rather more trivial and pathetic Ludwig II, Mad King of Bavaria, and then on Karl May, who he actually calls "einen Trivial-Faust." Against the symbolic interpretation that Mann gives of the relation between art and politics in the 20th century, Syberberg's films set a much more displaced and eccentric constellation.17 The curious phrase that "myth is the mother of irony and pathos"18 seems to preserve the intuition that modern myth exists in a structure of antitheses and reversals: extremes turn into their opposites, opposites reveal mirrored identities. Thomas Mann, too, speaks of irony and pathos in relation to Adrian Leverkühn, but Syberberg has handled dramatic and structural irony in a way that brings out the texture of modern mythology with more force, precisely because of the garish and tattered materials he employs.

If modem myth is indeed the phantasmagoria of history, its negative imprint taken out of time, then the method to which Syberberg commits himself in Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) is to show that Ludwig's self-image expresses a utopian impulse that dovetails exactly with an ideology diametrically opposed to him: one that destroys him, although he never recognizes it as such. Only through juxtaposition does the image of Ludwig's life and death reveal a social truth, and only at the point where his life tilts over into myth does it become transparent in its historicity. Ludwig is constructed around a polarity whose central figures are only visible at the periphery: Wagner and Bismarck. Wagner is perhaps the key complex in all of Syberberg's films. For here, the arch that spans from art to politics is most tautly strung, and the modem function of myth most evident. In Wagner, myth is still held in its phantasmagoric ambiguity. His mythological music-dramas are "decadent" and subversive in their supersubtle psychologisms and their flagrant eroticism. But they are also pillars of bourgeois self-affirmation, in that they glorify capitalism as a spectacle of supernatural, archaic, elemental forces.19 The question Wagner – and the challenge of his work – hinges on this ambiguity (and we shall see what Syberberg himself does with it), which outside Bayreuth splits, and develops into an apparent antagonism of a vitalist-activist and an aesthetic-contemplative legacy. Wagner's attempted synthesis of bourgeois self-estrangement "realizes" itself in the remythization of politics under Bismarck. On the other hand, it gives rise to a diametrically opposite impulse: the creation and retreat into "artificial paradise" such as represented by Ludwig's "madness" and the monuments he had built for himself and his eccentric sensibility – the fairytale castles of Neuschwanstein, Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee. The kitschmedievalism of Bismarck's Reich and the kitsch-Gothic of Ludwig's Bavarian castles are both travesties of Wagnerian pathos, and in a sense, false fulfillments of a falsely prophetic work that tried to freeze a historical crisis into the shape of myth. Ludwig's dandyism and the neo-Teutonic bombast of Wilhelmine Germany mirror each other as antagonistic moments of the same ideological gesture of a symptomatic miscognition: an individual (a monarch and a representative of his "people") and an emergent nation-state trying to explain and at the same time arrest social change in the form of a mythological self-portrait, for which Wagner conveniently supplied the costumes, the postures and the emotions. The art of Wagner becomes in relation to Ludwig and Bismarck emblem of a precarious balance, impossible to maintain. In Ludwig it unhinges a mind and drives it into solipsistic isolation; in Bismarck it fades even as a negative, ironic statement about the bourgeoisie's inability to recognize by its causes the dynamics of capitalism and turns instead into an affirmation of aggressive nationalism, inflated with the metaphysics of manifest Destiny, Volk and Providence. History either becomes inward and psychological in the swooning Liebestod-motif from Tristan und Isolde, or externalizes itself and seeks transcendence in the permanent anticipation of catastrophe: the Ride of the Walkyre from Götterdämmerung. Both are forms of an escape into a mythology that denies history, a blindness that is itself a product of history.20

Syberberg's film is divided into two parts: the first tells of Ludwig's flight from politics into the world of Wagner's music, whose most famous patron he was, as he performed the huge operas in solitary extravagence. The second part chronicles, in a series of tableaux, what consequences this retreat into fin-de-siécle decadence has in the "real" world. Insofar as he spends his time supervising sets and selecting sites for financially ruinous private performances of "Tristan" or "Tannhäuser," Ludwig does play a political role, however passively and negatively. This "virgin king," a homosexual, the last of his line without the prospect of an heir, and a sensual-effete aesthete interested in spectacle and fashion than in court-politics and financial transactions, occupies a dramatic space, one which is literally and metaphorically a 'sideshow' for events that are historically centered elsewhere. Even though much of the action revolves around Ludwig's own Bavarian relatives among the nobility (who are trying to put a stop to his extravagant spending and who eventually outmanoeuvre him, with the help of his brother, by having him declared insane and ordering his murder, disguised as suicide), the last King of Bavaria is an utterly marginal figure for the history of the epoch: the "Prussianization" of Germany and the war against France, which led to German unification after more than five centuries of particularism and national division. It meant that in the name of unity and industrial prosperity the whole of Germany (with the exclusion of Austria), – its liberal bourgeosie, its emerging socialist, and the remaining feudal houses – were brought under the domination of Prussia's para-military state bureaucracy. These developments defined the ideological and political terms under which German capitalism expanded. Within this framework were realized the transformations of German society, culminating in the first world war, the failed revolution of 1919, the Weimar Republic and the "successful" counter-revolution represented by early Fascism.

All this appear in the film mostly by inference. The discontinuous narrative is made up of scenes from Ludwig's life, divided between listening to his barber, or a youthful lover, and wandering around in the fantastic-phantasmagoric decor of his residences, with occasional solitary moon-lit sleigh rides through the mountain forests of the Bavarian Alps. Politically, the center of the film is Bismarck, who embodies the new Germany in the shape of an old Prussia that is about to relegate Ludwig and his country to insignificance, by colonizing it. But Bismarck never appears in the film, and is hardly mentioned at all in the dialogue. Yet the film's argument is conceived in such a way that Ludwig, the dreamer, whose soulfulness and recluse existence make him an aristocratic decadent in the "Gothic" tradition of Poe or Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, represents nonetheless a political stance. His life gives rise to and reflects myths as potent and consequential as the aggressive Realpolitik of his Prussian antagonist.

Syberberg works out sharply the clashes and ambiguities opened up by this despotic, spoiled and irritable monarch, as he interlaces and juxtaposes Ludwig's aestheticism and musicality with the power-politics and court-intrigues over the spoils of Bavaria. While Ludwig worries about the latest fashion in hair-styles, or makes a servant tell him about life "outside" among village folk and peasant families, the nobility around him is busy carving up those very villages, forests and lakes, to make sure they profit from the Prussian-industrialist take-over. The great historical conflicts of centralization, of building up an industrial infrastructure against regional interests and the upsetting of the local ecology, agriculture and peasant communal life (which has marked Bavaria ever since the 1860s) is represented as an almost comic opposition between the crude materialism of Bavarian aristocrats in Lederhosen and Tyrolean hats, quarrelling with their cantankerous, irresponsible, spendthrift dandy relative. His very decadence makes Ludwig more than merely a pawn in the game of Prussian and Bavarian landed gentry: a notion of reciprocal manipulation of antagonistic position emerges that recurs in film after film, and forms the very structure by which Syberberg demonstrates the dialectic of German history. For underneath the stark contrast between a world governed by exquisite manners, and homosexual sensibility on the one hand, and a realm of Realpolitik, industrialization, assassination plots and state budget deficits on the other, there exists a secret collusion, all the more powerful for being undetected in the manifest clash of personalities and conflicting interests. In one sense, Ludwig's aesthetic revolt seems a mere pathetic and futile gesture. But the uncompromising radicalism of his negation in the realm of politics, his devotion to the Bavarian countryside and architecture, its folk-customs and festivals, also embodies the longing for a better world; the will to build a sensuous-sensual utopia, if only in the form of exotic grottoes and fantastic castles. The question is whether in Bismarck's dream of a German Empire, one does not find the same emotional sources and spiritual resources at work as in Ludwig's fantasies.

The traditional Prussia-Bavaria antagonism is reformulated by Syberberg as the confrontation of alter egos – one of whom, having been repressed at this historical juncture, will return to haunt the survivor like a ghost. Prussia’s colonization of Bavaria as the price of political unification has driven underground and inward another dream of unification and identity, that of German Romanticism and Idealist Humanism. In the process of repression it has turned the utopia into a no less fervent death-wish, a longing for extinction and redemption that announces itself in the affinity of Wagner's music and Ludwig's architectural follies. And one day – in the person of an Austro-Bavarian bureaucrat's son – it will avenge and redeem that fantasy of an expansionist and at the same time self-destructive inwardness, by undertaking a most ruthless decolonization in the name of autarchy and self-determination: reclaiming first of all Prussia, and with the aid of its military machine, visiting the dream upon the whole of Germany and the rest of Europe.

This seems to be the meaning of Ludwig's nightmare, where he sees Hitler and Röhm dance a Bavarian Schuhplattler in a decor borrowed from Tannhäuser, with the Wittelsbach princes, the Prussian crown prince German Emperor forming the audience. Syberberg's view of Ludwig is always a double one. There is the documented, historical figure, in whose life and character some of the most pertinent contradictions of a moment in German history can be studied. But there is also the figure who is merely a sign or image in someone else's writing. The nexus of homosexuality/extravagance/sensibility and despotism which constitute Ludwig's response to and refusal of an emergent society he despises and abhors, for instance, returns to and him as the label and name that others give him: madness. The castles he had built for himself are attempts to isolate himself and – privileged being that he was – create a world of his own where he could contemplate himself in the spectacle of his own sensibility. Yet to those around him, such anti-bourgeois, aestheticist seclusion was proof of his derangement and excuse to remove him from office and take his life. And once this had been accomplished, Ludwig's castles and extravagant life-style, the supposed evidence of his madness became a source of income to his enemies, when they opened his palaces to visitors and the curious: the most private becomes the most public and fantasy could be calculated in cash, as the Wittelsbach family pay for their town houses and land speculations with the revenue from Ludwig's castles. What makes this possible is that Ludwig's dandyism took a form that could be recognized not only by Bavarian peasants: he was a popular king to a people for whom he objectified and lived out compensatory, forbidden fantasies of wealth, uniqueness and extravagance; he was the idealized embodiment of a desire for an impossible individuality, characterized by total self-absorption and single-mindedness of vision. He was true to himself, and thereby "represented" his people most royally.

Ludwig's life is a parable of the origins of the commodity-form, as it affects the social function of ivory-tower aestheticism. For it is on the basis of this dual form of alienation – his eccentricity of self-realization being perceived as madness by his peers, which is then idolized by the people because they can decode and identify with the motives and desires that gave rise to it – that a folk-myth, such as enacted by Ludwig, takes shape. A fascination is born that can be exploited and turned into hard cash. Ludwig's final betrayal is therefore less the plot against his life than his transformation into a tourist attraction, used to sell the commodity Bavaria: of yodelling and beer-swilling happy natives, of Neuschwanstein rebuilt in Disneyland as the epitome of fairy-tale Europe. Thus we see Ludwig in the film resurrected and triumphant: underneath the ermine gown he wears Lederhosen and the traditional folk-costume, singing and yodelling in the falsetto of an Oktoberfest bandleader.

The dialectical construction is significant in several respects: it more than hints at the annexation and recuperation of aesthetic dissent; it underlines how necessary and yet how fragile folk-myths are as a mode of devious self-expression, how their structure rests on a kind of double bind, or double misunderstanding; and finally, how such a myth can be manipulated to eliminate its political dimension altogether. The contradictions inherent in Ludwig's life and activities, i.e. what makes him significant as a protagonist of an aesthetic revolt that included a rejection of centralization, capitalism and the erosion of regional autonomy, have been eliminated in the legend of the mad and fantastic king. With this, he disappears from history and enters into the realm of spectacle and voyeurism. One of the most memorable scenes in the film shows Ludwig, slumped in a chair, staring wide-eyed into the camera, while behind him against the wall is projected what he sees as he looks at us: an unending flow of tourists, inundating and pouring through the state rooms of his castles, bathed in a red glow as if in flames. The effect is startling: a candid camera has recorded guided tours, the visitors are peering with undisguised curiosity, cameras are clicking, eyes are following the invisible hand of a guide. We are literally made to participate in an invasion of privacy, the desecration of a private fantasy turned inside out.


