Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Documentaries about World War 2, Nazis, battles, etc. are certainly popular; at one time they seemed to constitute the entire output of the History Channel. On DVD they're a mixed bag, because a disc with a provocative title can easily turn out to be a sloppy hack job repeating the same old mangled newsreel footage we've seen forever, combined with a slack commentary and perhaps some personal reminiscences by witnesses or participants.
Josef Goebbles was the head of Adolf Hitler's heinous propaganda ministry. In the average docu, we expect to see him in same twenty or so news film shots, standing next to Hitler or speaking at a microphone. The narrator then, must tell us not only facts about the Reichsminister but how to feel about him. Not only do we have to take the docu's thesis on faith, we're left with a lot of unanswered questions. What was this man like and how did he perceive his place in the Third Reich? After watching a dozen war docus, we still don't understand how any of these Hitler henchmen could trust each other for a minute. They're all been pumped up as intensely horrible monsters, yet we often see pictures of them smiling pleasantly.
The Goebbels Experiment is very different in a very good way. It combines Goebbels' personal diaries and vintage news footage and films of the streets of German cities. Nothing else is allowed in the door. The movie assumes that we know the basic facts and doesn't try to explain what a Nazi is, or how the politics worked except through Goebbels' personal observations. It doesn't catalogue events as it isn't trying to explain them. Goebbels didn't directly plan invasions and he didn't start them. He will drop a hint about a conflict to come, and soon thereafter will refer to an invasion in progress as an established fact. The point-of-view is wholly subjective. If Goebbels didn't write it down, it's not here. The only other input is a series of small, pointed subtitles that tell us what we're looking at, or other essential information. There is little room for a documentarian to impose a personal thesis. Assuming nobody has cheated, this is Josef Goebbels all the way, condemning himself from his own pen.
Goebbels wrote like a "Dear Diary" fanatic from an early adulthood to his death in the Berlin bunker. Like many in Hitler's inner circle he was a man of incredible nerve -- he's constantly criticizing Hitler in the early years and yet never saw the need to destroy his diaries even when other old cronies were being accused of disloyalty. This teaches us that Goebbels knew that if he were ever set up to take a political fall, real evidence wouldn't be needed, and probably not even sought out.
Young Josef talks about foot problems that later pay off in shots of him hobbling as he walks. He dreams of girls, envisions himself a great artist or man of letters and becomes a fanatic cult follower of Hitler within the growing Nazi party. He's furious when the party sidelines him to run the propaganda ministry instead of giving him a political office, and even talks about quitting. But his entries soon change. He marries a beauty queen and rhapsodizes over his good fortune. He decides to personally supervise the direction of literary, artistic and cinematic pursuits in the new Reich. And he fancies himself the only one qualified to run Germany's propaganda machinery, because only he understands it.
Goebbels has opinions about everything from foreign diplomats to artsy Italian movies. He puts down Russian propaganda (too obvious) and the "decadent" 1941 Italian fantasy La corona di ferro. Yet he openly admits that his efforts at personal film management haven't created any new stars. He touts his super-production Kolberg, a color costume epic made while Berlin fell, as a superior propaganda picture. We're shown a Czech actress with whom Goebbels had an affair and groomed into a top German star, and then elaborate 35mm home movies of his wife and children. When the hausfrau found out about the Czech beauty, there was hell to pay.
As for Leni Riefenstahl, Goebbels has nothing but contempt for her. He calls her vain, disorganized and wasteful. By now we're getting used to the self-serving nature of everything Goebbels writes and can guess that he probably disapproves of Riefenstahl because he cannot control her. He talks about working far into the night on details instead of delegating his work, as if jealously guarding his turf-workplace. This kind of micromanagement discourages non-sanctioned talent from getting a chance.
Goebbels' diary entries about blacks and Jews are rabid exercises in purposeful hatred. Vicious words on Jews abound, as when he writes that Hitler will give the party permission to 'cleanse' Berlin of Jews as soon as there is victory in Russia. He's certain that the city air will be more aromatic when they are gone. He also stays up all night in giddy rapture when German Max Schmeling defeats Black American Joe Louis in the boxing ring. He makes no mention of the 1936 track defeat to the black American runner Jesse Owens, right in the Berlin Olympic stadium. Diary entries are very discriminating, especially for Nazis in denial of basic human truths.
When the war starts Goebbels is all excuses, second guesses and accusations. All propaganda snafus, as when the army becomes angered by lies of glorious victories in Russia, are blamed on others. He does express shock when Hess runs away to England. Goebbels only alludes to the political infighting by making occasional remarks that such-and-such impudent office holder will have to be gotten rid of. We wonder if these targets of his scorn were removed from office, or worse.
Toward the end the diary entries become sparse and detached. He expresses shock when he returns to Berlin and sees how much of it has been destroyed by Allied bombing. He earlier wrote entries calling Winston Churchill a pig and an idiot, but now professes to have gained a respect for him. One of the last entries is a piece about the beauty of the countryside just outside of the blasted Berlin. He envies the people there, and imagines that the war has not touched them.
The docu then jumps to shocking Russian footage of the bodies of Goebbels, his wife and all of their children. The kids are perfectly dressed little blondes with frozen grimaces on their faces. The wife and the husband are charred black. The filmmakers wisely offers no specifics on how their lives ended ... there is no Goebbels entry for this, as he is dead. It's a refreshingly horrifying ending, and an effective one. The filmmakers don't insist on having "the last word."
The familiar voice of Kenneth Branagh reads the diary entries with a studied lack of dramatization, so as not to contaminate the words with a personal interpretation. But the real treasure of The Goebbels Experiment is the stunning array of vintage film footage, most of it completely unfamiliar and the majority of it very high in quality. While the diary talks about a certain German city on a certain date, we see the streets in convincing film from the period, much of which is a revelation. Obviously directors Lutz Hachmeister and Michael Kloft worked for special access to archival resources, as we see almost none of the usual film footage. The movie occasionally pops to color, or carries an original soundtrack, as when Goebbels is interviewed briefly in front of the Reichstag in 1930 or so. This is one docu where the pictures keep rewarding us beyond simply illustrating the text. Much of it is creepy stuff, as when the group of Russian officers are shuffled into place beside the bodies of the Goebbels family, lined up like a ruined toy set. The victors have been on the receiving end of horrendous atrocities for five years, and yet nobody is gloating.
The only negative criticism Savant has read of The Goebbels Experiment asks why the movie doesn't condemn Goebbels more or give more time to details of the Holocaust, etc. The movie touches on those subjects only when Goebbels does. It's not trying to be comprehensive; indeed, if one tried to use this docu to outline German history from 1920 to 1945, it skips all the usual speaking points entirely -- the depression, the militarizing of the country and the prosecution of the war. Just as in films about present-day political concerns, some judge the merit of a movie depending on whether or not one's own point of view prevails.
First Run Features' presentation of The Goebbels Experiment is top-notch work. The enhanced image is given a fine encoding and the soundtrack is bright and clear. The film clips from Kolberg and La corona di ferro look fine as well. It's a superior job all around. The only extras are some text notes on the filmmaker and biographical details on Josef Goebbels.
This movie is highly recommended. It encourages us to carefully question and examine powerful men doing dark deeds in the name of Virtue and Patriotism.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Goebbels Experiment rates:
Supplements: Film notes, Filmmaker biographies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 17, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson