Secret Stories of Hitler: ‘Swastika’ & TV documentaries highlight DVD collection

Mill Creek Entertainment has taken three Adolf Hitler-themed documentaries (one feature length, and two long-form TV outings), and put them together in a newly-monikered set, Secret Stories of Hitler.

By Paul Mavis

Included here are director Philippe Mora’s controversial 1973 big-screen documentary, Swastika; 2009’s six-part doc, Hitler: The Untold Story (the actual name of this Pacific Media doc is Hitler: Anecdotes, Myths, and Lies); and another PM doc, the three-part U-Boats: Hitler’s Sharks.

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No question: the stand-out entry here is Mora’s Swastika, a disturbing, no-narration compilation of Eva Braun’s home movies of herself and Hitler, intercut with Nazi propaganda footage. Despite countless subsequent documentaries that have used this material, Swastika was the first…and still the best. The least successful doc is the generalized, grade school-ish Hitler: Anecdotes, Myths, and Lies, while detail-loaded U-Boats: Hitler’s Sharks is a good bet for hard-core submarine freaks.

SWASTIKA

At first glance, Swastika’s main claim to fame is the re-discovery, during pre-production, of Hitler mistress/wife Eva Braun’s 16mm home movies, which formed the basis of this documentary on the Nazification of Germany. In her color footage (it was extremely rare and expensive at that time to shoot in color), civvies-clad Adolph Hitler is seen relaxing at his spectacular Bavarian mountaintop retreat, the Berghof, with prominent Nazis like Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer, Joseph Goebbels, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Martin Bormann all milling around, smiling and joking for the camera. It was the only known movie footage depicting Hitler outside of military and political rally situations, and as such, of great historical importance (at least, initially, to the producers of this documentary).

As with many movies that become historically and sociologically—as well as artistically—important, you can bet there will be seemingly at-odds versions of who did what behind the scenes to make that important movie happen…and Swastika is no different. According to Swastika’s director/co-writer Phillipe Mora (the Depression-era doc, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, cult titles like The Beast Within and Death of a Soldier among others), while researching this doc, he interviewed newly-sprung Nazi war criminal and all around good, decent Nazi egg, Albert Speer (so the intellectuals desperately wanted to believe…). During their talks, Speer showed Mora some of his Nazi home movies. In them, Eva Braun was seen holding a 16mm camera. Mora asked where that particular footage may have wound up, but Speer lied (what else from that schmuck?) and said it had been destroyed, leading Mora to seek it out.

According to Swastika’s co-writer, Lutz Becker, however, he discovered the Braun footage. Having been assigned to Swastika as a researcher by producers David Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson, Becker was fully funded to track down an old personal obsession: Braun’s footage, told about to Becker by a U.S. marine who had seen the film cans among the rubble of Hitler’s mountain lair, back in ‘45. Becker’s trek eventually took him to the U.S. National Archives, where Braun’s footage was then accidentally found, uncatalogued and unremembered, in a forgotten warehouse just outside of D.C.

Whoever initiated the search or found the footage, the impact of seeing Hitler in home movies the way you used to see your Uncle Charlie goofing around on a Sunday afternoon, was reportedly electrifying (in the wrong way). Mora and the producers had hired lip readers, voice actors, and foley artists to add some isolated dialogue and sound effects to the silent material, and the doc was readied for the festival circuit (it’s one of Swastika’s sickest, funniest jokes when we see Braun shoo away a small dog, as we hear her say on the soundtrack, “Stasi…don’t disturb your Fuehrer,”).

Audience members at the Cannes Film Festival reportedly started booing the movie the minute Hitler came on-screen (a chair was even thrown at the screen), with the critics and patrons outraged at a depiction of Hitler that they took as too humanized. Swastika was subsequently banned in Germany for decades, while it played sporadically in Europe and the U.S. in 1973. Here in the States, far more people eventually saw Becker’s Braun/Hitler footage incorporated into PBS’s landmark, epic documentary series, The World at War, from that same year.

At Swastika’s start, there’s a title card that lays out something about Hitler needing to be seen as human, so other dictators can be spotted in the future. If you think about that directive, it makes little-to-no sense; the title card was obviously a pre-emptive sop to potentially tetchy viewers who didn’t want to see their favorite bogeyman Hitler pet a dog (Blondi the Alsatian cowering and worming away at the touch of his master says it all). It’s unnecessary here.

How anyone could watch Swastika and think that director Mora is making Hitler look good by showing him in a cheap wool suit, is rather difficult to understand (poor tailoring, too). Throughout Swastika, those scenes of forced leisurely tranquility at The Berghof are, without let-up, utterly strange and off-putting—the interpersonal dynamics no doubt knocked out of whack because of Hitler’s own screwball personality and energy (…and his penchant for having people who piss him off strung up with piano wire). Back in ’73 when critics bitched about a “humanized” Hitler, they were seeing one thing, but thinking of another. One look at the clearly disturbed “Pleasant Valley Sunday” burgermeister in these scenes, and you’d want to politely express your regrets and hitch your ass down the mountain to Berchtesgaden, pronto.

After the initial color surprise of seeing Hitler and his cronies yukking it up on a sunny Bavarian Sunday, Mora and editor Andrew Patterson go beyond the mere novelty of the footage to illustrate the contrasts between staged reality in Nazified Germany, and real “reality.” We marvel, with black humor, at Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels’ painfully evident propaganda chutzpa, crafting a sham “new” Germany in those obviously staged direct cinema knock-off scenes. Ironically, though, the real home movies of Eva Braun come off as far more disquieting and disturbing than Goebbels’ efforts, precisely because they’re clearly not staged (even though the participants sometimes play up to the camera, they do so in an obvious, knowing way).