These points are made, somewhat differently, in Syberberg's companion film, Theodore Hiernies, Ludwig's Cook (1972). Here, the grandiose-sentimental aesthete is seen through the crude materialist eyes of his cook, as the Ludwig film had already counter-pointed recitations from Goethe's Iphigenie with the vain and venial chatter of a gossip-mongering barber. In a sense, the intransigent subjectivity of Ludwig, and the naive, but equally uncompromising self-interest of his menial are both a rejection of court-politics. However, the extreme narrowness of focus on either side – here lofty spiritualism, there bodily well-being and financial gain – repeats the dialectic of the Ludwig film, between aestheticism and Realpolitik, though this time the opposition highlights the ideological process whereby the non-political, especially when it considers itself above politics, is implicated in whatever power-politics it deigns to ignore. Ludwig's cook, in a 60-minute guided tour around the Munich residence, Herrenchiemsee and Linderhof, addresses the camera and talks about the king's bad teeth and the artificial lake on the palace roof which permanently leaked into the servants' living quarters. The latter is itself an anecdote that demonstrates in a nutshell the kind of materialist clay feet that weigh the flights of fancy to the ground. Throughout, the cook displays the joviality of an expert who knows the value of his indiscretions. The method recalls that of Brecht: the unreflected materialism of a cook may tell more about history than the textbooks, and an economic analysis of the King’s expenditure may be most usefully conducted by reciting a menu, or the inventory of a wardrobe. For Syberberg is not primarily interested in unearthing telling touches and spicy details. Ludwig narrated by his cook is comparableble to Mother Courage talking about the generals Tilly and Wallenstein before battle, Falstaff discussing the concept of honour, or the porter in Macbeth complaining about royalty. Not only do they deflate the pretensions of the powerful, but their self-interested point of view – what Brecht called "blunt thinking" – lays bare the critical powers of perceptions that are narrowed and honed to a sharp point by what is at stake when human beings think and act out of concreteness of their situation. The cook's monologue, as he explains the leaky roof – proof that all artificial paradises have concrete base – or when he describes which cuts of meat the king would not eat because of his bad teeth, conveys a special kind of truth: that of the irreducible materiality of history as it is preserved in the experiences of those who suffer history rather than make it. That this materiality can itself be exploited commercially, or as a mere show-effect, is made strikingly evident by having the actor playing the cook address the camera and give a "performance" as a tourist guide, itself a contemporary parallel of the film's premise: the sanctimonious and at the same time wittty memoirs on which the film is based.

Hiernies' seemingly naive loquaciousness reveals a cunning and ruthless man who, by blackmailing the Wittelsbach family (he had been witness to some of the intrigues that led to Ludwig's mysterious suicide) had secured for himself the money that started him off on a prosperous catering career in Berlin, where he was able to trade on the exoticism of his one-time association with the Mad Ludwig: the Wittelsbachs exploit Ludwig's castles, but Ludwig's cook exploits both the Wittelsbachs and Ludwig. Theodor Hiernies is an opportunist and makes his fortune because he can read the signs of the times. Ludwig opposes himself to these times but he too is grist for the mill of show-business, because the form of his protest can be read, already in his time, as mere signs, freely convertible and commutable. The two Ludwig films are therefore not simply about the interconnections between Romantic aestheticism and German Realpolitik in the decades that led up to and followed the founding of the Second German Empire in 1871: they also talk about the commodification and specularization of both idealist history and its obverse, "materialist" history "from below." The inner movement that accompanies the crass conflicts and dramatic ironies shows that the geo-political unification of Germany actually divided the Romantic vision of unity more decisively. Firstly, it makes the polarity Bavaria/Prussia an ideologically overdetermined one (not that Ludwig's cook chooses Berlin as the place to stage his culinary and commercial triumphs), where Munich becomes emblematic for the lyrical, artistic, spiritual, dreamy embodiment of the German character, its anarchic-bohemian side, while Berlin represents the brash, materialist, sober and realist, cold and calculating, capitalist side. And secondly, it forces the aspirations for unity and against unification to go underground and inward, thereby displacing and distorting their inherent political, utopian momentum. It is at this stage that Romanticism manifests itself as a will towards mythologizing experience, and attempting the impossible synthesis outside and elsewhere. Shaping existence into parable and legend becomes the life-philosophy of those who can see that the new economic reign of militarism plus industry bring to history an energy and a violence of change for which the vision of organic growth among pastoral poets, or the gentle utopias of Biedermaier citizens provide no explanation. Nonetheless, they persist in constructing what is taking place around them as evidence of the dualism between mind and matter, soul and society, imagination and rationality. Instead of an awareness that these oppositions are themselves already appropriated, subsumed and exploited (what Syberberg is at pains to demonstrate in all his films), the "irrealists of an ironclad romanticism"21 identify the incomprehensible with the Enemy, and resign themselves to their faith in life, and forge their will in the fire of self-discipline and deprivation ("Entsagung").


Such an unreconstructed, mythomanic auto-didact of Wilhelmine Germany is the central figure in the second panel of Syberberg's tryptich, Karl May (1974). Seen from outside, Karl May's life is that of a Don Quixote from Saxony, imprisoned by the need to hold on to a fiction about himself which alone gave him the strength to live according to his ideals. To himself, though, his life must have seemed more Titanic, more Faustian. Syberberg speaks of him as a pulp-Faust ("Trivial-Faust''),22 "the Grand-master-mystic in the age of dying fairy-tales.''23

Karl May (1842-1912) was the well-known writer of boys' fiction whose popularity has persisted unabated since the 1890s, and whose appeal seems to be impervious to either changes in literary taste or ideological climate. His novels about the adventures of a German ("Old Shatterhand") among American Indians (the Winnetou books) and (as "Kara Ben Nemsi,"i.e. Karl, the German) among Arab tribes in the Near and Middle-East (From Bagdad to Stambul, Across the Wilds of Kurdestan, The Sheik, etc.) have nurtured the dreams of adventure, travel, heroism and escape of five generations of adolescent German males. Although some of these books were made into films during the 1960s, reading Karl May is still essentially a private experience. Well into the age of cheap paperbacks, the books appeared in sober, khaki-green, hard-bound editions. Unlike comic-strip heroes, Disney characters, the robots from Star Wars, Karl May's heroes have spawned virtually no visual iconography of their own; there are no commercial spin-offs into toys, posters, badges or gadgets. The adherents and addicts of May form a more furtive, secretive band than other pop-cults, and that despite multi-million sales, film adaptations, an annual Karl May open air festival and a May museum, in his native town of Radebeul, near Dresden.

Syberberg takes for granted that the spectator is familiar with Karl May’s phenomenal success as Germany's unacknowledged educator of so may generations. What seems to interest him at first glance is the discrepancy between the novels, with their stories of brotherly love, fierce loyalty, spotless honour and humanist fervour, and the often miserable, even sordid circumstances of Karl May's life. The books, written as first-person narratives, encourage reader-identification and project the image of the good, noble, Christian German, whose chief accomplishment is to pass himself off as a non-German native and who braves every conceivable danger to prove himself an incorruptible friend of the persecuted everywhere. It is as if, during the period of Germany's desperately ruthless attempt to acquire a colonial Empire, a popular writer were intent upon expiating that very goal by inverting it idealistically.

For Syberberg, Karl May is, like Ludwig, a typically German seeker of artificial paradises:

One can go in quest of one's paradises, as did the historical Karl May, by travelling to the sites of one's fantasy, and one may well suffer, as did May, a nervous breakdown in consequence. One can look for paradises in human love and recognition for one's work, and this is hard work, as the visual and textual arguments of the film demonstrate, and finally, one can look for them in the victory over oneself, in self-sacrifice, on the way towards inwardness, in the soul and the unconscious. . . . And on this road, Karl May travelled far and paid for victory with his life.24

Building another world of purity, sincerity and loyalty, Karl May projected a revolutionary but anachronistic bourgeois humanism on to a hazily ahistorical reality, which nonetheless in retrospect can be recognized as the period of European colonialism when Africa, the Middle East, the American West came under white influence. The pointed irony, however, is that the author, in order to write these pseudo-autobiographical narratives, never left his own country. Just as Ludwig did not hesitate to recreate temporally and spatially whatever exotic landscape he wished to inhabit, so Karl May surrounded himself with the clutter, trophies and decors of a world traveller, amassing them, piece by piece, within the domestic setting of a bourgeois Saxony villa. Much is made of this in the film, and Syberberg has a stuffed lion sit docilely at the writer's feet. The film begins at a point when Karl May has already achieved an apparently secure reputation. A series of crises, both personal and professional, plunge him into intrigues which nearly destroy him. A competing publisher, anxious to cash in on May's fame, has his juvenilia printed, spiced with salacious passages, in an attempt to accuse him of lasciviousness and homosexuality. The fact that his autobiographical exploits are pure fiction – strenuously denied by him – becomes widely known, along with sordid details about a spell in prison for the theft of a watch, an episode which forced him to resign as a school-teacher in younger years. The hero of millions is branded a liar, a criminal and a bragging hypocrite. Law-suits, libel actions and interminable court-cases take up the bulk of the film's narrative background although the image concentrates on May, his first and second wife, and the domestic intrigues that make up daily reality in the class and status-conscious neighbourhood of Dresden's petty aristocracy. The film ends with Karl May's legal victory, his social rehabilitation and what Syberberg calls "his apotheosis": a visit to the Kaisergruft in Vienna, where the light from the Baroque windows surrounds him like a halo. After this, May can return home, to die there among the mementoes of his imaginary life.

Syberberg documents the personal animosities and domestic defeats so painstakingly, because they manifestly form the inner lining of his hero's tales, whose conquests by moral goodness and physical strength are acts of negation.25 Karl May emerges as a man who tried to cope with his life by projecting outward and into distant places the misfortunes and failures of a typical life revolving around deprivation: as a child, he was blind until the age of four, nourished by the tales that his grandmother would tell him; as an adult, it was the hunger for love, recognition and social acceptance that made him exert his imagination so prodigiously. That the mechanisms of defense, over-compensation and wish-fulfilling daydreams should have won him millions of readers, late but nonetheless substantial fame and fortune, and finally even social recognition in the form of an invitation and a reading at the Imperial Court in Vienna, is the paradox that Syberberg's film both dramatizes and attempts to interpret in parabolic fashion. Adolf Hitler, himself an admirer of Karl May and supposedly present at the Vienna reading in 1912,26 is made to comment: "when the weapons for freedom are lacking, forever will must replace them."27 A banal existence, full of neuroses and hypochondria, is transcended by the boldness of a lifetime's longing, an exertion to repress the knowledge of what these travels and exploits of May's imaginary alter ego signify: a protest against a reality too painful to be either endured or confronted head-on.

In a sense, May was right in claiming that he had actually travelled from Bagdad to Stambul or across the Rockies: nobody had suffered the moral and physical dangers of such journeys more acutely then he in his struggles for survival in provincial Saxony. The secret of his success, and what makes him ultimately the creation of his readers (in much the same way that Ludwig became the myth the Bavarians fabricated about him and which the Wittelsbach family turned into cash) is the fact that the "audience" responds less to the moral or extravagant fantasies, than to the bitter self-hatred and despair which they contain and attempt to cancel out.

As a historical figure, Karl May was marginal, living both geographically (Saxony – also the home of Wagner – being the very epitome of provincialism) and intellectually an isolated and decentred existence. Never a member of a literary circle or social set, his life is depicted in the film as the kind of self-defeating struggle where the daily flight for conformism and acceptance makes a man his own worst enemy. It is the marginality that gives him symptomatic value: from the edges he has to conquer the center and there find the wholeness of an impaired life, and he does so by what emerges as a characteristically German amalgam of iron will-power and inward-looking otherworldliness: "the soul is a faraway land, and towards it we flee."28 Given the sense of thwarted potential everywhere, Karl May's life represents an effort to revise it in the form of an imagined autobiography. His relatively harmless imposture, like printing "Dr. Karl May" on his visiting cards, is part of a veritable existential project. A scene shows him in his library embracing the globe: "I must turn myself into a legend, so as to make clear the parabolic significance of my books. This may be an ambition that could easily ruin me, but what does the fate of one single individual matter, when great, hugely looming questions concerning the whole of mankind are at stake?"29 The ridiculous pathos of such a scene is Syberberg's way of underscoring the abyss of self-deception and miscognition across which the German petit-bourgeosie made its great leap into myth. It is as a self-created myth, forcibly repressing economics and politics, that Karl May, alias Old Shatterhand and alias Siegfried, becomes a typically German self-image. The necessary condition for them is to be consumed as popular heroes, in that they should function as an idealized, but also sentimentalized mirror.


Although myth is, from the perspective of a critical rationality or of historical materialism, an ideological form of recognition and self-representation, it is possible to see such mythopoeic and mythomanic energies also in a different light. In response to a left-wing attack on Karl May, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch published in 1927 a defence, entitled "Winnetou's Silver Rifle," and which Syberberg certainly knew when he made the film.30 Bloch writes:

Even if Karl May had never actually performed what he narrates about himself, had never been to the places of which he claims to know each blade and bush, every boy knows that he is right. There must be something in the lie, then, namely the real desire for distance ("Ferne") which the lie satisfies.31

Like Syberberg, Bloch contends that the fantasy points the finger at a truth, if not about the historical individual, then about the desire of the readers. Bloch goes on: "Karl May is one of the best German story-tellers, and would probably have been the best altogether, had he not been a poor confused proletarian." (. . .) "His plots are like a nightmare, out of which there is no escape, or like a rescue which one never tires of being told again and again. (. . .). The reader may even lose his awareness that he is reading, just as a dreamer does not know he is dreaming. (And that is why) one can read these books over and over again, because they can be forgotten."32

Karl May, as it were, looks both ways: he is the last of the story-tellers, perhaps even in Benjamin's sense, who because of "provincialism" can still communicate shared experiences and collective desires, as they manifest themselves in the fairy-tale, the adventure story and the exotic yarn. And yet, these popular forms are no longer innocent, neither towards history, nor in respect to economics, because May is also the first of the mass-market writers, with an output and a readership that immediately involves the technology and capital of commodity-production and distribution. This is precisely the point that Syberberg picks up in the film, when he shows how May's personal and spiritual crises are precipitated by financial scandals and quarrels with his publishers.

Bloch, however, emphasizes another moment. He distinguishes two types of escapism, for one he uses the term "kitsch," the other he calls "colportage." Karl May's writing (or self-effacing dream-writing) is "colportage" because he:

"is a petit-bourgeois with a yearning for a better world (. . .) who pierced the stuffiness of his times. He fantasized not the romantic ideals of the bourgeoisie (aristocrats, salons and country-houses), nor the tales of chivalry popular during the Biedermeier period. Instead he reworked the American Indian novels of the age of Fennimore Cooper, full of revolutionary ideals, when the savage was still noble. Added to this the tinsel of the fairground, the authentic Orient of the tent-show, as befits colportage, because the general free-for-all mustn't run aground on the bedrock of naturalism, but be coloured and mirrored in the folds of dreams. Almost everything in Karl May is dream exteriorized, turned inside out, from an oppressed being who wanted the big life."33

This conception of Karl May prefigures Syberberg's in important respects. For Bloch, the circus, folk-myths, fair-ground or fairy-tales are still anti-bourgeois, because they bear witness to the imaginative life of the oppressed, and furnish the enticements for dreams of liberation and escape. Where kitsch tries to bring everything exotic within the sphere of the bourgeois family and turns the styles of other periods and other cultures into ornament, mere accessories for domestic use and consumption, colportage insists on otherness, on distance, on estrangement because it is the expression of a desire to break away from the bourgeois family and the overstuffed living- room. Syberberg gives this an added twist. Karl May lives in his Dresden suburb as if his villa was actually at the edge of Winnetou's camp-fire. The greenhouse with the broken window panes contains a fully rigged teepee, and in the hour of his death, Karl May "returns home to the eternal hunting-grounds," his body lying on a stone slab next to the tent, as the snow falls through the leaky glass roof. His wife, wrapped up in black, sits silently like a squaw in mourning over a tribal chief out of John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn. May's visiting-card gives his address as "Villa Shatterhand," but Syberberg, perhaps less convinced than Bloch of the proletarian roots of May's imagination, argues that the self-estrangement which he imposed on himself is as much psychological as class-determined:

Karl May transposed all his problems and enemies into protagonists of his Far West and Far East adventures. We bring them back, and see his life in the film as projections of his inner monologue. A man searching for the lost paradise, taking the typically German cul-de-sac ("Irrweg'") that seeks redemption from a self-inflicted inferno. Job and Faust all in one (. . .) a national hero for poor and rich, from Hitler to Bloch.34

Bloch's case on behalf of Karl May had been part of a larger proposition about the emancipation or progressive dimensions in popular culture. Erbschaft dieser Zeit, in which the Winnetou piece was reprinted, wanted to make a specific contribution to the struggle for socialism in the 1930s. Bloch polemicised against the official cultural policy of the German Communist Party, reminding them that one had to win not just the heads but also the hearts and the imagination of the working class, as well as that of the petit-bourgeoisie. By leaving it to National Socialist propaganda to exploit and appropriate the entire romantic heritage of folk-lore, popular fantasies, utopian mythologies and mass-culture heroes, the Communists were, according to Bloch, committing a serious tactical error. The fascists managed to bind the petit-bourgeoisie and working-class emotionally and libidinally, when the Communists fed them nothing but figures, facts and statistics.

There remains (in the use that the Nazis made of folk-culture) something of the older and romantic anti-capitalism, the knowledge that something is missing in their lives, and the longing for a different life, as yet unclear. The exposed situation of peasants and white-collar workers here finds its specific reflex, and not just one of backwardness, but occasionally that of a genuinely uneven development, the remnants, economic and ideological, of an earlier way of life ... (The breaks and contradiction) are now taken over by the petit-bourgeosie, armed by capitalism to fight the proletariat: differently manned, they could become a breach, or at least weaken the reactionary front. "Life," "Soul," "Unconscious," "Nation," "Wholeness", "Reich" and other anti-Mechanisms couldn't be used in such a 100% reactionary way, if the Revolution did not just, and justly, unmask, but with equal right, bid concretely for them, and remind itself of whose property especially these categories once were ... Not everything which is still "irrational" is simply stupidity destined to disappear. The hunger for – shall we say: an extension of existence, remains.35

Bloch's book was sharply attacked by the Left when it was published (1935), and Walter Benjamin, who certainly knew what Bloch was talking about, found tone and timing extremely suspect. But Bloch's preface outlines very exactly the position of Syberberg, when he takes the side of myth and irrationalism against arid rationalism of scientific paperbacks and neo-marxist theory on the one hand, and mass-produced entertainment ("pornography") on the other.

Ludwig dies so that Bavaria, too, can have a folk myth about a king, who like Barbarossa in the Kyffhäuser mountain will wake up in the hour of need from the sleep of centuries to rescue his people from oppression. Such national mythologies, centered on the figure of a saviour or redeemer are eschatologies, in which a moment of past glory is projected into the future. They are typical obsessions of Syberberg's protagonists: Karl May, embracing the globe, wanted to make out of his life a legend, an imitation. By an irony that Syberberg is well aware of, these eschatologies have always provoked, since the days of Israel out of Egypt, the sceptre and possibility of a false messiah. Ludwig's nightmare of Hitler among the Wittelsbach princes signifies also the premonition that one of his reincarnations will be an imposter and a double. Karl May, tormented and haunted by his own imposture, speaks in the monologue that Syberberg gives him about the fears for his people, and he utters the bombastic warning that "God have mercy on us, if one day the wrong man appears."36

The connection stresses the dialectic between German Romanticism and political life, in so far as the idealism of the Romantic myths can be seen to give rise to the ever more fervent desire of its realization, by a mere act of will, in the here and now. The Romantic utopians, still inspired by the French Revolution and the wars of national liberation, elaborated a vision of unity, identity and one-ness as only art and music can express. Once immersed in dynastic, economic and national politics, this vision divides and fragments; thus maimed, it gives birth to generations of dreamers, seekers of earthly and artificial paradises, idealists in search of doubles, narcissists looking for their mirror image. In the Ludwig film, the heritage of European symbolism and decadence is cited, and Syberberg's set and decor recall, in their borrowing from Ingres to Gustave Moreau, the exoticism of Flaubert, who in a book like Salambô shows the co-existence of paradis artificiels with imperialism – the swooning, luxuriant agony of a civilization (Carthage, Hannibal) submitting to conquest, colonization and destruction.


It is perhaps no accident that Karl May fits so perfectly the famous definition of the artist that Freud gives in his Introductory Lectures. Deprived by life of the ordinary accomplishments that secure happiness, the artist disguises his neuroses in attractive daydeams and thereby ends up enjoying what he envied others for in the first place, "honour, fame and the love of women." Freud characterizes the area of sensibility, self-repression and aesthetic idealism which Syberberg is interested in, from a historical perspective. Both Ludwig and Karl May are the very type of the artiste manqúe, the impressario and dilettante in whom the psychological attributes and drives of the artist are present, but where for whatever reason, the objectivity and detachment of art are absent – collapsed into partial and distorted objectification. One can see how Hitler, artiste manqúe ("verhinderter Künstler") touched by the music of Wagner in the same way as he was fascinated by problems of state-managing, lighting, decor, architecture, city-planning, the technology of transportation and the mass-media, logically follows from Ludwig and Karl May in Syberberg's conception: the dialectics is that of the semi-artistic personality in German culture and history, the politics of spectacle. With Hitler, the marginality and de-centeredness reverses itself, in order to give this aestheticisation of public life a central role in Germany, and Germany a place centre stage in the world. The idealism of the will becomes the will to spectacle, the reality of appearance consuming every other reality.

This is the thematic core of Syberberg's film about Bayreuth. Karl May had already focused on the domestic implications of exteriorizing, making public essentially private, compensatory fantasies. The four hour documentary of Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred Wagner (1975), takes up the interface of privatization and public life quite explicitly. The film has variously been interpreted as an attempt to demonstrate that Wagner's work is compromised by its association with Nazism, a contamination that found its symbolic expression in the friendship between Winifred Wagner and Hitler. The film documents this exhaustively by letting the old lady simply talk, and thereby reveal herself as had been the case with Ludwig's Cook.37

In the context of Syberberg's German trilogy as a whole, however, the documentary is more an essay in trying to understand that this friendship, well-publicised at the time and the object of a special hearing at the Nürnberg trials, is itself based on a telling split; on a system of repressions, compensations, libidinal fixations and miscognition. The film strikingly proves the degree to which in their friendship, Winifred and Hitler could not but give a secondary role to Wagner's music. While Bayreuth and the Wagner cult provided the external framework and the rationalization, the actual relation was built on something else. Both recognized in the other a peculiar and extreme split between private and public, and discontinuity between "personality" as consciously assumed role, and the realm of action in which this personality manifests itself. Winifred not only ignored what "Wolf" said and did in public, she was almost incapable of noticing it, because her own life had trained her not to see what she termed "weaknesses" in people close to her. Winifred had repressed her private feelings, extirpated them for the sake of becoming the public representative of privacy, the Wagner family. In her presence, on the other hand, knowing that she would ignore everything 'political,' Hitler could be private. His private self, the repressed artist, the dilettante, the showman, the impotent founder of a dynasty of "artists" (Speer, Goebbels and others) found in the Wagner family, and especially in Winifred's sons, a tradition of artistic and domestic culture, raised to the level of a "business," a national industry. If Hitler admired in Wagner the rhetoretician, the showman-artist, the magician of the will, he frequented Winifred Wagner and courted her as the mother of artists who provided the family he so totally lacked, to the point where he could assume the weak, impulsive filial role in the relationship.

Ludwig II, Ludwig's Cook, Karl May, Winifred Wagner, Hitler: these protagonists appear to line themselves up in a chronological sequence. But to interpret such a chronology as a causal chain would be to impute to Syberberg a form of historicism from which he is as far removed as he is from examining the social-economic determinants of history. Both his reconstruction and his analysis are held together by a different kind of 'textuality' altogether; one where recurrence and the reassertion of similar antinomies and symbolizations are perceived as the very key to the enigma of the German question – Heine's or Marx' Deutsche Misere. This Syberberg has redefined for himself as that of a society demanding from its culture a self-contemplation that invariably seems to take the form of a redemptive, self-sacrificial mythology, and for whose survival as objectified belief and goal no price seems too high to pay. It is the diverse pattern of this argument, the strands of which are gathered up over the course of four films, which comes together in Our Hitler. Here it is not only resumed, but also qualitatively transformed, in order to reveal another referent, and a subtext larger than German history.

The crucial issue is not so much whether the relations between society and its culture must necessarily be based on self-confirmation, but whether such mirroring is a form of self-reflexivity or in fact merely blocks self-reflexion in a circularity of narcissistic fascination. The question presents itself Syberberg's films in a dual guise. Firstly, he seems to take as his text the phrase from Hegel, who sees "the necessity of the aesthetically beautiful" derive from "the deficiencies of immediate reality." As a form of compensation, in the psychological sense, or a utopian longing, in the historical-teleological sense, this view of art and the aesthetic efforts figure prominently in the Ludwig film and in Karl May.

The second aspect has to do quite generally with the redefinition and endorsement of culture by that class which sought in the artworks of its time by promoting them through the market or private patronage, an idealized image of its own class-aspirations and past struggles. It was an image translated into formal-aesthetic values and expressed most succinctly in the ideal of harmony, unity and wholeness. This desire to see its own history sublimated into form and universality, and thereby withdrawn from history is an aspect of bourgeois culture which becomes increasingly problematic in the 19th century, one which opens up the symptomatic and asymptotic relationship between history and myth that Syberberg focuses on in Our Hitler. The "cultural crisis" as it reflects itself in German cultural thinking, has again two faces: it resulted in an art that takes into itself, both formally and in its representation, the increasing evidence of bourgeois self-estrangement, the puzzlement of a class over the society it has created, to the point where the historically produced reality is perceived and represented mythically. Such art tends to see itself nonetheless in total opposition to the society to which it belongs, and in the course of the so-called Modernist period, gives up not only its representative role as a national or universal culture, but abandons representation itself, along with any expressive function for the artist or empathetic relationship with its audience. The Modernism of Baudelaire, the symbolism of Mallarmé or Gustave Moreau, and Kafka belong to it. This literature and art has in Germany been theorized by Benjamin, defended by Adorno and attacked as decadent by Lukács.

Its other face looks towards overcoming such experience of self-estrangement, if necessary by disavowing it through an act of will and affirmation. Circumventing the sublimations that are offered by an aesthetic of form – a sublimation which is denounced as elitist – it attacks its class frontally, as it were, by answering the monstrous with its own monstrosity. This other art of Modernism is one of effects, of impact, of direct appeal, of shock, expression, pathos and emotion. Bent on shortening the distance between art and action, between "the necessity of the aesthetically beautiful" and "immediate reality," it seeks to abolish self-estrangement by voluntarism and the construction of a heroic image of the self. This strategy may be said to characterize the various avantgarde movements of the early decades of the 20th century – Futurism, Expressionism, Dada – although in most other respects, they are justly treated as distinct and separate.

What is decisive, however, is that even during their time, there was something anachronistic about such avantgardes, or at any rate, about the strategies they employed. The discussion of whether Futurism or Expressionism were implicated in the rise of political Fascism is vitiated by its disregard for the (relative) primitivism of the means of reproduction at the disposal of the artistic avantgarde, which made their politics comparatively harmless. Fascism, by contrast, was able to exploit not only the desire for immediacy of effect and an end to self-estranged culture, but more importantly, it appropriated the technological means whereby the impression of immediacy and spontaneity could be created. In due course, Fascism in this respect became itself obsolete in Europe, as its forms of direct address were superseded by another technological revolution. This is what makes Syberberg insist that with Hitler and after, the German problem becomes a European one, or rather, it becomes the problem of (Western) democracies and their systems of production and reproduction, especially in the sphere of representation.

These reactions to the breakdown of the mediating and mirroring function of bourgeois classical art (which includes Romanticism) can best be studied in Wagner, precisely because his art partakes so fully in the representation of bourgeois self-estrangement as well as in its attempts to overcome/deny it by heroic self-affirmation in myth, and in aesthetics of emotionality and spectacle. The Wagnerian opera has for Syberberg a crucial function, in that it is both a distillation of Romanticism and technically, an anticipation of the cinema.38 The Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in many ways prepares and accompanies that change of aesthetic perception of which the cinema is the modernized, deprivatized, technological executor: the alliance Wagner-Nazism is thus a more primitive and ideological version of the alliance fascism and cinema which in turn prefigures consumer capitalism and television. One may recall what Thomas Mann wrote about Wagner. Time and again Mann stresses that the secret of Wagner was that he was able to revive a certain mythological thinking and play it off against social analysis and politics, yet the archaism of going back to myth was only apparent because Wagner’s modernity lay in the fact that the mythology was also the language of depth-psychology, "raffiniert" and analytical. The evacuation of politics from modem consciousness in Wagner, as indeed in so much decadent art, was bought at the price of a super-subtle psychology revolving around sexuality, femininity and an obsession with death as salvation. By appropriating Wagner, the Nazis appropriated the mythology, while at the same time, suppressing the knowledge of its psychology. Only thus could they psychologize politics in the massive way they did. And this seems to be the constellation that Syberberg wants to pick up: politics as myth is only possible by a disavowal and repression of psychology as psychoanalysis, transforming it instead into an idealism of the will, to which myth lends its forms.39

In the cinema, too, the economic-technological basis of transforming myth into psychology (which is then disavowed) remains hidden and unacknowledged. And the point that Syberberg wants to make is that the relation between Hitler and capitalism can be understood not by grafting a Marxist economic analysis directly onto an analysis of Nazism, but only if it is first understood as a mass-phenomenon via the cinema – both are deceptive heirs of "German" Romantic mythology.40 Wagner's music is just such a mass-phenomenon, on one level subtracted from the political. But, as the Winifred Wagner film demonstrates, although the music turns its back on the social world to suggest mythical paradises in the chromatic language of febrile proximity, the institutions which Wagner created (Bayreuth and the Wagner dynasty) to keep this otherworldliness intact, are massively inserted in politics, history and economics, and thereby speak their own language of public address.

It should now be apparent how carefully Syberberg prepared himself for his Hitler project, having set up both a conceptual and aesthetic framework within which the various sub- and intertexts align themselves in a potentially coherent, but complex argument.41 If the Hitler film were merely a seven hour amplification of its title – Hitler within us – it could justly be accused of political naivety and anachronism. As early as 1939 Thomas Mann had voiced this particular mea culpa of German bourgeois or petit-bourgeois aspirations and class-psychology in his essay "Brother Hitler," and countless metaphysical studies of Fascism followed. But Syberberg is only marginally interested in establishing the sociological fact of Germany's identification with Hitler, and much more specifically bent on demonstrating the mechanism and consequences of such identification. The film thus becomes a self-reflexion about the conditions of culture, its very possibility, considered in the dialectic of mediation and immediacy, self-confirmation and self-estrangement. In order to bring this to the fore, Syberberg dismantles history, cuts it up, fragments it, parodies it as a fairground show, a melodrama, as puppet-theatre, a bombastic and grotesque spectacle. He first has to destroy the contexts and determinants that normally are associated with narrative and with the analysis and the search for origin and agency in the presentation of history.


From the opening titles onwards, Hitler, A Film is aware of spectator-positioning and modes of address. It starts in just the way that Hollywood films draw in their spectators, with bold special effects which suggest the three-dimensionality of the screen: objects come rushing towards the spectator from the infinite depth of space.42 Syberberg cites these forms of direct assault, made familiar through Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, certain super-spectacular scenes from Apocalypse Now or Kubrick's films, only to reveal them promptly as artifices, as technological trompes-l’oeil. He does this gradually, through superimposition and dissolves, substituting a space that can be recognized as 'back-stage' and abandoned, full of dummies, debris and props. The uncanny power of the cinema to simulate participation is conjured up, so as to be banished for the rest of the film. It stands at the beginning of the film to indicate the end of a (film-) historical development.

A metaphoric chain – star, tear, glass-ball – concretizes the transformation of "world," "universe" into vision and eye, a transformation which the cinema accomplishes so effortlessly and unquestioningly. The gas-ball contains in miniature Edison's Black Maria, the first film studio, and is itself a form of projection and an artificial eye. This parable of the origins of cinematic vision is set on an abandoned stage, which becomes the stage of history where the subsequent events will be displayed but never integrally recreated or simply shown. The film is concerned with re-enactment, a resurrection, a re-animation of cast-offs and rejects. The profilmic material doesn't spontaneously leap up and spring into life, as it usually does in the cinema as soon as the camera rolls. By contrast, a double process of mediation is required to bring history "near," into close view. It has to fall apart, its flow and continuity needs to be broken up. But it also needs an addresser and an addressee – the spurious impersonality of historical narrative must be dissolved into discursiveness, polyphony and speaking voices.43 Again, Syberberg proceeds emblematically. A child can be seen walking towards the foreground, she too is shown standing on the edge of a ramp, part of the scenic space and enveloped by it. She looks at the camera, facing frontally an invisible audience. Finally, a master of ceremonies appears, addressing the audience with a speech that makes it clear that history is a show "put on." Between these two – the seasoned showman and a wide-eyed child – no direct exchange takes place: they are figurative representatives of roles, sender and recipient. Both face the camera frontally, so that it is only by the implied but never actualized mediation of the audience, placed between their gazes, that communication can occur: Syberberg wisely calls his film "a dialogue which is really a monologue."44

With the introduction of child and showman, the basic structure of the film is established, and its dialogical-monological, frontal-discursive mode is never abandoned, however submerged it may appear, however painfully the film's real audience has to put itself in the place of one of the interlocutors to complete the circuit. One can understand in the same sense the simultaneous presence of macro- and micro-perspective on events. The Master of Ceremony has a telescope, and with it he sees the earth as it appears from the moon which in turn looks like the glass-ball that was seen earlier on and forms part of the child's toys that are strewn across the stage. Against expectations fostered by the technology of special effects which promises action and spectacle, Syberberg sets up a series of detours, reversals and displacements, all of which have to do with vision and point of view. The question of history is taken into the tension between the extremes of a child wandering among discarded toys and a cabaret artist displaying sawdust-and-tinsel glamour. Between these esssentially "parodic," but also pessimistic polarities, Syberberg elaborates a form of distancing or mediation which seeks itself to displace the Brechtian "alienation" (e.g. the Richard III/Chicago gangster/Arturo Ui/Hitler construction of The Resistible Rise) and the 'materialist' mediation of Marxist textbook analysis of fascism ("Sachbuchwissen"). Syberberg's distancing devices aim not at a historical "truth," but at the structure of a relation, be it philosophically, the relation of subject and object, as the conditions of knowledge, or politically, the relation of master to slave, producer to product.

More particularly, it is within the circumscribed argument about vision, representation and representability, spectacle and fascination, that the Master of Ceremonies outlines the subject of the show. As the various Nazi figures are introduced, the common element that binds them to Hitler emerges as another form of specular identification. Speer gives the following account of his first brush with the Führer:

It was one of those big public meetings to which friends used to take me. He spoke. As he always spoke. There was an uproar, beer-bottles, broken chairs, eggs, my jacket was soaked and stained, suddenly he stood in front of me, the nobody, took off his jacket and gave it to me. I stood in front of him in his jacket. His jacket, like a mantle protecting and burning. He had chosen me. Among thousands chosen me. It was his choice, and the right one, as he always chose the right ones. (. . .) I don't know what it was in me that chose him. Had he chosen me or I him? I don't know. Somehow it was inevitable (. . .).45

In Goebbels' case, too, the ties are structured around fascination as a form of recognition:

I go forward, no, I am being driven towards the platform. There I stand for a long time and look in His face. This isn't a political speaker. This is a prophet! (. . .) For a moment he looks down at me. (. . .) I'm in a trance (. . .) It's like a vow for a lifetime. And my eyes drowned themselves in two big blue stars.46

Both scenes record how individual alienation and social marginality are overcome and swept away by the spontaneity of a curious reciprocity of recognition, whose agent is Hitler's gaze, his "star-blue eyes." Fascism is here typified as a mutual and mutually sustaining self-confirmation in the public sphere of urban life, outside the family and the usual places of bourgeois (and oedipal) socialization. Instead, the places and occasions are rallies, mass-meetings, beerhalls, street-battles.

