Hans-Jürgen Syberberg is sitting on couches with Susan Sontag, Martin Scorsese, and others, watching his recent news appearance on American television. It is January 1980, and the German director is in New York City promoting the seven-and-a half-hour Hitler: A Film from Germany (titled Our Hitler in the U.S.). A presenter says his film is about Hitler as “seen through the eyes of Germans.” Syberberg, an impish yet regimented presence, periodically photographs those in the room as they observe his interview on the screen. Sontag, smirking, agrees with Scorsese that Syberberg’s pitch to American media went well: “People got something that’s clear and easy to remember.” Footage of the U.S. tour is eventually appended to copies of the film.
Sontag called Hitler the most extraordinary film she had ever seen. Her NYRB essay on Syberberg’s opus remains one of the most committed and perceptive attempts to describe it—an almost impossible task to carry out adequately yet succinctly. The methods and interpretations in the film are vast and disorienting, comprising a system of thought that encompasses the grandest questions of modern German and Western culture and politics. The “total experience” the director sought to inflict on the viewer aims to be punitive and transformative. In exploring his theme of “Hitler in us,” Syberberg challenges the myths and orthodoxies of the post-World War Two order in a maximally discomforting and subversive way.
But while Hitler found some important admirers outside of Germany, it was overwhelmingly rejected within the country. Rather than the film serving as a precursor to professional success and expanding legitimacy, Syberberg’s career as a director dwindled in the 1980s. From a position of professional and ideological marginalization, Syberberg began lashing out in interviews and essays, where his challenges to the intellectual and artistic conformity of his time became increasingly colored by antisemitic polemic.
Syberberg was born in Nossendorf, western Pomerania, northeast Germany, in 1935, of minor Prussian aristocratic stock. After a childhood in the countryside, he moved to Rostock, on the Baltic coast. Following a more traditional education than he would have received in West Germany—still steeped in the luminaries of the German 19th century—he headed west to study at the University of Munich, completing a doctorate in the work of Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
His early films from the late 1960s include pieces on contemporary German society: One is on a pornographer, another documents a hippie commune. The key artistic decade for Syberberg, however, included the German Trilogy (Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972), Karl May (1974) and Our Hitler (1977)), the documentary The Confessions of Winifred Wagner (1975), and finally, Parsifal (1982). The average run-time of these films is four and a half hours.
Through these films, Syberberg examines the roots of Germany’s ultimate self-banishment through Nazism. But his most important mission is to return us defamiliarized to our present condition.
Syberberg targets a total consciousness reset for the viewer. The vast solemnity and ecstatically tedious sense of expanded time in his work aim to make us receptive to other worlds—not for nostalgia or historical understanding, but to shock the organs of perception. He seeks to rewire the very cognitive pathways by which we relate to the present moment, aiming to make us aware of how profoundly our sense of reality is delimited by prevailing morality and hegemonic ideology. His repudiation spans leftism, liberalism, capitalism, technology, democracy, Christian morality, pluralism, and modernity itself. His goal is a form of collective mystical experience whereby the world falls away, leaving us wondering what has been lost in making it and might be gained anew if we overhaul the basis by which we relate to one another.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s rule was marked by his exotic aesthetic fanaticism, as his epithets “the fairy tale king” and “the swan king” attest. His obsessive construction of extravagant castles (for which he hired set designers as well as architects) nearly bankrupted the Bavarian state. Ludwig was deposed by his ministers after they declared him insane, before being found dead in mysterious circumstances, age 40, in Lake Starnberg.
Ludwig takes place at the historical moment when Ludwig (played by Harry Baer) is under pressure to join the Franco-German War by statesman Otto von Bismarck, the great unifier of Germany. The campaign is victorious for the emergent Prussia-centric German Empire, but also entails the loss of Bavarian independence, and ultimately accelerates Ludwig’s demise. Ludwig’s ministers, led by his uncle Luitpold, grow increasingly exasperated with the king’s otherworldly distance from practical responsibilities and modernity. They instead want a Bavaria focused on “investment, international art, roads, automobiles, and connection with the empire.”