Mora’s choice and juxtaposition of Nazi-approved images is striking in their combined thematic weight. As the doc grinds on, we begin to see how utterly obsessive was the compulsion of the Nazis to manufacture—to the German public and the world—a phony image of the New Reich. Triumph of the will, indeed, as Goebbels regulated all cinematic documented images of Germany, constructing a (socialist—you listening out there?) fantasy world of strapping, handsome, happy men bending to plow and shovel (even the poets have to dig a ditch), and strong, healthy, flexible Rhine maidens, riding horses off into foggy woods and “Seig Heil-ing” themselves silly, until they were called upon to bear large, peasant Aryan broods for the greater good of the Fatherland.

Mora constantly intercuts these idyllic rural pastiches with the crushing, brutalizing nature of the Nazi rallies, with their apocalyptic, Wagnerian scale and absolutely rigid formations, where the German people became part of a mass thing that lost all individuality and ultimately, humanity. And of course, to reinforce that dehumanization, and keep a lid on any seditious free thought, the center of non-democratic Nazi government—the grotesquely over-scaled, crassly opulent New Reich Chancellery—is shown by Mora’s selections to be an oppressive entity that’s specifically designed to overwhelm and cow anyone who dares enter it (and let’s not forget the goon squads that are needed to keep order, such as the ’38 Munich “Commemoration of Dead Comrades” rally, shown here in deadly, terrifying stillness, the helmeted soldiers lined up like emotion-less mechanical robots, illuminated by huge barbaric torches and phony De Mille-lite mythologizing).

If Mora oversteps at times with obvious commentary, such as having the Helen Morgan torch song, What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man, play over shots of Hitler (or, sad to say, making Noel Coward’s delightfully fierce Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans sound trite), those are isolated moments. He consistently hits his target, frequently with the scenes that somehow upset the baffled critics. How could a reviewer not see the obvious connection between Mora slowing down and repeating a shot of a “humanized” Hitler cuddling a baby at a private ceremony, followed and intercut with a manipulative Hitler “cuddling” his receptive, adoring audience at a rally…followed by Nazi henchmen Herman Goering and Goebbels handing out toys to children at Christmastime? What part of that montage didn’t you get, fellas?

To drive his point home, Mora, again and again, cuts back to The Berghof, eerily silent except for the canned dubbing of mountain aerie wind effects and isolated actors’ voices, contrasting this monstrous perversion of Hitler’s so-called “domestic serenity,” against the squashing Nazi state. In later interviews, and in some bonus material included on this disc, Mora and Becker talk about the “banality of evil” concept, but they incorrectly emphasize that it somehow stems from Hitler’s desire for petit bourgeouis respectability (to hear Mora and Becker sneer at middle class activities like a Sunday afternoon stroll with friends, is to hear supercilious, intellectual elitism at its most tone deaf). Hitler’s evilness isn’t magnified because he wanted to be middle class, as they seem to imply. He and his acts of war and genocide would have been just an outrageous affront to decency had he affected a political facade of poverty (such as Stalin)…or opulent largesse (Mussolini). Luckily, no such incorrect over-reaching is present in the narration-less Swastika.

Bonus material on Swastika’s disc include Mora, Becker, and producers Puttnam and Lieberson discussing the documentary’s impact (14:40). A 2:00 look at the 16mm color film stock used in Germany at the time seems mostly pointless, while a look at the manipulation of images in Nazi Germany (12:10) again makes the mistake of blaming the vehicle (middle class aspirations, like weekend nature hikes) instead of the message. Interesting details about the Reich’s most ardent supporters (24-30-year-olds…sound familiar, Twitter?). And finally, a small (5:52) denunciation of Leni Reifenstahl by Becker, rounds out the bonuses.

HITLER: THE UNTOLD STORY and U-BOATS: HITLER’S SHARKS

There’s little need to spend any time at all on the other two long-form docs included in Mill Creek’s Secret Stories of Hitler. Hitler: The Untold Story (actually: Hitler: Anecdotes, Myths, and Lies) consists of six 55-minute, oddly-titled episodes (The Causes of a Mistake, They Will Not Fight By Danzig, A Lucky Gambler, The Supreme Leader, To Win or To Win—uh…what?—and He Will Never Return) that give a broad, grade school account of the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Even the most casual viewer of the once-great, now long-gone “Hitler Channel,” will find this a stale lunch (you know you’re in trouble when the last on-screen credit is misspelled as, “Write and Directed by….” I won’t mention his name).

In U-Boats: Hitler’s Sharks, Hitler: Anecdotes, Myths, and Lies’ director Jose Delgado (oops…) hires a proofreader and gets promoted to “Written and Directed by…” with far more detailed results, in these three 59 minute episodes. Maybe too detailed: it seems like every single mission the U-Boats were on, is chronicled here…in stunningly boring fashion by “Blandest Narrator on Earth,” Drew Crosby (his outright bizarre pronunciation and spacing of common words, is hilarious). Submarine warfare has always fascinated me…but I finally scuttled and sunk after two episodes of this bilge. That’s okay, though: Swastika alone is worth picking up Mill Creek’s Secret Stories of Hitler.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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