One of the most effective devices that Syberberg employs is the montage of radio-broadcasts, the signature-tunes, time-signals and theme_music of the Grossdeutsche Rundfunk. During the war, with the front-lines of German troops stretching all the way across Europe into Africa and Asia, it was the radio that created an uncanny and wholly illusory closeness across these vast distances.47 Syberberg uses the Christmas broadcasts of 1942 to conjure up just such an occasion, to document the skill with which fascism was able to use the new technology of mass-communication to create the illusion of common purpose and the aura of presense. In effect, the political and ideological concept of the "Volksgemeinschaft," so vital to Nazi self-understanding, was in the main the product of mass-media techniques in the service of an essentially medieval notion of community.48

One of the reasons why Himmler has such a prominent part in Syberberg's film, why over an hour is devoted to his confidences and confessions, as he talks to his masseur, is that in him the self-estrangement which seeks self-oblivion through identification is most glaringly evident. What might appear as an ambiguous attempt to show a Nazi criminal as a sensitive, humane and deeply disturbed individual, by giving him a conscience and a voice that almost makes him a martyr, is, from another perspective, an effort to demonstrate the connection between typically German pietism, inwardness and a penchant for mystical depth, on the one hand, and a need for discipleship, imitation and "other-directedness." Plagued by self-doubt, impotence and the knowledge of personal failure, Himmler is shown following Hitler because of a secret identification between himself and a Stauffer king from the 13th century.49

Here the function of history as a re-mythization of the present, as a dressing-room for anxious and insecure egos is taken to its extreme. The historical moment can only be grasped by the bourgeoisie, as Marx had already observed about the French Revolution, in the guise of an intense self-identification with another more distant historical epoch.

What Syberberg aims at is again quite clear. Not Himmler is of interest as a historical character or personality, not his private agonies and indecisions; not his belief in reincarnation or the "ice-age" are at stake, but Himmler as an emblem of a historical phenomenon that reaches well into the present: the availability of roles, styles, beliefs for the purposes of a perpetual personal masquerade. Syberberg calls this "playing at being Hitler."50

All the characters that the Hitler film parades before the viewer seem to enter an exchange with themselves through Hitler – the "nullity" and void of a negative, almost hypnotic self-mirroring that turns dialogue into monologue. Experienced as fascination and enthusiasm, it stands in direct opposition to the self-reflexivity of European modernism and the distanciation of epic theatre, which partly grew out of Brecht's analysis of the emergent fascist public sphere.

Syberberg's allusions to the German silent cinema are most appropriately read in the same context of identification and projection.51 The monstrous, uncanny redeemers, tyrants, scapegoats, sorcerer's apprentices – Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, Nosferatu, the Golem – who appear on the empty stage as billboard cut-outs, are not the precursors of Hitler that hindsight has made them. Nothing in Syberberg inscribes itself in a facile teleology of cause-and-effect. Instead, their presence brings into play one of the key figurations of Germany's monological dialogue since Romanticism, of which the German cinema of the 1920s is the somewhat underhanded and unscrupulous inheritor: the figure of the Double, whose appearance, in German films from the Student of Prague onwards, is always greeted by the hero with the shock of recognition followed by an equally violent disavowal of such dangerous self-knowledge. It keeps in suspension just what the relationship is between self-image and object-choice, once this becomes a question of political self-realization and manifest destiny. The cut-outs are, if anything, meant more as Hitler's doubles, and what they make visible is the extent to which the ambiguous feelings of love and hate, binding the subject to his alter ego, are in fascism repressed, displaced and "streamlined" into the cult of the charismatic leader, via what, after Freud, is "secondary narcissism."

Syberberg chooses Fritz Lang's M as the most explicit depiction of such abortive self-analysis, where an alienated introspection is conducted across the repressed dimensions of politics and history. M's final speech is quoted at length in Our Hitler, as he faces the lynch-mob of the underworld chiefs – now impossible to view without remembering the Freisler style of Nazi trials, as recorded for public consumption, when the "July 20th conspirators" were sentenced. Even in the original, the Lorre character comes to a confused awareness that he is being pursued by his own self, and that in the murder of small girls he is in a sense punishing himself, at any rate the part of himself that, having been victimized, identifies with a vulnerable, innocent, "feminine" self-image, upon which his other self takes ritualized revenge. Insofar as Lang dramatized a schizoid self, where a murderous and a vulnerable soul coexist as two equally inadequate responses to a given society, Syberberg's quotations from the film "restore" a historical dimension by associating M most directly with Himmler, who agonizes over the spiritual danger that SS-men have to suffer on account of having to dispose of up to 1000 corpses a day, while promising to introduce legislation that will give "police-powers to the societies for the protection of animals."52 It illustrates the precarious and pathological side of fascist definitions of masculinity, where turning men into soldiers always seems to imply a radical perversion of the relations between "inside" and "outside" to the point where the evil within (the proverbial "innere Schweinehund") is actually perceived as an external materialization to be attacked and destroyed. Fantasies about being victimized crystallize an image of the enemy that is the more readily believed by being identified with desires and needs that childhood and education have taught the subject to control and extirpate within himself, but which return to haunt him in vthe form of an otherness that has to be "liquidated."53

Syberberg does not make much of the body language of fascism, so evident in Nazi films, sculpture and posters as the expression of a pathology, where repression creates its rhetoric of symptoms. Fascism may in fact have been the last political ideology whose systematized repression can be directly "read off" the gestures and body language of its leaders and followers. The writings of Freud have taught us to recognize symptoms as a language inscribing its signs on the body, thus vowing them to a process of historical obsolescence. Instead of direct representation, Syberberg indicates a similar connection when he shows Himmler throughout his long ruminations exposed to the hands of a masseur slowly kneading his torso. Here the body is depicted as a surface for contact, exchange, interaction, even mediation – precisely those erotically fluid, intermediary realms that the epidermis must not be permitted to yield to in fascist "body-culture." In Nazi sport the masculine physique is treated as a perenially threatened and besieged fortification, whose function it is to contain a rigidly defined "inside" and exclude the "outside." If the Himmler episode is seen as the counterpoint, the inner lining so to speak, of the public ideology to which it belongs, then much of the fascist imaginary and its representations rests on the submerged image of an inhibited, paranoid male body. The violence done to oneself during socialization turns into a political and social system, when domination of one’s own bodily function and rebellious drives become confused with, and indistinguishable from the need to dominate others. Syberberg strongly suggests that fascism, by cultivating a narcissism of identification and projection, develops to the point of hysteria the undercurrent of repressed homosexuality characteristic of Germany's Arian warrior-myth. In the light of Our Hitler, the explicit flamboyant homosexuality of Ludwig salvages in extremis a sensibility, an inwardness that can conceive of the body as something other than a hard carapace in uniform. In the mirror-maze which for Syberberg is German history, Himmler is the double of Ludwig (Himmler confessing to his masseur recalls Ludwig talking to his barber), but of a Ludwig who has objectified his narcissism not into art and music, but politics and world-history.


While such meta-psychological arguments remain problematic in their sweeping generality, Syberberg only actualizes what he can bring into the basic structure of his film. That is why the debate about fascism, Hitler and "us" is doubled, as it were, by the debate about the cinema. The ingeniously conceived puppets who represent the Nazi-figures are not merely there to demonstrate the wire-drawn stiffness of goose-stepping jackboots, or even as symbols of an economic analysis that sees Hitler as the "puppet" of high finance and heavy industry. The most striking formal device, and the twist that Syberberg gives to the master-slave dialectic, is in the use of the actor animating the puppet. He is visibly present, and his own right arm serves as the extension of the puppet, who seems to agitate and gesture with a "real" arm, thus complicating conceptually the relation of puppet and puppet-master, and suggesting a level where the puppet controls its master. These puppets are in fact more like dummies, and what takes place is a ventriloquists's dialogue: indications that Syberberg conceives of the central issues as a question of mutual dependencies, mirror-relationships, reciprocity, vicious circles where it becomes impossible to distinguish those who manipulate from those being manipulated out of inner conviction. "I gave them what they projected on me, what they wanted to hear, wanted to do, what they didn't dare do themselves. I did it, ordered them to do it, for their sake, not mine. Germany, yes, I did truly love it, after my fashion."54 As Syberberg reminds us, fascist propaganda kept this interdependence of Germany electing Hitler and Hitler electing Germany fully visible in its ideology. Hitler saw himself consciously as the tool, the instrument – of predestination, fate, as the executor of German history and the conscious extension (the "right hand") of the people's unconscious will.

In this sense, the Hitler film continues the theme of the false realization of a mythology whose social truth is negative and aesthetic, but which when called upon to supply the metaphor for an explicitly political discourse, turns into an affirmative ahistorical, and pathos-laden cult of the heroic. In its social dimension, as it transformed everyday life and its manifest appearances, Nazi mythology could only sustain itself by a marriage with technology. Thus realized, such mythic thought and action becomes a permanent spectacle of presence, participation and immediacy. What the mass-media and Hitler have in common is their "subterranean tunnel to the unconscious"55 which is to say that the "contents" of the myths, insofar as they contain the negative truth value of pointing to self-alienation by their utopian obsession with immediacy, wholeness and totality, have been completely absorbed and refunctionalized in the means developed to reproduce and distribute them. In the concrete case of fascism, the use of press, radio, mass-rallies and civilian mobilization campaigns turned the State into a twelve year state-of-emergency experienced as communality, participation and direct address ("unterm Adolf war ja immer was los" – "in the old days, under Adolf, there was always something going on").

After the defeat of fascism, post-war Western democracies have been careful to suppress this "participatory" aspect of politics, choosing instead to rely on depoliticizing presence and immediacy by directly coding it in terms of the technologies that purvey it. Among these, the cinema occupied a central place, and after the war, as part of U.S. occupation policy, was used extensively and even ruthlessly to re-educate the German nation. In its commercial, mass-consumption form, the cinema offers its spectators access to plenitude, to identification with a libidinally charged self-image or love-object in the form of stars, and to immediacy or presence in the "realism" of action and disaster. If the heritage of German idealism, "realized" in 20th century politics as non-mediation on a mass-scale, contributed to the destruction of history by fascist enactment of the apocalypse, then the disappearance of history into the forms of instant live-ness and ubiquity of recall (as opposed to ''memory" or "experience") is the characteristic of the technology which has superseded and appropriated the cinema, television. Its flow-patterns of programming within or across channels evenly distributes news coverage and talk-shows, soap-operas and current affairs, TV-drama and reruns, documentaries and religious services. Such a massive "naturalization" of history, politics and personal memory via the categories of show, spectacle and direct address (euphemistically called "communication") no longer needs to borrow its signifiers from mythology, whether national or classical (though it may still do so on privileged occasions). Rather it lets the spectator participate in the breath-taking adventure of television production and show-biz itself, where everything confirms, echoes, mirrors and corresponds to everything else; a particular world-view and its values can be sustained by merely meeting its own reflection.

From this perspective, traditional myth as the repository of experience and longings seems less devoid of human significance than the cult of the instant and the immediate imposed by the electronic media. Hence Syberberg offers an almost nostalgic defence of myth and mythological modes of representations in art and culture. In line with this, he sees a continuity between fascism, or fascist structures of self-identification, and its victorious heirs – monopoly capitalism of the West and state-capitalism of the East. What in fascism is the will towards self-representation (perversely, the anticipated promise of genuine democracy) has in our own society become the narcissism of the consumer. In consolidating the conceptual and perceptual mirroring structures, and making them invisible, the cinema has played a crucial role in bringing about such a transformation. Faced with the unending flow of commodities, consumption becomes the signifier of a desired but always deferred participation. To identify with the program-flow to the viewer, is to consume images and self-images as though they were commodities.


When one thinks of Hitler and Nazism, one is used to seeing the end of the Second World War as the end of fascism in Europe, and the defeat of fascism as the end of an era. In contrast to this "Stunde Null" (hour zero) thinking, Syberberg, in line with much Marxist discussion of German fascism, is primarily interested in the ways fascism has survived by changing its forms. The spectator is constantly made aware of continuities, but encouraged to construct these dialectically, as quantitative-qualitative leaps. Hyperbole, stylization, juxtaposition and parody are the formal figures that attempt to make manifest the continuity within the discontinuous causality of leaps and bounds. The puppet-show and the ventriloquist's dialogue are deliberately low-brow devices, borrowed from children's matinees and the fairground (origin, and infancy of the cinema itself), in order to juxtapose to the metaphorical reasoning of high-brow culture, whose favorite allusion when attempting to comprehend fascism as the end-term of German history, is the Faust legend (with its own manichean structures and apocalyptic teleology), a different, essentially non-metaphoric and contiguous system of references. In the case of Hitler, this system alludes to a fundamental non-commensurability: that of seeing Hitler as a "Hampelmann" or as the Austrian "Kasperl,"56 which is probably why Syberberg is so fond of the (partly apocryphal) exchange between Hitler and Karl Valentin, the Munich comedian, whose kitsch post-card collection the Führer seems to have coveted in vain.57 The so-called "banality of evil," its enormity and grotesqueness, must not be dignified by metaphoric equivalence (as it is, in quite different ways, by Brecht's Shakespeare in Chicago gangland, and Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus), but extended to the point where nothing but banality remains. The transformation – whichh is more like a Hegelian sublation – of Romantic mythology into what Benjamin and Bloch called "Traumkitsch," the appropriation of this kitsch by fascism, the apotheosis of fascism in show-effects into show-business, and of show-business into the universal reign of commodity-consumption: this is the uneven-discontinuous trajectory of Syberberg's vision of culture, conceived as the materialist history of a specifically German "imaginary."