Syberberg juxtaposes Ludwig’s romantic grandeur with his political frivolity. Ludwig spends the film in a state of impotent lament; he sees the threats all around him yet does nothing to stop them. Instead of worldliness—engaging with individuals and groups and forces he despises—he withdraws into preening vanity, fey fantasies, and moody rants. He declares himself opposed to “so-called progress”: industrialization, nationalism, socialism, mass meetings of people. And while Syberberg depicts the nationalistic forces fueling the movement against Ludwig’s quixotic reign—guns, money, and beer—as crass, robotic, and mediocre, he also conveys a sense of their unstoppable internal logic, as set against the king’s puritanical prizing of beauty above all. This prophetic fatalism is inscribed in the image, at the outset of the film, of a bearded, tear-strewn baby Ludwig, as three Norns mockingly prophesize that he will be the final king of Bavaria.
In Ludwig, shot on a stage with no audience, there barely exists any social dynamic between the actors. It is as if those sharing the space are on different productions: They speak into the air, not to one another. Discussions take place within earshot of others who do not hear or respond to them. Declarations are followed by dead air. It seems like the performers belong to different planes of space-time, trapped in separate tracks of history that are now impossible to cohere. The noncommunication between Germans of different ranks, perspectives, and intentions entails the beginning of turning “Germany’s will against Germany itself.” In depicting the decomposition of dialogue to monologue, Syberberg points to the departure from shared experience to divergent paths of memory.
Ludwig is a patron of Wagner, whose commercially unsuccessful work baffles his ministers, becoming another bone of contention. But Ludwig’s own call for the exaltation of Wagnerian romanticism takes place in a Germany untainted by Nazism—Syberberg’s own quest for German cultural innocence cannot. In order to express this condition, he introduces Nazi anachronism. At one point, Hitler (who appears to have morphed from a Karl May who gives a speech praising the king) dances with a camp Ernst Rohm. When they are shooed off stage, they leave goose-stepping, arm-in-arm.
The king dies twice: through a reported suicide offscreen, and then a guillotine execution—after which a mob dances around his corpse, as motorcycles pull up and a woman prophesizes his return, holding up his severed head. He then reappears, yodeling, and parts his cape to expose the lederhosen underneath.
The homosexual Ludwig never married or had children. His material legacy was his castles, whose glory only persisted as touristic fodder. This is represented by the projection of modern sepia-toned footage of American tourists visiting them on a backdrop as the film proceeds. The limitations and corruptions of Syberberg’s current vantage point are infused with how he imagines, and depicts, the past itself. It is because Ludwig was unable to establish a tradition that Syberberg must seek, through artistic longing, the dream that the king once inspired. The impossibility of finding it becomes the film’s true subject.
In Karl May, his next film, Syberberg takes on the most commercially popular novelist in German history. May’s adventure novels set in the American West inspired an expansive sense of German heroism. His most resonant characters are Old Shatterhand, a German cowboy who serves as May’s avatar, and his friend Winnetou, an Apache chief. As scholar Colleen Cook wrote, these characters allow “the German people, divorced from the realities of the frontier” to inhabit a “natural paradise where good still triumphs over evil; where men can be men; where the ideal of the noble savage, and the apex of Western European culture mix harmoniously.” May was a major inspiration for Hitler, whose admiration for the novelist only increased when he discovered that his swashbuckling content was imagined rather than drawn from personal experience.
Karl May’s cast was dominated by Nazi-era performers. These included Kristina Söderbaum, icon of the Nazi Aryan aesthetic and wife of Jud Süß director Veit Harlan, as May’s first wife; and Lil Dagover, who appeared in over 20 films during the Third Reich, which also granted her state honors, appearing as Austrian novelist Bertha von Suttner. Syberberg’s casting of these figures was a darkly mischievous variation on his broader vision of film as “the continuation of life by other means.” Within the dramatic context of this historical film, they explore the culture and society that existed before Nazism—but their innocence as actors is rendered impossible by audience awareness of their involvement with the fascist-era film industry.
Karl May conceives of a society mediated by journalism, inflamed and distorted by the novelistic imagination, and steeped in litigation. Relations between individuals are increasingly managed through law and commerce, which intervene at key junctures of life. (May’s first wife is incentivized to plot against him by the Munchmeyer publishing house, leading to their divorce after 30 years of marriage.) The overall direction of human affairs moves against trust and cooperation.
The author battles against a tide of accusations and lawsuits from his opponents, primarily publishers and journalists. These assaults encompass all aspects of his personal integrity and identity. Publishers attempt to control May’s legacy and the capacity to re-edit and release versions of his work. Enveloped by a maelstrom of controversy, he becomes defined by the fight to shape the public persona he initially created.
