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Directed by Philippe Mora (yes, the man behind the first two The Howling sequels and Mad Dog Morgan) and co-written by Mora and Lutz Becker, 1974's Swastika is one of many documentary films made about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Where this film sets itself apart from the countless others, however, is that Mora actually got his hands on the personal films of one Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress. He used this color footage along with more traditional black and white footage of Nazi rallies and the like, to paint an interesting and surprisingly human portrait of one of the most horrible men to ever walk the face of the Earth.
Everyone knows Hitler as the anti-Semite responsible for countless deaths and atrocities but few know him as a man who loved to hang out and relax with his dog and his girlfriend, but that's exactly what we see here in this film. Those who would somewhat understandably confuse the filmmakers' intentions and accuse them of giving Hitler some undeserved sympathy ought to pay attention to the film's opening text scrawl which notes that if we remove humanity from human monsters, we'll fail to recognize them should they return throughout history. Keeping this in mind, it's not only interesting to see the more humane side of Hitler, the kinder and gentler Furher if you will, but important as well. Keeping in mind that Mora is of Jewish descent, you quickly realize that no, the filmmakers are no asking you to accept what he did as good or anything even close to that (this point is hammered home in the closing shots of a bulldozer dumping corpses into a pit in a concentration camp) but instead pointing out just how horrible humanity can get.
Mora mixes up the color home movie footage with newsreel clips and snippets taken from Nazi propaganda movies, presenting it all in German with no narration whatsoever and only occasional subtitles. Set to a fairly intense classical score, the film contrasts the human side with the better known megalomaniacal side, showing a man playing on the shore with a puppy who, moments later, could bring a crowd to such insane heights as to grip an entire country in his twisted grasp and set out to attempt to exterminate an entire race. Throughout the film we see Hitler and Braun and we also spot Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler among others but the focus is on Hitler here, and a few stand out moments include some interesting shots of Eva wandering through patches of flowers and a surprisingly provocative shot in which she's clad in a swimsuit literally bending over backwards in front of the camera, almost seductively. When you're hit with everyday 'normal' home movie images like this and then smacked with some stark black and white footage of Nazi aircraft flying in perfect Swastika formation, you wind up with a movie of incredible contrast that you won't soon forget.
Some narration might have given the film some interesting historical context, but in a sense it's almost best that Mora didn't opt to go that route, instead we're simply given the footage and left to make up our own minds - until that aforementioned closing shot reminds us once and for all just how monstrous so much of what this man was responsible for really was. It's also interesting to watch the footage, which appears to be presented in chronological order, move from the fairly pedestrian and lighter days of Hitler's early period through to the darker and more sinister tone in the film's last third. Not surprisingly, the film was banned in Germany for decades after its 1973 premiere at Cannes, where the controversy surrounding it was considerable.The DVD:
The fullframe video looks about as good as you could expect, given the origins of this material. It's a mix of 8mm and 16mm color and black and white footage, with most of the footage being black and white (and Hitler's vacation videos in color). Contrast blooms and tends to be all over the place, print damage is constant and grain can be intrusive - but it looks like what it is, basically a series of old home movies and propaganda films cut together. This isn't something that you watch for the video quality, so it's almost irrelevant in way, no one in their right mind would expect it to look pristine - it's all perfectly watchable, however, which in a situation like this is all that really matters.Sound:
The Dolby Digital Mono sound mix mirrors the video presentation in terms of quality - it's rough, but it doesn't take away from the documentary's impact. All of the dialogue that is there is in German, much of it unsubtitled (when it is subtitled, it's via some burned in white text) but it was likely left like that on purpose. You don't need to speak German to understand what's happening on screen and the background music sounds fairly good throughout.Extras:
The extras kick off with an introduction from Jonathon Petropoulos who gives us a quick two minute discussion on how film can be used effectively to teach history and how it affected his students. It's a nice set up to the feature, but not quite as interesting as the half hour long featurette that gathers up Sandy Lieberson, David Puttnam, Philippe Mora and Lutz Becker to discuss the methods and motives behind making the feature in the first place. There's a lot of focus here on how the home movie footage was unearthed and how it was used in the film and of course they don't shy away from talking about the controversial nature of the film either. They probably could have recorded a full length commentary for the feature and been better off for it but in lieu of that, this is well worth your time. There's also a fifteen minute long interview here with Albert Speer and Lutz Becker from the BBC, originally broadcast in 1973, in which they talk about how the footage shown in the feature was found in an archive amongst some news reels and frontline reports.
Three shorter featurettes related to Swastika are also included here, starting with the twelve minute Manipulation And Nazi Propaganda which does a great job of demonstrating how the Nazi filmmakers used news reel footage and similar clips to assert their control over the country during their reign. Complimenting this nicely is the two minute Color Film In Nazi Germany, which as the title implies, discusses how the Nazi filmmakers used new color film technology to further manipulate things. Last but not least, Puncturing The Myth Of Leni Riefenstahl spends just under six minutes (audio only) with Mora and Becker examining the work of the most famous Nazi era German filmmaker of them all.
Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature and trailers for a few other Kino properties, menus and chapter selection.
Swastika is a fascinating and intimate portrait of one of humanity's most infamous villains. Yes, it absolutely does humanize its subject, and some may take issue with that but the whole point of the film is to humanize its subject so that, as it states, we'll maybe do a better job of recognizing similar tyrants the next time one comes along. It adds a layer of personality and complexity to a historical figure often portrayed as a one dimensional caricature of evil, showing us that there was more to Hitler than a lot of us probably want to realize. Kino's DVD looks and sounds about as good as it's probably going to get, and provides some welcome and important contextual extra features that round out the package nicely. Highly recommended for history buffs.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.