Syberberg made Our Hitler, against and in anticipation of Joachim Fest's Hitler – A Career as well as NBC's Holocaust. By structuring his own film so much in terms of a critique of showing and seeing, he indicates that Hitler had already, in his appropriation and use of the media, anticipated his own revival and survival as a spectacle.58 The physical destruction of history, and of Germany, is redeemed by "Hitler's heirs" through the historically new category of the show – the democratic leveller, according to Syberberg – as we know it from television and advertising, sublating both history and personal experience. In the age of the mass-media, the past itself becomes a commodity, and historical experience cannot be transmitted in any form other than as an object for consumption, as a visual system of identification, projection, mirroring and doubling, which is to say, by short-circuiting the very possibility of understanding, knowledge and the social processes of passing them on.


Paradoxically, it is this state of affairs that makes myth a redemptive category for Syberberg. If the cinema and television now completely regulate the ways human beings remember and imagine experiences as significant, myth becomes thinkable less as the objectification of collective experiences than as the aesthetic form in which to preserve a more social idea of subjectivity-in-history. But in a society that perpetuates and reproduces itself by dividing and splitting the subject, stimulating and repressing needs by gratifying them partially and piecemeal, such a notion of subjectivity-in-history is inevitably involved in a dialectic of part and whole. In the case of Syberberg, the wholeness is presented negatively, as the "requiem" for the loss of myths which at least symbolized the yearning and desire for wholeness, even if these were betrayed by political and economic systems that sought and seek to realize such totality instantly and by force. Myth therefore must become a negative category, which is why Syberberg's films invariably meditate upon fragments. Inasfar as myth is what reconciles individuals, social groups or whole nations with an inadequate reality, this may be no more than saying that it consoles for historical failure. But having become anachronistic in its role as the imaginary solution for real contradictions, myth may be the mode for representing both positive and negative experiences in a form where observation, desire, and memory enter into a single image: in the fragments that survive, a necessarily discontinuous history of subjectivity becomes decipherable. Myth would thus symbolize a form of knowledge and self-reflexivity, outside the purely abstract knowledge of "scientific paperbacks" and the mirror-structures of the mass-media consensus.

In the (dialectical ?) opposition of myth and fragment, as the two versions (or negative visions) of wholeness, Syberberg's cinema defines both its own historical position and its concrete aesthetic principle. He has clearly recognized that the historical function of the cinema has been to act as a mirror, and to provide self-images for the spectator who engages with the film through projection and identification. The "illusionism" of fictional narratives consists in a form of representation which represses all evidence of the mirroring effect by making the film-screen into a window onto the world, and the spectator into an unacknowledged voyeur. Syberberg's cinema does not want to form part of this ideological system, and he breaks with illusionism, while at the same time holding up to the spectator a mirror in which Germans are reluctant to recognize themselves – the mirror of their own fragmented culture and disavowed past. A Syberberg film sets up a network of cultural references, artifacts and emblems, historical signposts and musical echoes which invite recognition at the level of memory and consciousness,59 while denying the unconscious identification-projection mechanisms activated by conventional fiction films. This opposition not only structures all of Syberberg's films, but ultimately determines the kind of role he sees for his cinema as a counter-cinema within culture and the consciousness industries.

One might say that the central problem that the films come up against and confront is what place the cinema – any cinema – can still have in this tale of degradation and banalization, of false mythological realization through electronic immediacy. For in a sense, the old distinction between entertainment and culture has clearly been superseded and annihilated by a state-subsidized film-culture, paid for by television and the box-office levy raised on (mainly Hollywood) block-busters. To put the dilemma in terms central to this argument: entertainment may be defined as an unconscious form of identification, enacted in the cinema by involving the scopic drives, spectacle, "show"-effects. By contrast, culture ("Kultur") represents a historically perhaps obsolete form of conscious identification. Entertainment is based on projection, introjection, imaginary self-images fetishized by the spectator; culture was the collective self-objectification of a class or group, for whom it reflected their idealized self-interests and aspirations.

In order to respond to this situation, which is both theoretical and historical, Syberberg has defined his cinema as "Trauerarbeit" (mourning-work). The Freudian notion (from Mourning and Melancholy, 1926) of working through and working over the processes of introjection and projection, of self-hatred and self-pity engendered by the loss of a love-object was popularized in Germany by Alexander Mitscherlich.60 In Syberberg it assumes, apart from its meta-psychological meaning, an aesthetic dimension. Mitscherlich had attempted to historicise Freud's concept, by suggesting that West Germans suffered after the war a unique kind of self-alienation, the "inability to mourn." They have repressed "our Hitler," that is, the self-love and object-choice of which Hitler had been the symbol and embodiment. Seeing how "Trauerarbeit" suggests an active, conscious coming to terms with the past and with historical, collective experience, – precisely what the Germans had failed to do in relation to Hitler after his defeat – it is easy to comprehend why Syberberg should be attracted to the notion. And since "Trauerarbeit" attempts to deconstruct the processes (narcissism, projection, identification) whereby the self internalizes the other, choosing a love-object that functions as an idealized self-image, Syberberg's major cultural and cinematic concerns are subsumed under it, conveniently conflating a meta-psychological and an aesthetic perspective.

"Trauerarbeit" is in fact the key to Syberberg's concept of cinematic form and entails the idea of fragment as negative myth. The Ludwig film was subtitled "Requiem," and a chapter on the Winifred Wagner documentary in his Filmbuch is entitled "My Mourning Work for Bayreuth." But it is most in evidence in the Hitler film, for whose negative eschatology only a funeral spirit is appropriate. Iconographically, Our Hitler is a work "born under Saturn" and presided over by the Dürer figure of Melancholia. The roll-call of the SA dead and the funeral music from the official Nazi Memorial Day which accompany much of the film like a lugubrious dirge characterize the project as a whole: it is conceived in the genre of a "Trauerspiel" (funeral play or spectacle). Syberberg might be called a self-consciously "Baroque" artist, whose style, defined by himself as the marriage of Brecht and Wagner,61 owes much to the work of Walter Benjamin, especially Benjamin the theoretician of allegory, myth and the baroque tragic drama ("Trauerspiel"). Syberberg's view of history as representable only through radical discontinuity and fragmentation, in a space littered with pictorial emblems and mythico-theological notions, fits very precisely Benjamin's description of allegory: ". . . the kernel of the allegorical view (is the) baroque, earth-bound exposition of history as the story of the world's suffering; it is only significant in the situations of its decay.''62

It might not be inappropriate to see in Syberberg's stance that of another Benjamin figure – the collector. Not quite in the way the Romantics were collectors of fairy-tales, ballads, nordic legends and sagas, but more of pieces of myths, broken and left-over from the debris of Germany's more recent past, re-collected and presented to a charitable, forgiving memory as tokens of recognition. Syberberg has pointed out that those who see in his films a demystification misunderstand them. For the cinema, when it assumes its affinity and collusion with myth consciously, can represent the anticipatory and utopian memory, but it can only do so by insisting on partiality and division, by suspending any sense of immediacy in the negative dialectic that expresses itself as melancholy, in the requiem and mourning-work of collecting fragments.


When Syberberg puts so much emphasis on the dialectic that unites the dreamer and power-politics in Ludwig, it is already in view of the synthesis and "realization" that the apparent antagonism will find in Hitler. But there is no inevitability suggested in this, no sense that it had to come this way. In fact, Syberberg's historical protagonists are not part of a causal chain or line of succession at all, they are figures prized away from the chronology implied by the narrative called history, to become emblems in a different kind of structure. Syberberg dismembers history, in order to rescue it in another form. Hitler doesn't follow on from Ludwig or Karl May, although it is essential that he should be near, as he is in Karl May, among the crowd, or that he should figure as a character in someone's premonitory nightmare, in the dream-delirium of Ludwig. But even though an associative contiguity is not the same as a causally related continuum, the project, and the epic scope on which it is conceived, lays Syberberg open to two seemingly opposed but connected misunderstandings. His films either seem to suffer from a weak, repetitive, loose-jointed narrative structure, or they rely to much on easy paradox, on forcing too blatant a logic of implication and analogy upon distinct and disparate moments or phenomena. Syberberg has always defended himself by saying that his films have a "musical" structure – contrapuntal, with major and minor keys, composed in "blocks":

Film has the possibility of creating new magic worlds according to its own inner laws, which, in my experience, are closer to those of music than any comparable realm of cultural history. The mathematical architectonics, which express themselves in terms like requiem, chamber-music, chorus, aria, sonata, passion, rhapsody, recitatif, leit-motif, variation, solo, fugue, counterpoint, dialinear balance, repetition, variation, rhythm all help us to understand how the motifs and signals of a film blend with each other, in a necessary contiguity and sequentiality, how they correspond horizontally and vertically, bring together beginning and end, in a labyrinthine mathematics, of optical and acoustic interweaving of emotion and spirit.63

However, the structure of Syberberg's films, and in particular, the seven-hour Hitler film is not simply conceived in the spirit of creating a formal analogy with music, not even a mere emulation or transposition of Wagnerian ideas about music-drama and leitmotif. The basic metaphor of the Hitler film is that of a journey: not through history, but through the "Kulturhölle" of contemporary Germany, with visual references to Dante's Inferno, and a Master of Ceremonies parodying Virgil. There are other structuring metaphors: that of the quest (the Grail legend), the Exodus, the Dies Irae. Such an interweaving and superimposition of typically "cultural," Western archetypes is a form of citation, an intertext, within which the film establishes its own textual movement: from prophecy to exorcism, from anticipation to fulfilment, from hope to betrayal, from expectation to false realization, from myth to Realpolitik. This is why the film progresses by digressing, why it contracts, dilates, repeats itself and conducts its arguments in a kind of studied circularity. And because its mode of discourse is radically anti-realistic, it relies on the relation of emblem to reality, of figura and imitation, of re-enactment and parallelism. Fundamental to the film is a notion of sign and figuration which corresponds much closer to the model of different discourses – figurative, allegorical, symbolic, literal – as outlined by Dante in his letter to Can Grande, than to traditional, 19th century models of narrative and realism. Syberberg's film is not a mimesis or representation as much as an interpretation in the biblical sense of exegesis, it is a "reading" of German history which might, with some justification, be called a hermeneutics of the texts that make up history, before it is narrativized, unified and pressed into the unilinear flow of realist narrative. It is in the very nature of this kind of interrogation and interpretation that it not only 'deconstructs" our view of history, but also the cinematic space of representation. And this is not merely a case of cinema-space translated back into the theatre-space of its origins. The film presents a theatrical space only insofar as it takes us behind the scene into the wings, and beyond, into the store-rooms and the prop-department. The stage is not a mirror, but the black box of Edison's film studio. The deconstruction of a cinematic tradition (Nazi cinema, Weimar cinema, Fritz Lang, Expressionism, "Fesche Lola" and "Lili Marleen," Hollywood and genre-cinema) goes hand in hand with the dismantling of history into a purely conceptual space, which is "literalized" as the "Rumpelkammer" (junk-room, "attic") of "history. It is only when history has been reduced to fragments, to a useless collection of fetish-objects, plunder, and worthless junk that its reconstruction and representation can be attempted, in the spirit of redemption: its rescuing from the oblivion of over-exposure.