May ends the film as “the final German mystic,” as a judge puts it, in a form of glory: He clears his name and pledges to establish a trust for aspiring German writers, “despite their ingratitude.” He dies in his Saxon homeland next to his adoring second wife as snow falls over them. But Syberberg’s beatification of the writer has an asterisk. A young Hitler attends May’s final lecture in Austria in 1912, thrilled by the thought of how enthusiastic the masses will be when faced with the author in the flesh.
Syberberg’s next film, a documentary, examines the story of Winifred Wagner, an orphaned English girl who came to play an important role in German cultural history. After an itinerant early childhood in England, she was adopted by Karl Klindworth, a pupil of Franz Liszt who wrote piano scores for Richard Wagner, and his wife Henriette Karop, Winifred’s distant cousin. Klindworth and Karop, an elderly childless couple, reared Winifred in an intensely Germanic atmosphere. On Winifred’s first visit, age 17, to the festival of Wagner’s music at Bayreuth, Bavaria, she fell in love with Siegfried Wagner, son of Richard, a closeted homosexual 28 years her senior. They married and had four children. When Siegfried died in 1930, Winifred took over the management of the festival. During the Nazi era, Winifred developed a close personal bond with Hitler.
She ran the festival from Wahnfried, a villa built for Richard Wagner using funds provided by Ludwig II, who also funded the festival in its early, financially troubled years. (The name compounds the words for “delusion,” or “madness,” and “peace” in German: Wagner said this was the place where his “delusion had found peace.”) Wahnfried was partly destroyed by British bombing and, for 12 years after the war, was occupied, and, she adds, looted, by American troops, who never accepted it was her private property, interpreting it instead as belonging to Hitler. Winifred fiercely opposed the denazification trials, and tried to maintain the legacy of Wagner on the estate after the war. Syberberg interviews Winifred in Wahnfried, after 30 years of near silence from her on her relationship with Hitler and the role that Wagnerian culture played during the Third Reich.
“Nowhere else,” says Syberberg of Wahnfried in his opening voiceover, “were family history and national culture so inextricably intertwined.” Syberberg wants to incorporate Winifred’s testimony into the narrative, because the “brilliance and the mistakes; the private and the official” are inseparable. Yet he also sees the rot coming from within that laid the groundwork for external incursion. “Without the music, without Richard Wagner’s daily struggle for this music,” Syberberg says, Wahnfried “was turned into a bourgeois idyll by his heirs, and perhaps just because of this, an easy prey for the Third Reich.”
Winifred is a formidable presence. She begins stiffly, reading from a pre-prepared text, an extension of the pose of stern defensiveness she had adopted in the wake of the catastrophic war years. She “confesses” to no crime, rejecting the very premise that she needs to. And yet Syberberg allows her a space without judgment, recording continuously (he ended up including some of the most sensitive material without her permission) and she gradually opens up.
The discussion moves in many directions across five hours. There are the familial sagas. Winifred’s daughter Friedland moved to America after Hitler’s rise, abandoning the “beautiful confusing world of traditions” she described and participating in anti-Nazi broadcasts (“if we weren’t Wagners, we would have been sent to the camp,” Winifred says of the peril her daughter’s actions put her through). Hitler cherished Winifred’s children: He played with them in the garden and cuddled them in bed. Winifred’s son Wieland, especially adored by Hitler, later spoke out against the Führer, much to his mother’s displeasure. There is the artistic perspective based on meticulous and subservient adherence to tradition: “What Wagner had ordered, that was obeyed … Today a work of art is dissected … This has only started now, since the Second World War.” And there is the politics—Winifred’s most grudging subject.
From their first meeting in 1924, Winifred was spellbound by Hitler. He was then a “nonpolitical young man” who enchanted her with his “very blue, large and expressive eyes.” Hitler approached Wahnfried with reverence, asking to visit Wagner’s grave alone. His next visit was in 1933. For the next 12 years, he visited regularly: It was a place to rival, if not beat, Obersalzberg—where he would dine, relax and hold court with his friends and guests until the early hours. During the war, Hitler insisted that the festival continue, exempting performers from the war and bringing wounded soldiers into the audience. Yet, as Winifred is keen to stress, he did not absorb Wahnfried fully into Nazism. When he returned in 1933, he issued a notice that “homages in this house could only be paid to the great master Richard Wagner.” He was not the predominant patron of the festival: The financial support he sent to Winifred through his personal account for each new festival production was insufficient to cover the whole cost. Despite the intense attention Hitler paid to Wagner’s work, she notes that he did not seek to “Nazify” the productions, aside from the occasional inside joke, like planting Goebbels and Goering imitators in a chorus.
For Winifred, Hitler embodied “absolute Austrian tactfulness of heart and warmth.” Syberberg asks her if she found anything repellant in him. “That’s what’s so strange,” she says in a tone affirming a weary familiarity with the query, “I never found anything repellant. He never caused me any disappointment. Apart from what happened outside, but that did not affect me.” Most fundamentally, she insists on holding onto the validity of her memories: “I am able to separate the Hitler I knew completely from what he is accused of today. All that dark side of things, I know it is there, but not for me, because I don’t know that side of him.”
Winifred’s attempt to retain a domain of self-contained, self-justifying thought regarding Nazism and Hitler is in constant friction with the need to yield to outside definitions in light of Germany’s loss. This is shown in a fascinating discussion over the term “demonic.” “The effect of his personality was tremendous,” she says, “his enemies claimed, even demonic. But we also know the demonic in the Goethean sense. When I refer to his demonic qualities, I mean it in the Goethean sense, not in the disparaging way it is used today.” Defeat and occupation would take away her capacity to make the distinction.
Winifred bore the opprobrium heaped on her during the war tribunals because she didn’t feel guilty of any political crime. (“When I said I wasn’t involved in politics, they all laughed,” she says.) She joined the Nazi party—but later during the war, and as a favor to Hitler. She praises the early Nazi movement for connecting the manual and intellectual aspects of German society, for giving the youth direction—for promising “salvation through a new national community.” In the “postscript” during the second part of the interview, however, Syberberg asks her to repeat what she told him during a reel change. She had concluded, she says with a chuckle of epiphany and a parting of her arms, that her “belief in National Socialism was solely linked with the personality of Adolf Hitler.”
The discussion turns to Jews. Regarding Wagner and antisemitism, Winifred asserts that the composer sought “at most” a “neutralization of the intellectual influence of the Jews on the political and cultural life of Germany, but he never thought of an extermination.” Winifred now admits that the Nazis of course did “considerable things” (Syberberg’s phrasing) against the Jews, but denies Hitler was the “initiator.” Until 1939, she claims to have known of no “serious cases” of Jewish persecution where she had to intervene. After the war started, she passed on those petitions “which seemed more or less credible and also worthy of help,” and “never received a single refusal” from the Führer.
It took Syberberg four years to plan Hitler; it was shot in 20 days in a Munich sound studio, for half a million dollars, with public funding (and partial support from the BBC). It is Syberberg’s own Gesamtkunstwerk of German suffering: The film’s techniques and methods consist of a seemingly endless array of representational forms, modes, and performances exploring the Hitler phenomenon in its totality.
Projection is perhaps the most potent of Syberberg’s tools: “I used the front screen projection technique because I wanted to shoot the entire film in the studio. And then I thought if we do the film in this way technically, why not take over the idea of projection spiritually as well—the idea of projection from the people to Hitler and from Hitler to the people.” In response to the question of whether Germans were to blame for Hitler, he replied: “What would [he] have been without us?” As scholar Stephen Brockmann put it, Syberberg’s films “represented Germany as an autistic closed circuit in which Germans ‘loved’ Hitler precisely because he served as a filmic projection of their own hopes and fears.”
In an almost unbelievably powerful montage, Syberberg combines moments of beaming, righteous purity, and promise with those of extreme degradation. A Nazi speech announcing the Anschluss gives way to images of Hitler’s parents, Hitler hugging children or surveying compliant crowds—and then a German woman and a Jewish man forced to stand with signs damning themselves for their relationship; pacifist essayist Carl von Ossietzky in a concentration camp; distorted faces awaiting execution.
Syberberg presents these images while shattering the moral ideology that has been made to accompany them. The crescendo of fascist horror that Nazism exemplifies is a warning for potential regression against which we build a morally and ideologically coherent future. Yet Syberberg makes us aware of the way that power is imbricated within the layer upon layer of imagery that weighs on us. For him, it is the contingent fact of Nazi defeat that has made these images cohere, not objective morality.
