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What? Another feature length documentary about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany? Are we gluttons for punishment or have we become secret idolators of Nazi porn? No, no, not where the 1974 concept documentary Swastika is concerned. A few days ago I stumbled on the famous Hannah Arendt Banality of Evil quote, while reviewing a TV movie called The House on Garibaldi Street. As it turns out, this same quote also inspired Swastika. Philippe Mora, previously a painter and experimental filmmaker, joined with producers Sanford Lieberson and David Puttnam to fashion a docu around Eva Braun's then- recently discovered color home movies, filmed in Obersalzberg, Hitler's eyrie high above Berchtestgaden.
The films are disturbing because they aren't that much different than anybody else's home movies. Guests would arrive in their best outfits and converse on the terrace before a grand view of the Bavarian mountains. Children played underfoot as Nazi luminaries gathered and chatted. Hitler comes out of his study to offer greetings, or talk awhile with advisors, or to play with his dog. Eva's sister helped take the movies, giving us pictures of Hitler's hausfrau paramour posing on the terrace's low wall.
The "banality of evil" idea comes into play when one realizes that Hitler and the Nazis did not behave like slavering fiends or verminous monsters. They instead looked and comported themselves like ordinary people, even as they prosecuted wars, ripped apart Europe, England, North Africa and Russia and systematically murdered millions. Swastika incorporates the Obersalzberg color film into much more newsreel and home movie footage of Germany in the 1930s carefully chosen to paint a benign "business as usual" image of the Nazi state.
In 1974 most historical films about the Third Reich concentrated on three kinds of material. Brutal war footage showed the Nazi onslaught. Hitler and his gang of political criminals were seen shouting grave threats to audiences of thousands of heil-ing Germans. And the capper was always appalling evidence of mass murder in concentration camps. Swastika purposely shows the kinder, gentler Germany that the Germans themselves saw. Propaganda movies depict sporting events, youth rallies and happy work corps 'troops' marching and singing with their shovels. All are happy folk serving the Reich. Hitler's life is one long pleasant personal appearance, reviewing troops but also basking in the love and affection of multitudes of his citizens. Guards can barely hold back enormous throngs of boys and girls, men and women reaching to see or touch Der Füher, with looks of total rapture on their faces. Flowers are strewn in his path. Hitler smiles at children and teases girls, and gives proud young boys approving smiles. A Hitler Youth drummer, doubtlessly chosen from hundreds to play for his leader, looks like the happiest boy on earth.
Mora and his post-production people have gone to great lengths to lay full audio tracks onto the films, with credible sound effects where possible. Even more remarkably, they used lip readers to decipher some of what's being said in the color home movies. Other bits of overheard dialogue are taken from the personal remembrances of people who were actually there. A good example of this is when a guest at Obersalzberg boasts about Herman Goering's boar hunt. Hitler says he sees no sport in that, that Goering should go into the forest with just a spear.
We see more atypical footage of other famous faces in top Nazi circles. In one photo op setup Josef Goebbels hands out Christmas gifts. Perhaps the most disturbing shot of Hitler shows him sitting with a group of children at a dinner table, like a beloved uncle presiding at a Thanksgiving gathering. It's not at all the image we're accustomed to.
Only toward the end does Swastika begin to bring in film material reminding us of the horrors to come. We've seen demonstrations of army maneuvers and footage of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics -- he's even on-screen thanking his gracious hosts. Albert Einstein delivers an address in a large auditorium. Other news film shows demonstrations on the streets of New York demonstrating against Hitler's anti-Semitic laws. At a German American Bundt rally, a heckler charging the podium is beaten by fascist thugs before being rescued by police.
Only at the very end does the war come, and with it more familiar images of misery, horror and mass murder. Swastika carries no voiceover telling us how to respond to its images.
The message is one that we victors have never appreciated: The Nazis were people like us. Given the right political circumstances, any other country could very well go down the same dark path. Like other movies that take an intelligent, non-standard look at the nature of Nazi Evil (I'm thinking of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's It Happened Here) Mora's Swastika was immediately misinterpreted -- or correctly interpreted and deemed dangerous anyway. Everybody seems intent on suppressing powerful propaganda images on the principle that the "ignorant audience" will get the wrong message. From its 1973 premiere at Cannes Swastika sparked a controversy that led to its being banned in several countries. It never really received a full release.
The claim that the film glorifies Nazism is legit only if one presumes that there is only one proper way to approach certain hot-potato film subjects. Historical film of Nazis in action has always been unnerving, because one fears that the same elements that repel most people, are very attractive to others. The uniforms, the iconography, the military hardware are all very dramatic. In these idealized images from the 1930s the Germans all seem united, happy and prosperous. Everybody seems to have some kind of uniform to reinforce his or her place in the machinery of the state. They all seem to be working toward one ideal, and not for money or selfish purposes. The cars and the equipment and the new Autobahn freeways are the best in the world. They even have television, in 1936! In these films Nazism wears a smile.
To viewers that see evidence of fascism creeping here and there into our present day culture, Swastika is an important reminder that these were all normal people, not monsters, and that complacent everyday life can go forward even as a country as a whole shifts its aims and its mission to evil ends. Swastika encourages contemplation of this without making a paranoid statement.
The people that would ban Swastika would argue that the public at large has no ability to make such fine distinctions, that Philippe Mora's film is a functional advertisement for the idolization of Nazi Germany. And they have a point as well. Lop off a few hundred feet of atrocity footage and other "bad news", and Swastika might very well be welcome screening material at a neo-Nazi gathering. It all depends on what one feels is the correct function of documentary films, to challenge people or to tell them how to think.
Swastika was banned in Germany for 37 years, and also in Israel. It's a fascinating and often disturbing experience, and something for anybody interested in documentary film to study.
Kino Lorber's DVD of Swastika is a very good encoding of this vintage documentary. As the original footage was gathered from the best sources available in 1973, some scenes look extremely good and others a bit faded. Director Mora didn't add much in the way of fancy opticals. Some special effects and wipe-reveals in a scene about marching German troops appear to be from original film materials. The Nazis faked footage too.
Of interest to film students and folk that like to debate the politics of WW2 are the series of featurettes included as extras. Johnathan Petropoulos provides a freestanding introduction, while other featurettes engage us in discussions of issues raised by the film, including the thorny problem of image manipulation and propaganda. Another is an interview with Nazi architect Albert Speer. Yet another discusses the color film found for the docu. An audio track discussion called 'Puncturing the Myth of Leni Riefenstahl' offers more unusually candid observances on a troublesome subject.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.