Hans-Jürgen Syberberg made the seven-hour 1978 experimental epic Our Hitler, A Film From Germany for television, but he also anticipated the home-video revolution, and hoped patrons of the arts would one day run the film on the tiny boxes in their living rooms, like art installations. Brechtian to the extreme, Our Hitler is staged in a cavernous theater, where actors (and occasionally puppets) portray aspects of Adolf Hitler and other Third Reich leaders, delivering beat-poet monologues that Syberberg swaddles in snippets of Wagner and intersperses with original Nazi radio broadcasts. Sometimes Syberberg moves the camera around the big, boxy space, exploring its crannies; sometimes he holds still, using optical effects to create frames within frames. Throughout, he foregrounds the artifice, demanding that viewers divorce themselves of whatever emotions the name "Hitler" evokes, to see instead the way the dictator emerged naturally out of the German national character—a character that Syberberg still honors.
Whatever the filmmaker's intentions, Our Hitler seems diminished on even the biggest TV screen. It's a very chatty film, advancing a complex argument through historical anecdotes and vaudevillian spectacle, and it's the kind of piece that demands the trappings of an actual theater, and the mesmerizing flicker of light. Flattened out on video—and especially given the new double-disc DVD's crummy transfer—Our Hitler seems more self-indulgent in its length, and the associations between pop-culture phenomena and Nazi strategy appear more tenuous. Syberberg attempts to show how Hitler was both the apotheosis of multiple 20th-century movements and a petty little man, but by the time his monologists get to the end of their speeches, it's sometimes hard to remember their point.
That said, there's plenty here to support Susan Sontag's famous claim that Our Hitler is "on another scale from anything one has seen on film." The film's layers of theatricality and critical thought can be peeled back endlessly, but not without disturbing each other. Our Hitler contains the seeds of cinema's future, blossoming in Lars von Trier's Dogville, Todd Haynes' dense pop essays, and even the epilogue to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, just a few years later. The film contains worlds, even if not all of them are worth visiting.
Key features: Excerpts from an untranslated German TV program about the 1980 New York première, with scenes of Syberberg hanging out with Sontag and Martin Scorsese.