The ticking movement of these images is designed to tap into the pure experience of time felt by the Germans living through Nazism, not the outsiders assembling a stable retrospective narrative of it after it collapsed. An edgy text reimagines the image-procession from the perspective of the promised German victory rather than the retrospective German defeat:
“Let’s give him and us a chance. Brother Hitler realized what the little man of the people wanted most: to become the greatest, the old fairy tale nightmare. It needed courage to risk all radically; we might as well admit it now ... Let’s pretend he had—we had—made the atomic bomb and the rockets after all, in the end. Through the Heisenbergs and von Brauns with Furtwängler’s music and the words of Heidegger and Benn and Hauptmann. How would we strut today at the victory celebrations in the Berlin built by Speer. The whole world as it was already once in the Olympic games. The success justifies the deeds, those are the lessons of history in the Occident and everywhere, or aren’t they?”
The implications of this counterfactual excursion are dizzying. Germans were not merely victimized by a top-down tyranny: They animated Hitler; he was their avatar. But the speed of the shifts between hope and horror, vindication and humiliation, victory and defeat, outflanked the capacity of Germans to grasp the eventual ramifications of Nazism. The images multiplied and morphed too quickly—beyond their control, and therefore responsibility.
The most powerful line in the narration is: “Only the defeat of our arms has made us turn away from him, not reason.” There is a puncturing of moral self-congratulation here: an assault on the hypocrisy and cowardice of commemorating defeat as a moment of justified transformation. Had Nazi efforts been successful, Germans would have rejoiced at the absolute elevation of their race at all costs, with no consideration given to outsiders. The war only conveniently transformed into moral pedagogy post facto, as punishment for defeat.
Syberberg is not a Nazi. But it is in opposing Nazism that the most striking aspect of his perspective emerges. Syberberg ultimately objects to the Nazis more for what they did to Germany than the Jews. He wants the right to mourn for Germany, despite its crimes. This includes the belief that the real lesson of the war might be that Germans need to reconnect with their real identity without fear or shame, rather than discarding it, as per the formula: “Germany equated with Auschwitz, therefore no more Germany.”
One of the most provocative sections in the film features Himmler justifying the Shoah while he receives a massage from his physician. Himmler is not only unrepentant, but feels that genocide was a burden he deserves credit for: “Our men who have participated in executions have endured much more than their victims, strange as it may sound … It was dreadful for a German to be forced to watch that, but if it wasn’t dreadful, we wouldn’t be Germans.”
In a lecture in which he compared Syberberg to Leni Riefenstahl, British tavern orator and alt-right icon Jonathan Bowden wrote that the key to this scene is that the Shoah is “totally accepted as a fact,” “for which there is no apology.” This is not a denial of information, but a struggle over interpretation. Syberberg seems to accept the Holocaust as history: It is the Holocaust as ideology that he opposes. His concern is not the Holocaust; it is “the Holocaust.” Syberberg’s anti-guilt pledge is, says Bowden, a “refusal to be imprisoned by the consequences of the destructive urge.”
Hitler originally premiered in London, November 1977. “Germany is not ready for this Hitler,” Syberberg said of his decision to premiere the film in London, to little attention from the German press. He turned out to be right. When the film did come home—it was aired the following year at a festival and appeared on West German television in 1980—it was greeted with “almost universal rejection.” This contrasted with America as well as France, where Michel Foucault called the film a “beautiful monster” and said that Syberberg had “grasped Nazism at its most seductive.”
Syberberg’s marginalization in Germany after Hitler further circumscribed the scope of his technical means, and has entailed recourse to dramatic performances, filmed readings and monologues, and art installations.
Sontag points out that it was Hitler’s low budget which allowed it to “remain wholly responsive to the intentions and improvisations of a single creator.” Given cinema’s profound relationship with money, power and narrative, Syberberg’s films incorporate a sense that the lack of funding could be made to illustrate the greater ideological significance of his marginalization. The negative response to Hitler allowed Syberberg to see a validation of his intellectual and political arguments against the oppressive conformism of democracy and the banality of commercialism. It opened the pathway for Syberberg—who spoke of his “zeal in preferring the lost to the unnatural”—to now frame himself as a martyr to the German identity. In the process, antisemitism became more central to his defiant posture.
