The film critic and historian Andrew Sarris is fond of saying that sometimes the most cinematic choice in the world is just to show two people in a room talking. When it comes to nonfiction film, despite the derisive phrase “talking heads documentary,” if the subject is interesting enough and the people talking are compelling, Sarris is absolutely right.
Of course, under the right circumstances, one is more likely to recall a line from Clifford Odets’ play “The Big Knife”: “This man buries himself with his mouth.”
The forthcoming series, “Talking Head,” which opens at Anthology Film Archives on Aug. 4, contains some spectacular examples, several of which are focused on the Shoah.
Hans-Jurgen Syberberg is a one-of-a-kind artist, a filmmaker with an incredibly complicated and highly ambivalent attitude to the history of his native Germany, and a filmmaking style that veers between the imagery of the early cinema and the straight-ahead reportage of television. His most famous film, “Hitler, A Film from Germany,” is a stunning seven-hour essay on the toxic relationship between the Fuhrer and the German people. He is represented in the Anthology series by a slightly more modest offering, “The Confessions of Winifred Wagner.” This 1975 film runs a slightly more manageable but appropriately Wagnerian five hours.
Winifred, who was 78 when the film was made (she died in 1980), was the widow of Siegfried Wagner, Richard’s son. When her husband died, the English-born but (essentially) German-raised Winifred took the reins at the annual Bayreuth Festival of Wagner’s works and, with an occasional assist from her good friend Adolf Hitler, kept it running on more or less greased grooves until the end of the war. Not surprisingly, she took a big hit during the de-Nazification proceedings and was forced to abdicate all responsibility for the Wagnerian fest, which became the bailiwick of her sons, Wolfgang and Wieland. But from 1923, when she first met the rising Hitler, through late 1944, when she last saw him, the Fuhrer was one of her close friends.
From the end of the war until the making of the film, she maintained a public silence. Then, for reasons one suspects even she was not entirely sure of, she sat down for several days with Syberberg and his film crew for a generally engrossing conversation that runs from the fairly benign — the Wagners were, and remain, a fractious bunch and the family gossip provides some memorable moments — to the deeply repellent. Winifred is a cagey old party, a good talker who frequently contradicts herself over the film’s considerable length, blessed with a remarkably retentive memory, a rather malicious sense of humor and a double helping of self-love.
On first glance she seems to be candid to a fault. She makes no apologies for her friendship with Hitler. “I can separate the Hitler I knew completely from what he is accused of now … I didn’t know that side of him.” She also proclaims that her “belief in National Socialism was indissolubly linked with the personality of Hitler. I wasn’t particularly interested in anything else.”
But she also is perfectly capable of saying within a few minutes, “we old national socialists” and, “I am a completely unpolitical person.” She displays a heightened sense of victimization, particularly when discussing the de-Nazification process and the treatment of Wahnfried, the Wagner family home, by occupying American troops.
It is Wahnfried, being rebuilt as the film was made, that is the hinge for her recollections, and Syberberg prods Winifred gently but firmly and skillfully to elicit an occasionally grotesque but compulsively watchable performance from her. Equally important, he brackets her reminiscences with his own opening and closing remarks, at the end invoking the Jewish cultural historian Egon Friedell, who wrote presciently in 1932 of “the bankruptcy of a society and culture.”
To see the face of one of the gravediggers at the funeral of that society and culture, one need only watch the 1966 East German television documentary “The Smiling Man,” directed by Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann. The face in question belongs to a garrulous former Wehrmacht officer, Siegfried “Kongo” Muller, so named because of his exploits in the Belgian Congo in 1965 where he and numerous South African and German mercenaries committed numerous acts of barbarism in the name of “the Western ideology of freedom,” as he puts it.
Muller is affable, almost effervescent, and becomes increasingly lively as he works his way through a bottle of Pernod. As he did throughout his time in the Congo, he is wearing an Iron Cross, First Class, with a swastika at its center, a medal he received in 1945. He is quick to disavow the larger implications of the decoration, though, saying, “It has nothing to do with my political position.”
On the other hand, it has a lot to do with his choice of metaphors. When describing apartheid to his interlocutors, he compares it to “the Jews and the Germans in the Third Reich.” Later in the interview, describing a hypothetical split within West Germany, he speaks of bringing the putative rebels “back to the Reich — sorry — to the Federal Republic.” It might be tempting to dismiss Muller as a buffoon from a Mel Brooks film, but the bodies he left across Europe and Africa are much too real.
One could usefully compare two other films in the series to the Wagner and Muller documentaries. Compare Winifred’s stubborn attachment to Hitler with the more regretful story of Traudl Junge, the subject of “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary.” Directed by Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, the film essentially is a 90-minute monologue by a woman who became one of Hitler’s private secretaries in 1942 and worked for him until his death. She kept this story bottled up for 60 years, and when it spills out, the result is potent, the deeply felt story of someone who has grown to feel hoodwinked by history.
Similarly, the perfect antidote to “The Smiling Man” is Claude Lanzmann’s “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” Yehuda Lerner, one of the prisoners who was involved in the only successful uprising in the death camps, talks through the rebellion in detail, slowly, methodically, guided by Lanzmann’s delicate probing. As in “Shoah,” for which this footage was originally intended, the only images we see are that of the speaker and of the contemporary site, here the rusting, abandoned railroad tracks that seemingly are all that remains of Sobibor. Where Siegfried Muller is all male-bonding bluster, casual cruelty and blatant lies, Lerner is calm and thoughtful. One killed for money and for fun (as he admits on a tape he made in the Congo); the other killed reluctantly in order to survive.
“Talking Head,” a series of documentary films, will be presented at Anthology Film Archive (Second Avenue and Second Street) from Aug. 4-17. For schedule and other information, call (212) 505-5181 or go to www.anthologyfilmarchives.org.