The Goebbels Experiment
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The Goebbels Experiment

In selecting Kenneth Branagh to read Joseph Goebbels' diaries aloud for the documentary The Goebbels Experiment, director Lutz Hachmeister was either nastily sly or completely boneheaded. Branagh has the cadence of a gentleman, which makes him sound reasonable and sympathetic, and by all accounts, Goebbels was a gentleman as well, as charismatic as any movie star. Hachmeister clearly intends for Branagh's classy tone to mimic the way Goebbels evened out mundanity and evil in his diaries, but his voice still sounds too pointedly incongruous. Hachmeister forces the irony, as the Branagh version of Goebbels describes getting laid, reading Dostoyevsky, drinking beer in Munich, and learning the art of propaganda from the films of Sergei Eisenstein.

Still, like Goebbels, Hachmeister understands that moving pictures have emotional power, and The Goebbels Experiment draws a lot of strength from its copious file footage of the Nazis' rise, cut with a few sparing shots of the same locations now, emphasizing the continuity of European civilization throughout periods of darkness. And there's something undeniably bracing about following Goebbels' path to power, beginning with his first Adolf Hitler encounter, which prompts him to write, "You can't help liking him as a person." This was a time when "Nazi" was a neutral description, not an epithet, and through Goebbels' critical eyes, the party's success seems distant one moment and assured the next.

But diaries, by their nature, can't tell the whole story of a person's life, and Hachmeister's attempts to fill in the gaps via onscreen titles only calls attention to what's missing from The Goebbels Experiment. At one point, Goebbels describes the day of his wedding and exults, "Now we are all truly happy," which shows how hard it is to evaluate a life while it's happening. At its best, Hachmeister's film recalls Jay Rosenblatt's fantastic 1998 experimental film Human Remains, which exposed the humanity in fiends—and vice-versa—by detailing their medical conditions. Mostly though, The Goebbels Experiment proves that historical figures have the worst perspective on themselves.

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