The TV drama Holocaust was broadcast in America in 1978, and exported the next year to West Germany, at a time when open discussion of the Nazi era was growing. It was seen by around a third of the population, and broadcast with a phone-in component, in which thousands of Germans expressed their feelings and testimony to the nation, including confessions of having participated in crimes during the war. The facts of the Holocaust were brought to mass attention: The series “shone a light” on both the events and the silence that had followed them. It now seemed, as critic Anton Kaes wrote, “Germany had to import the images of its own past from Hollywood.”
Syberberg passionately despised Holocaust. He saw the tawdry spectacle of slipper-wearing, beer-sipping Germans wallowing in their imported own guilt and shame in front of the TV as a sign of a fundamentally unmoored culture. “In Germany, ‘holocaust’ now means Hollywood,” he lamented, anticipating a “holocaust boom.” He imagined “on German soil,” a “Hitler Disneyland” with a rebuilt concentration camp; instead of German castles, tourists would target Hitler’s house, “rebuilt with Jewish management.” He wondered, for example, if maybe he was just “too German” to understand how Jews could “make gold out of the ashes of Auschwitz.” Rather than this “marketing of our most painful emotions,” Syberberg urged that “we should keep looking into ourselves, at Hitler in ourselves, at the holocaust in ourselves.”
He insisted that he was “not saying this in order to forgive anyone or to diminish the guilt,” but rather so that “we can carry on living.” “Even if you want to educate people in a political way, there’s no reason to show them who’s guilty, and how they are killed,” he said. “What for? I believe that people are always so nervous that they resort to the easiest way of looking back at their own history. I think we should be much more patient. And I think that art can be a big help.”
But his goal was not merely an appeal to higher principles for their own sake, or advocating a liberal condition of permanent discussion. The argument that “simple anti-Fascism produces nothing” was paired with unabashed calls for Germany to prevent the Holocaust from forever shaping Germany’s sense of itself.
“I’m often asked in discussion how I justify my claim that Western culture is collapsing,” he said. “In the light of this incapacity for proper mourning it’s hard to believe that my answer would even be understood.” Syberberg did not just see grief as a subjective response; he wrote of mourning that it “needs us”—as if it was an autonomous force to which the living owed something. Sontag, responding to a letter in the NYRB by Doris Sommer critical of her adulatory response to Hitler, wrote: “It is not perhaps wrong for a genius to be aloof and bereaved. Is Ms. Sommer suggesting that bereavement is so inappropriate a response to the German catastrophe?”
Syberberg’s call for mourning asserted that essential aspects of our humanity, including some of those ostensibly represented by fascism, had been wrongly suppressed due to the Nazi catastrophe. He also asserted that the system that had won out over Nazism should be treated with contempt that is not attenuated by the badness of fascism. Syberberg sought to transcend the Nazi-anti-Nazi axis instead of negotiating its terms from within.
Animated by his elitist Prussian sensibility, he began to larp as a general (looking for an army) in the culture wars. Public commentary—in articles, books, and interviews—allowed him to substitute verbal provocation for physical violence. He described the “merciless lust for destruction” that came to him when he roamed busy streets. He wrote that he would like the opportunity to kill opponents of his work. More realistically, he later noted: “I see very specific people who should be switched off. I don’t mean through war now, but by saying publicly that they belong away from power. Nobody has that courage today because everyone fears for their career.”
He produced a vicious screed, for example, against the hyperproductive, leftist, homosexual, drug-using director Rainer Werner Fassbinder after his death from accidental overdose. Syberberg said Fassbinder was the literal incarnation of everything he hated about his country, labeling him a “conformist Narcissus of a broken-down Germany,” “a bootlicking mirror image of the German establishment” who partook in an industry pact to “turn the overworked formulas of the Heimat film into those of the faggot film.” (The attack was so vehement that he provided a postscript in which he acknowledges, without apologizing, that his wife was “upset, quite rightfully” with the rant.)
Being denied the material opportunity to cultivate his solemn cinematic visions stripped Syberberg’s arguments of artistry, leaving the raw blast of polemic. The most significant of his longer written works appeared in 1990, on the eve of German reunification. On the Fortunes and Misfortunes of Art in Post-War Germany (published in English by Arktos in 2017) recast some of the central provocations of Hitler into a compilation of baroque rants and personalized intellectual declarations. The book resembles a 19th-century political pamphlet and Nietzsche’s more aphoristic works, but is assembled according to private rather than public logic, with bad grammar, abbreviations, and a diary or scrapbook quality. It is a kind of soliloquy in which Syberberg performs his own ideological and artistic solitude.
