It’s easy to believe that Adolf Hitler and his minions were embodiments of pure evil because such conviction precludes trying to understand how a human being can orchestrate the mass execution of millions of people. This is why last year’s Downfall courted such controversy: By picturing Adolf Hitler as something besides a stark-raving lunatic, Oliver Hirshbiegel didn’t encourage us to sympathize with the Nazi leader so much as he wanted us to understand how evil grips and shapes the human mind and soul. With The Goebbels Experiment, director Lutz Hachmeister looks to perform a similar public relations makeover on Hitler’s propaganda minister Jossef Goebbels. Pieced together almost entirely from a bracing collection of still photographs and archival footage, The Goebbels Experiment is narrated by Kenneth Branagh from the pages of Goebbels’s diaries, but since this mostly first-person account covers a timeline that precedes the only previously available years (1945-46) from the man’s personal memoirs, it’s unclear if the narration has been culled from the hitherto unknown complete diaries discovered by controversial historian and Holocaust “revisionist” David Irving in the early ’90s. To the best of my knowledge, the 75,000 pages are not yet readily available to the general public so it’s possible that Hachmeister was only able to use whatever select portions have been circulating around since Irving’s contested discovery, which might explain why the transitions between entries are so sloppy (for example, “What does Christianity mean today?” closely follows “I long for the gentle touch of a woman’s hand”). Branagh’s book-on-tape performance lacks nuance, suggesting either a failed attempt at evoking Goebbels’s manic-depressive outlook or frustration with the shapelessness of the material. Perhaps realizing this, Hachmeister uses on-screen text to fill in all sorts of gaps: We learn that Goebbels had an affair with Czech star Lída Baarová after Branagh-as-Goebbels describes his disinterest in one of the woman’s skillfully made films. Indeed, some of the shrewdest moments usually involve Goebbels opinions of films from the era and many are loaded with fascinating implications: He apparently disliked October but it’s impossible to think of Eisenstein’s polemic not shaping the propagandistic argot of Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl, who Goebbels hated for her lunatic histrionics (Hachmeister cunningly follows this admission with a shot of Riefenstahl receiving a film honor from the Nazi ministry). In the end, the documentary doesn’t quite work as a metafictive autobiographical examination of Goebbels’s life from the beyond (that Hachmeister had little to work with doesn’t even appear to be the problem here so much as Goebbels’s uncompelling prose), but the assemblage of archival footage reveals itself as a rivetingly experimental evocation of the Nazi rise to power. It almost demands to be watched with the sound turned off and set to a Philip Glass score.
Nothing but archival footage, with some samples better preserved than others. In terms of image quality, there isn’t much to say other than that the presentation is nice and relatively seamless. Audio fares the same, though obviously not as well as Kenneth Branagh’s narration.
Film notes, filmmaker bios, and a seemingly endless gallery of WWII-related films (some with trailers) from First Run Features.
Something of a historical-publicity experiment, the film should only be played with by those who appreciated Downfall.