Such a view of history is more interested in the relation of center and periphery, of particularity to totality, of fragment to myth, than in reconstructing the determinants and pressures that produced specific events. If myth is the phantasmagoria of history, then the display of the fragment is its final disenchantment. And the name for this disenchantment is once again, "allegory." Syberberg breaks up the historical world into fragments which he holds up to contemplation and meditation, in the gesture of the allegorists. But allegory must here be understood as the mode of critical appropriation of myth, its dialectical opposite within the same problematic of wholeness and totality. It is through fragments that the totality can be evoked, and while myth posits wholeness in a gesture of voluntarism, allegory preserves the desire for wholeness negatively. With it, Syberberg places himself as an artist within the Romantic tradition, though with the outlook of a modernist. And while he is attached to the vision of wholeness and unity, to the hope of man reunited, beyond alienation with his own potential (i.e. the idealism of Frankfurt School Marxism), he is also aware of the mechanisms of self-alienation, split and decenteredness that characterize the desire for utopias, the Romantic ones as well as the ones that fascism, technological consumerism and commodity production promise to be realizing.

This pervades Syberberg's work in its macro-structure as well as in the more detailed aspects. The entire trilogy is based on a structure of decenteredness. If fascism and the phenomenon of Hitler stand at its center, this emerges by repeated detours. Ludwig is decentered in relation to Bismarck and the Prussification of the German Empire; in Theodor Hiernies, it is Ludwig who emerges through the peripheral figure of the cook and his memoirs. Karl May appears ambiguously as both product and catalyst of forces which he failed to comprehend: a whole history of Germany's frustrated ambitions to become world power with overseas dominions. Winifred Wagner's presence on the screen for four hours palpably communicates the absence not so much of Richard Wagner, but that of Wagner-admirer, intimate friend and house-guest Adolf Hitler. And whereas the Ludwig films Karl May and Winifred Wagner, are grouped like a chronological spiral in a circle whose center is Hitler as the juncture of art and politics, the Hitler film itself constantly displaces Hitler in the center, and substitutes not only Himmler and his masseur, or Hitler's manservant and/or projectionist or Hitler's millions of followers, but displaces the nexus "art and politics" by the relation cinema-fascism, fascism- spectacle, spectacle-commercialism, commercialism-capitalism, capitalism-Hollywood, Hollywood-America, America-pornography, and so on. Syberberg's myths are synthetic ones, images, notions, ideas, associations that lead outward and inward. The films are themselves concentric and epicentric, they cite each other, imply each other – through anticipation or retrospective reference. And by a process of repetition, variation, accumulation they echo each other in a movement intended to make the accidental become pertinent, the detail symptomatic – but all under the sign of non-convergence, non-identity. Ideally, one would imagine Syberberg to want his audience to see the films in close succession – not seven hours, but more like twelve or fifteen hours, as a cycle. The films are nothing less than a mythological construct, in the spirit of such modernist myth-novels as Joyce's Ulysses, Mann's Joseph novels, or Hermann Broch's Sleepwalkers and Musil's Man without Qualities.

However, the aesthetic conception of Syberberg's work is Wagnerian: nothing less than another Ring, or if one likes, an anti-Ring, fashioned to the same monstrous proportions, and needing an anti-Bayreuth Bayreuth to be shown in the manner intended. Herein lies a central paradox of Syberberg's work: Film is both a documentation of myth and of its betrayal, because the cinema feeds off culture, parodies it, and by being a parasite exploits it and radically transforms the meaning of culture. Syberberg's own cinema cites myths as its constitutive metaphors: its dynamics and progression are formulated in the archaic causality of inheritance ("Erbe")64 of the false messiah of demonic powers, of meta-physical betrayal – a causality adopted to get away from both the logic of historical causality and that of the novel, too close to Hollywood with its classical narrative structures. By contrast Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk, his notion of music drama provides for Syberberg an overdetermined aesthetic structure, a model, saturated both with historical associations and with the attempt to psychologize mythology and thereby undo a certain form of mystification, however unconsciously. The task is then to demystify psychology, in the name of artistic technique, a technique which can "cite" Wagner's music while at the same time distancing itself from it. Wagner's mythological ensembles are broken up, they are alluded to by snatches and fragmentary passages, but their grand design, their function as structuring metaphors of a world-view are exposed as pathetic-bombastic gestures of a period's will towards idealized self-representation. Syberberg recalls the subtle psychological appeal, only to distort this emotional and perhaps unconscious self-identification by strategies of parody, hyperbole, exaggeration and "camp," letting two inauthentic languages, two discourses of historical evasion and sublimation – petty-bourgeois "dream-kitsch" and mythologizing Gesamtkunstwerk – collide with each other. As the pieces fall to the ground, so to speak, the spell of both is broken, and the imprint of the process, the effort and desperate voluntarism becomes visible, as the fleeting moment of a certain subjectivity trying to inscribe itself permanently in history by objectifying its desires and anxieties.

Here, in effect, Syberberg's project rejoins that of Ernst Bloch once more, who had suggested that Wagner had to be rescued by being "surrealized," that is, juxtaposed with an apparently quite dissimilar reality:

(As a boy, he) had endured six hours of Wagner's Ring. He had learnt to hate this music ever since; but then, later, by chance, he happened to hear the dance of the sailors from The Flying Dutchman, the glorious ninth and the piccolo flute sounding like a boatsman's whistle. All of a sudden, the opera had turned wild, colorful, colonial. Karl May and Richard Wagner seemed to be shaking hands.65

Bloch calls Wagner "a hieroglyph in the hollow space carved out by the 19th century,"66 which is to say that Wagner epitomizes the desire for an art of "effects without causes," one that answers to an incomprehensible social dynamic by creating the total illusion, the perfect skein of appearance where myth objectifies psychology and psychology validates myth, but both exist only in relation to an absent, "hollowed out" historical dimension. In this respect, Wagner is the precursor of the cinema also in the sense that in and through his music one can grasp, for the last time in its pre-technological guise, that historical process, which – accelerated enormously by the cinema – transforms the world of subject-object division, of causality and uneven forces, into the realm of spectacle, show and pure appearance.


Wagner treated as a heiroglyph – in the manner of the surrealists' use of representational painting, 19th century illustration and still photography – is thus the starting point of Syberberg's reflections on cinematic technique, and by that token, his conception of a counter-cinema which is also a cinema that can reflect upon a specifically German history. This is important in several respects: most attempts at a counter-cinema, at an alternative practice of cinema are conceived in terms of an opposition to Hollywood, and where this leads to a theoretical position, as in the case of the Anglo-American avantgarde or in French film-theory, this focusses on equating Hollywood with narrative, narrative with illusionism, illusionism with realism, and realism with the 19th century novel. In this context, deconstructing narrative becomes the primary task and technique of a radical cinema. In contrast to this, Syberberg sees the hegemony of Hollywood in much more directly political and economic categories, where on the one hand, Hollywood colludes with the specifically capitalist forms of commodity consumption, and on the other hand, all national cinemas are colonized on the level of distribution by American dominance in television and film-exhibition. Syberberg's critique of illusionism thus fastens not on a critique of narrative and the novel, but on technologically produced immediacy, on music, the opera and Wagner.

In this respect, he is indeed the heir of Brecht, who in his own practice was singularly less preoccupied with the novel and narrative, and much more crucially with the opera and with the relation between word, music and image. Epic theatre is in important respects the valorization of heterogeneity and non-mediation in the discourses constituted by word, music, image. While Benjamin believed that surrealist technique was able to rescue illusionist or technologically reproduced images by pointing to their discursive materiality, Syberberg's surrealist technique applied to Wagner wants to rescue a certain complex materiality in music.

Within film-history, Syberberg's cinema is in complete opposition not only to "classical narrative" and the discourses of Hollywood or anti-Hollywood realism (neo-realism, documentary), it is equally opposed to early Eisenstein or Russian montage theories.67 For while his is a rigorously anti-illusionist cinema, using intertitles, back-projection, actors citing and puppets reciting roles rather than embodying them, the trompe-l'oeil effects of his sets and en-abyme construction of his narratives are quite distinct from Brechtian alienation techniques and their corresponding concepts of realism and materiality. Neither, however, is there the constructivist element of early Eisenstein which treated the shot as the basic unit of construction, and worked on the materiality of the film-strip and the individual image: there are in Syberberg’s films no classical montage-effects, nor classical continuity-shots. Even his Winifred Wagner "documentary" is constructed according to different principles ("the monologue that is a dialogue, of course").

Syberberg is a Brechtian re-thought through a "Baroque" sensibility: with his cinema, one enters upon a stage of absence, decay and the hollow echo, dominated by the very mannerist emblem of the eye that is the world, the world that is the tear, and the tear that is the cinema: a theatrum mundi in the age of media electronics. The special inwardness of cinema, as a space not of reality and action, but of the contemplative mind, reinforces an affinity of attitude with the baroque, as well as with the inwardness so much at stake in German culture generally. The idea of a split tearing the universe, with which the film opens ("the paradisal image of the Ludwig landscape is torn apart from top to bottom, a cleft appears in the mountains, and through it, more stars appear to be rushing towards us"68) points to the manifold divisions of German history in search of its Grail – the negative mythology of unity, redemption and reconciliation. Because these visions, which the films explore, imply desires of regression, self-oblivion and fantasies of the narcissistic ego, it is Melancholia and Narcissus as patron saints, who cast the self-pitying and self-accusing eye on the proceedings, calling for "mourning work." This insistence on the facies hippocratica that Benjamin talks about in connection with Baroque, is fundamentally un-Brechtian. Benjamin sought to reconcile dialectically his negative perspective with the Lukáicsian "subject" of history; Brecht, too, especially in the 1930s and the early years of his exile, assumed that his work could address the proletarian subject in history. For Syberberg, as for Kracauer, history is concerned with reality only from the moment when life has flowed from it, when it is died off, and in need of "redemption."69 There is no sense of a dialectic in Our Hitler, or in any of the other films, that would make the proletariat wrest from history its death-mask. On the contrary, Syberberg implies, there is no subject left that the cinema could address directly or in whose name it could legitimately speak. The recourse to the Baroque allows him to take his distance from Brecht, whose ideas of learning-processes, models, and analyses of concrete social behaviour and action are themselves a form of direct address, and thus too affirmative, and not sufficiently mediated by an immanent textuality that has to be inflected towards interpretation not action. The hermeneutic circle of Syberberg's technique is closed when myth has been psychologized, and psychology "materialized" in the surrealist image: the image, in turn, has to be presented as a construct, not a fetish, which is to say, it has to be allegorized. The materials of this allegory are the debris and fragments of history, in which can be read the subjective truth of myths.

Brecht allegorized and Wagner surrealized are the polarities within which Syberberg's work wants to redefine the cinema as a "Gesamtkunstwerk" of mediation, that is to say, of interpretation. By making identification and immediacy its central critical issue, and allegory the form of its mediating textuality, Syberberg's cinema responds to the historical situation it is in: conceived and practiced as an antithesis to both television and the commercial cinema, it constructs out of the discarded objects scattered among the ruins of the national culture and history "mythological" counter-worlds, in which only a Baroque attitude of decipherment can criticize the cinema's formidable powers of immediacy and representation.


The conjunction cinema/culture that one sees taking shape in West Germany today thus becomes the point where two quite different systems of reflexion, identification and mirroring intersect – one unconscious, psychological and visual, based on consumption and the commodity; the other conscious, historical, and based on the production of artefacts for recognition by a self-defined class or group. The programmatic-polemical title "Our Hitler" actually contains a twofold project: to use Hitler as the mirror in which German culture is reflected in distorted form, and to analyze the mechanisms of projection and distortion themselves, which in the figure of Hitler took on their historically and politically most extreme but also consequential form. The more Hitler's role as the accelerated transformation-point of culture into spectacle, as the conversion-agency of the bourgeois individual into a system of object-relations, fixations and mirror-reflections can be associated with the commercial cinema, and by extension Hollywood, capitalism and the United States, the more the concept of a "national culture" as an immanent realm of self-reflexivity and criticism can be rescued and appropriated for an alternative cinema.