But it also contains direct political statements, even if mystically toned. “There is no constitutional patriotism. The patria is where the graves of the fathers are,” for example, has echoes of the end of Hitler’s 19 July 1940 Reichstag address, which is played during Hitler.
On the Fortunes also contains overt criticisms of Jews:
“What also drove out art in Germany after the last war was the curse of guilt, which served as an instrument of intimidation for the left, since the leftists considered themselves to be innocent and – because Hitler had persecuted the Jews – now in an unholy alliance of a Jewish leftist aesthetics against the guilty to the point of boredom and lies crippling all cultural life, so that guilt was able to become an imagination killing business, no longer fruitful but restricting, as the criterion for production and for the public, and that the apparently happy liberation from dictatorship needed the leftists from the Jews’ side, and needed the Jews from the leftists’ side in Western Europe. That produced, especially in Germany, from this crippled society, a neurotic explosiveness which, on account of the central position of Germany intellectually and geographically, had to have an influence on international culture. Anyone who went with the Jews or with the leftists made a career and it certainly did not have anything to do with love or understanding or, indeed, inclination. How were the Jews able to tolerate that – unless they only wanted power?”
The book was received with hostility in Germany, with Syberberg’s antisemitism a focus of the outrage. This was one of the peaks of Syberberg’s trouble. Yet the director retained something of a public following. After a screening of Hitler in East Berlin in October 1990, on a panel that included Sontag, Ian Buruma reported that Syberberg repeated the accusations in On the Fortunes, including against “Jewish leftists,” in what Buruma depicts as “an almost silky tone of voice alternating with what can only be described as a theatrical tirade.” His champions, “shifting uneasily in their seats,” acknowledged that his “opinions may be absurd, even offensive,” but maintained that he was “still a great artist.” Two years later, Syberberg told The New York Times: “I have the feeling that my contacts in the United States have broken off.”
Antisemitism is Syberberg’s one unconscious act of projection. Obsessed with the decline of German culture and sovereignty, he sees Jewish power and cultural influence everywhere. Buruma describes his message thus: “The real winners of the last war are the Jews, who have regained their motherland, their ancient Heimat, the very thing the Germans have lost. And the Jews had their revenge for Auschwitz by dropping the atom bomb and atomizing the Kultur of Europe through their barren, rationalist, rootless philosophy.” For Syberberg, the dual blow was the pairing of the national triumph of Jews and, in his words, “the aesthetics of their diaspora which is precisely one of suffering and dispersion.”
Syberberg wanted to cast off the yoke of Jewish guilt. But an interpretation of the distinct suffering of his people, with its Jewish echoes, is central to seeking a way back to the diverted path of German self-command. “The heart of Europe beats in Israel,” he wrote of the post-war condition of the West. His yearning for native restoration is partly a reproduction of Zionism that needed to puncture the symbolic power of Jewish Zionism in order to serve as a counterweight to it. The Jewish state’s establishment was a symbol of Gentile defeat—but it might open the door to Syberberg’s vision of German, or Western, cultural renaissance.
Syberberg eyed this weakness: the moral and ideological potency Jews wielded, founded on their special status as a perennially persecuted minority, disappeared after the restoration of their sovereignty. Reflecting on an exhibition of Holocaust images in Israel, Syberberg said: “When I saw all those horrible pictures and, at the same moment, young Israeli soldiers sporting machine guns standing in front of those pictures of the Holocaust, I felt really happy to realize Jews are like people everywhere.”
When asked about the Jewish response to Hitler, Syberberg remarked: “A lot of Jewish people come to see the film because Hitler is their problem too. Hitler is their man, their hero, their problem. He is their black messiah. Therefore, they always want to know why and how it could be.”
Following Syberberg’s rant after the screening, Buruma notes that an unnamed Polish Jew, “his voice trembling with quiet rage,” told the director his film was “dreadful.” Although he had lost most of his family in the Holocaust, “he could almost be tempted to become a Nazi” after “all those speeches, all that beautiful music.” Syberberg claimed that at another screening in Hamburg, an “old Jew” came up to him and said: “Now I know why I was in a concentration camp.” These moments of radical disorientation (or re-orientation) of perspective appear to serve as tiny victories in Syberberg’s guerilla war against the dominant narrative.
To expose the losses that came with the Allied victory, Syberberg had to jostle the system in a way that would cause it to retaliate. “You have to go so deep into the wound that you are suspected,” he said. By finding the taboos in the discourse, and therefore its weak points, Syberberg wanted to show it as just another form of power imposing its own values, not a carrier of universal moral and ideological progress. He would generate the conflict by which he could locate himself.
Saying what he really thinks became Syberberg’s last remaining way to be an aristocrat. He enacted his own sense of proprietorship by speaking without the self-monitoring inhibitions presented by dominant cultural institutions or the market or fear of mass judgment. He defined his own terms for what should constitute a good reputation: recalcitrant honor, not strategic conformity. He refused to tailor his artistic and rhetorical decisions to civic comity and commercial considerations. He abhorred the duplicity of free speech in a liberal democracy, when there were many things he wasn’t allowed to say without suffering grave consequences. He was not seeking to secure a place for himself in the discourse merely to help nurture a culture of permanent debate. His public speech is motivated by extra-personal stakes that take precedence over individual self-interest; by the ever-dormant possibility of choosing to inherit the demands of duty.
But Syberberg wasn’t even sufficiently connected to his age to become a proper martyr. His films demand almost everything, making them easy to ignore: to give Hitler a chance feels like submitting to it. His ideas are so wildly in excess of the practical demands of life that Syberberg struggled to get his pitch going. His thought is too extensively caveated, too free of the shared terms of the present. He is obsessed with mystery and opposes rational justification. He rejects communication in favor of communion.
Syberberg eventually spoke with resignation about the combative project to which he had pledged himself. He came to feel useless even “in terms of productive opposition,” and that “hardly anyone learns anything from me anymore.” Despite his prevailing tone of wistful defeatism regarding his career, Syberberg’s work is becoming objectively more pertinent to the world, despite the world’s indifference to it. As early as 1987, Syberberg located a burgeoning shift that appears to have vindicated his grueling commitment to opposing his era: “This idea of a culture being faced with this shock and a total reversal is no longer peculiar to Germany. It represents a problem for the entire West.”
Syberberg’s realization that “the fight is not worth it because the people are not worth it” meant less public conflagration: he left Hitler and Jews behind as subjects and retreated from the frontlines of the culture wars. A German article from 2013 noted that his days of being persona non grata had long passed.
He was not finished with the question of German identity. But instead of seeking purpose through confrontation, he took a journey inward, and homeward.
In 2000, Syberberg moved back to his father’s manor in Nossendorf (a village with a few hundred inhabitants) having purchased the property, which the Russians had expropriated in 1947, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A 2010 German television documentary found him pruning trees, arranging flowers for the breakfast table, and perusing his own archives and miscellanea from his films, partly housed in a special bunker dedicated to his career. On the second day the journalist visits, Syberberg comes to meet him at the gates of the estate, and adroitly takes a picture of him from a distance.
He shows the journalist photographs of the dilapidated condition the estate was in when he regained it, with parallels to Winifred Wagner showing him images of a bombed out Wahnfried decades ago. Syberberg has documented his work on the estate (for which he received a local prize) through a webcam feed on his Web 1.0 style personal website. He has taken naturally to the private-domain aspect of the site; he sells his films from there, some of which are otherwise difficult to find, especially in translation, and has boasted of its popularity and reach.
“Herzog went to America, and I leave by staying in my four walls,” Syberberg said of their respective relations to what he saw as the barren landscape of German cinema. But withdrawal into his restored family plot found him developing more immediate ways to represent his subjects.
In 2017, Syberberg “reconstructed” the Café Zilm in Demmin, near Nossendorf, which he had seen “burning on the horizon” during the war. His project saw a replica façade placed over the building where the café stood; it was “open” for two weeks, with visitors being led to an ad hoc arrangement of tables and chairs behind the facade. This was not a rebuilding: A news report notes there was “no foundation, no wall.” But Syberberg still sought to control whatever he could: The cakes, for example, were provided by people from the area, not delivered by bakeries. “Everything will,” he was quoted as saying before the launch, “have a local connection.”
Mardean Isaac is a writer and editor based in London. Educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he has written for publications including the Financial Times, Lapham’s Quarterly and New Lines magazine.