Insofar as contemporary theory is attempting to counter by "reading," "texturalizing," and "deconstruction" the ever more pervasive mirror-relations and tautologies that keep social reality from subjective experience and knowledge, and screens out the dynamics of history and change, Syberberg's baroque-surrealist hermeneutics, his melancholy-redemptive cinema, has as its object to produce "cultural" criticism at a stage where neither culture nor criticism are in fact needed for cognition and socialization, nor is it needed for a sense of individual or national identity: no addressee survives, and as in Kafka's parable, the Emperor's message will never reach its destination. Syberberg has drawn the logical conclusion. The cinema, renouncing its immediacy and its powers of unconscious direct address, produces difficult, long, and hermeneutic texts. These texts "realize" themselves by different forms of mediation, which surround and, as it were, flank the films. On the one side, there are the discourses of criticism (among them Syberberg's own books) and on the other, there is the demand for state-cinemas, an institutionalized distribution system, and a "Bayreuth" for film.70 In a state-funded cinema, in other words, it is no longer the films that speak; or rather, they speak the language of refusal, so that 'communication' takes place only via the mediation of the institutions. Television, the press, the publishing business, the cultural institutes, Goethe Houses, academic film courses, Francis Ford Coppola, trade-missions and festivals furnish the second-order discourses of direct address, within which Syberberg's counter-cinema can protest its negativity.



See Tony Rayns, ed., Fassbinder (London, BFI, 1980) ch. 1 and Sheila Johnston, "Authorship and German Cinema," Screen Education, 32 (1980).


Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York, 1972), p. 132-3.


"I cannot let myself be corrupted by an appeal to mass-taste. A film must be comprehensible, it is true, but then I do claim that my film is. However, I do demand the sort of concentration one would be expected to bring to a performance of Beethoven's Ninth." (Syberberg, in discussion, quoted by Westdeutsche Allgemeine, Sept. 17, 1977).


Syberberg has compiled a dossier that documents the German press reaction to Our Hitler which he distributed at the Berlin Film Festival 1979. It runs to 337 pages. One of the more restrained contribution comes from the Frankfurter Rundschau, June 16, 1978: "No other German film has raised such hue and cry as did Our Hitler, but mainly from its author-director. Even his most fervent defenders could not say that Syberberg hides his light under a bushel. Apparently he is not satisfied with (his mostly foreign) admirers, he seems to need 'enemies' at home in order to cast himself in the role of the prophet pariahed in his own country (. . .). With the preferred subjects of his films (. . .) he not only shares their megalomania and gigantism, but the aggressively missionary vocation and the whining self-pity of a martyr. (. . .) Pathos and mysticism characterize also the stance of the film as a whole." Syberberg's most recent counterattack is Die Freudlose Gesellschaft (Munich, 1981).


H.J Syberberg, Hitler, Ein Film aus Deutschland, (Reinbek, 1978) p. 74-76.


Ibid. p. 81.


Ibid. p. 81.


New York Review of Books, Feb. 21, 1980, p. 39.


"The dominant idea governing the film is the concept of 'projection'. Projection in the symbolic sense was one of Hitler's great accomplishments (. . .). We will show the world of Hitler in the form of projections, fantastic dreams, projections of the will which gave shape to these visions." (Syberberg, in a television interview, translated and printed in Framework, 6 (1977), p. 15.


Hitler Ein Film, p. 74.


Sontag seems to have taken the first part of her sentence from Syberberg himself: “I do not feel there is any need to justify making a film about Hitler. It is the subject of this century – and not only for us Germans." (Framework, 6 (1977), p. 13).


Hitler Ein Film, p. 17-18.


Theodor W. Adorno, Versuch über Wagner (Frankfurt am Main, 1974), p. 112.


Ibid. p. 115.


Hitler Ein Film, p. 19.


"Marx: 'just as the ancient peoples experienced their prehistory in the imagination, in mythology, we Germans have lived our post-history in thought, in philosophy. We are the philosophical contemporaries of the present, without being its historical contemporaries. In the same way, I am only the imaginary contemporary of my own present: contemporary of its languages, its utopias, its systems (i.e. of its fictions) (. . .) but not of its history, of which I inhabit only the shimmering reflection: the phantliasmagoria." (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, [New York, 1977], p. 58-59).


"He took seriously the kitsch in the history of German taste" (Hitler Ein Film, p 243).


Hitler Ein Film, p. 18.


For Syberberg, Wagner's art is part of the revolutionary potential of the mythology that it revives as a depoliticised, psychic fantasy. The reason why an expanding capitalist economy could harness it ideologically was that in one sense, Wagner's cult of musical immediacy holds out the promise of fulfilment, of instant gratification, stirring longings that leap from the aesthetic to the psychic, while the monumentalism, the technical resources of production, as well as the mass-character of the work's mode of reception implies a social and even economic dimension that is constantly disguised in the work itself.


Myth, then, in the epoch of Modernism, appears as that form of bourgeois self-estrangement which in its literary and musical form tempts the culture-conscious audience with a structure of identity outside history and social determinism – precisely the point where depth-psychology becomes both attractive and ideologically significant. This negative impulse myth – the degree to which it opposes itself to teleology of a historical kind and determinism an economic kind – is what Syberberg wants to rescue in German culture, in order to preserve a potential for a future when economics is no longer the motor of human development. But this moment of 'hope' or 'utopia,' so precariously separated from the real world during Romanticism, and in this form the focus of Marcuse's reading of Schiller and Bloch's interest in millennial myths, is always conceived as an 'opposing world,' for as an extension of reality it becomes 'affirmative,' and from being critical, it turns apologetic. See in this context, F. Jameson’s remarks in Marxism and Form (Princeton, 1971), p. 119.


Hitler Ein Film, p. 242.


Syberbergs Filmbuch (Frankfurt am Main, 1979), p. 186.


Ibid, p. 187.


Ibid, p. 39.


The writer Karl May is born out of a typical act of renunciation which transforms and displaces the source of conflict: the social isolation at home translates itself into geographical isolation in the fiction, but one where at the extreme point (the moment of mortal danger, the moment of the Other) the hero meets a companion, a brother – in short, the double that reconciles him to solitude and exile. Exile and Colonialism are mapped so as to converge in a narcissistic fantasy, inside which the reader can place his own adolescent fantasy of an ideal companion, the double, as an escape from Oedipal configurations. That in Karl May's fiction, this companion should be a member of another (colonized/fighting for survival) race, calls to mind certain aspects of Leslie Fiedler's thesis from Love and Death in the American Novel (London, 1967)


"It reminds us that Hitler was brought up on Karl May as much as on Nietzsche, and that it was the former who became required reading for the listless and battle-weary troops of the Russian Campaign." (Syberberg, quoted in Ecran, February, 1976).


Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 38.


Ibid. p. 39.


Ibid. p. 46.


Ibid. p. 46.


Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit (Frankfurt am Main, 1962), p. 169.


Ibid. p. 173.


Ibid. p. 172.


Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 46.


Erbschaft dieser Zeit, p. 19.


Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 41.


See also New German Critique, 18 (Fall, 1979) for an extended review.


"The enthusiasm of the young Nietzsche was wrong about the artwork of the future: what took place was the birth of the cinema from the spirit of music. For this, there is an early authenticated document out of Wagner's inner circle. On March 23, 1980, i.e. well before the invention of cinematography, Chamberlain wrote to Cosima about Liszt's Dante symphony which here stands for the entire sphere: 'Conduct this symphony with a sunken orchestra in a darkened auditorium and let images pass in the background – and you'll see, all the Levis and all my cold neighbours of today (. . .) will be ecstatic.' " (Theodor W. Adorno, Versuch über Wagner, p. 100/101). Syberberg explicitly appropriates the formula 'Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music' in his writings, for instance in Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 14: "Film as the Music of the Future", without being apparently aware of Adorno's sarcastic comment.


What Susan Sontag in her essay Fascinating Fascism calls "the dissolution of alienation" by an act of will and a collective effort. Syberberg associates in turn the necessary corollary namely the evidence of self-estrangement among those who believe in this voluntarism: their subservience, subjection, self-negation, "other-directedness", especially brought out in the long passage devoted to Himmler.


"In the face of historical problems (the lack of interest in social and political questions among German intellectuals and writers) leads to attempted solutions, which are displacements and bear the traits of mythical surrogates in place of what is actually social." (Thomas Mann Schriften zur Literatur, Kunst und Philosophie [Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg, 1968] vol. 2, p. 250).


It seems important to insist on this point, in the light of the dominant opinion that the film is a self-service counter of ideas and images: "In (Syberberg's) Hitler the position of the film-maker is difficult to make out, the principle of selecting the evidence and even the four-fold division of the film seems arbitrary (...). Commentary and quotation (without citing sources) are mixed in a way that makes it impossible to decide where Sybcrberg wants to place the emphasis. Presumably one is asked to pick whatever one likes." (Florian Hopf, Filmreport 9/10, 1978).


"It would be good to have a chapter of the film in pure Hollywood style, in the gigantic scale of Jaws or King Kong. Speer had planned a victory parade in Berlin for 1950 . . . "(Syberberg, quoted in Framework No. 6, 1977, p. 15).


"Monologue as spoken score" is how Syberberg defines this process (*Svberbergs Filmbuc, p. 22).


Hitler Ein Film, p. 231.


Ibid. p. 108/9.


Ibid p. 160.


This is the central theme in Fassbinder's Lili Marleen (1981).


When historians ask why it was that such a patently anachronistic idea should have taken hold so easily and firmly, they tend to ignore the inherent effects of the media, their power to suggest and actualize this presence, this ideal. As so often, it is technology reviving and recreating historically prior and anachronistic forms of communication and social life. Technology tends to be used not to produce new forms of social interaction, but reproduce ones charged with (nostalgic) affectivity, and thus binding the consumer libinally, through the secondary narcissism of a sense of loss. This is the essence of kitsch, whether it is fascist art or formica tables looking like solid pine. Compared with the fascist Christmas celebrations during the war, today's tv shows like Nationwide (U.K.) or Good Morning America are pale fabricating 'liveness' through media technology.


Hitler Ein Film p. 212.


Ibid. p. 88.


"(After the war, and with the destruction of the German film industry) a new structure of identification was found, and finally accepted by the broad mass, based on repression. (. . .) In this way, film as a whole ceased to be representative in Germany as an art-form or an artistic mode of expression of its people. (. . .) If I chose the old starts (of the UFA days for the Karl May film), it has something to do with a new chance for self-identification, which offers itself today, both politically and film-historically". (Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 224/5).


Hitler Ein Film, p. 209.


See also Klaus Theweleit, Männerphantasien (Reinbek, 1980).


Hitler Ein Film, p. 163.


See Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 20.


"Adolf, the barbaric Kasperl. Mineral water instead of beer, vegetarian cooking instead of pig's trotter, Sieg Heil instead of Schlapperdipix, and Sieg Heil, that's progress made in Germany, Kasperl as Führer." (Hitler Ein Film, p. 109).


See in this context a remark by Roland Barthes: "what liberates metaphor, symbol, emblem from poetic mania, what manifests its power of subversion, is the preposterous (. . .) The logical future of metaphor would therefore be the gag." (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, p. 81).


"The monument whereby Hitler survives is made of celluloid". (Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 94).


What Syberberg calls the "associative architectonics of the whole" (Hitler Ein Film, p. 26).


Alexander Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn (New York, 1975).


Hitler Ein Film p. 28.


Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Frankfurt am Main, 1972), 183.


Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 14.


Hitler Ein Film, p. 117, p. 233.


Erbschaft dieser Zeit, p. 372.


Ibid., p. 372.


"Today the undeveloped possibilities of montage begin with the separate treatment of image and sound and their variable displacements in relation to each other. New systems of thinking and feeling arise (. . .) it becomes possible to let the spectator participate in new forms of thinking and new combinations (. . .) The relation of the music to the other compositional parts of the Ludwig film is symbiotic. One cannot live without the other. (. . .) This has nothing to do with the scene – and mood – painting of conventional film scores or with opera. The indivisible unity of the music with the other elements of the film is supported by the use of historical tableaux from the operas and the drawings of Ludwig's castles, which stand in often contrasting or at least unexpectedly new contexts to the verbal or musical quotations." (Syberbergs Filmbuch, p. 13-15).


Hitler Ein Film, p. 64.


Siegfried Kracauer, History – Of Last Things Last (New York, 1962).


How problematic such discourses can be politically is evident from passages such as this: "It has always been art which represented the better Germany, even Bayreuth has in every period been better than the government of the day. The New German Cinema, too, is Germany's best messenger abroad, so why not at home? We live in a democracy, and ought it to be said of it that it is not capable of presenting in attractive form what is new, if necessary from above, as was the case under princes and popes? We are waiting for the democratic politician who will recognize what is to be done, like the feudal patrons. He will earn himself a place in the history of modern times in the way that Ludwig belongs to the history of Wagner's music." (Hitler Ein Film, p. 57).