Singing a Song of Swastikas
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because our suffering is not so very simple.
By Zev Deans
Chaos breeds political mood swings, and as the global seesaw wings us back toward a kind of aggressive nationalism, consider Philippe Mora’s 1974 flick, Swastika, arguably the most disquieting filmic window ever into the rise of the Third Reich. The rise is covered by Mora, but minus the glorifying pomp of a Leni Riefenstahl or hints of the later horrors, and without a single word of narration or dialogue. Instead, we get to see Nazi Germany at rest and at play, at rallies and in international newsreels, all shown through the lens of the Reich itself and, in a screen first, the rescued and restored home movies of Eva Braun.
And in lieu of narration, we are presented with a single quote at the film’s start: “If Hitler is dehumanized and shown only as a devil, any future Hitler may not be recognized, simply because he is a human being.” So Hitler as human? Mora, on the heels of speaking with surviving members of the Third Reich, talked to us about what it was like as both a Jew and a filmmaker.
OZY: Why Swastika?
Philippe Mora: It started with Peter Sellers. I had written a script called The Phantom Versus the Fourth Reich, circa 1971, which I gave to Sandy Lieberson, who knew Sellers. He said Sellers was interested in Hitler. I had various meetings with Sellers, who dressed as Hitler for the script conferences. Being new to show business, I thought this was normal. Anyway, that film sadly did not come to pass, but meanwhile I’d done a lot of research with Lutz Becker. We suggested to Sandy we make two documentaries: one by me, Swastika, and one by Lutz, The Double Headed Eagle. Sandy agreed and we went forward.
On a personal level, I was deeply interested in the Third Reich because of my family history, which was then a bit of a mystery to me. My father did not talk about it much. My parents were recovering from trauma. Only recently have I discovered so much about the Morawskis of Breslau. In fact, last September Germany made me a German citizen under the German Basic Law, because of these facts uncovered [over half a century after] Nazis had taken away the family rights. My mother missed Auschwitz by a day. My father was in the Resistance and fought Nazis and saved Jewish children. One kid he saved is now Dr. Henri Parens, in Philadelphia, a profound scholar on the Holocaust, racism and prejudice. I only just met him last September, and it was very moving indeed.
But as I watched Nazi movies in 1971 and 1972, I could not believe the sophistication and quantity of the Nazi films. The Bundesarchiv then was in an ex-SS Fortress on the Rhine. It was obvious to me that the Germans had been subjected willingly or unwillingly to the most subversive racist propaganda any society had experienced. I decided to make a film immersing the new audience to the same feelings and then, at the end, bang them over the head with the result: catastrophe!
I had to talk to Noel Coward personally to get his permission to use his satirical song Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans. I described my film and why I wanted to use his song. “Are you crazy?” he asked. “People do not understand satire, and I got into a lot of trouble with that and so will you, but if you want it, go ahead.” He was right. But for me, I thought Hitler would have detested that song, and that was good enough for me.
OZY: How did you find Eva Braun’s personal film reels?
PM: I started making Swastika by watching hours of film with Lutz. We had no idea we would find the Braun home movies, but I was always looking for nonpropaganda films. Albert Speer showed me, Sandy and Lutz his 9.5MM color home movies of his family on a skiing trip to Italy. Hitler did not appear. But my curiosity was of course raging. I asked Speer if anyone filmed home movies at the Berghof. He lied and said no.
I had seen a photo of Eva Braun with a 16mm camera filming at the Berghof and was bugging Lutz about it. He had heard rumors of the home movies. Our friend Bill Murphy, head of National Film Archives in Washington, suggested we call the Pentagon. The helpful Pentagon said they captured a lot of “stuff” at the Berghof but they needed a date of capture to look for items. We searched the New York Times morgue and found when the U.S Marine and Signal Corps went into the Berghof and gave the date to our Pentagon contact.
Two months later a colonel called me and said, “We have located eight cans of 16MM color film captured in Eva Braun’s private garden and/or bedroom.” I was thunderstruck.
Because we had triggered this information, the National Archives gave us a copy to use after the Pentagon transferred the original film to the archive for safekeeping. At Cannes, when these movies were shown for the first time as part of Swastika, it was a polarizing sensation. Hitler, up close in color, filmed by his mistress, was one weird fellow. But he looked like a man, not a demon from Jupiter. This freaked people out and controversy waged. Robert Hughes at Time endorsed the film, as did The Washington Post and many other key publications.
Eva Braun’s sister surfaced, claiming she owned the movies. Turned out Eva Braun was legally Eva Hitler, since she legally married Hitler on the last day of her life, so the movies belonged to the Hitler Estate [the Bavarian State Government then] and we got their OK immediately.
I got lip readers to study them, then got some German actors and we dubbed them with lip-reading info and phrases Hitler had used.
I was concerned about authenticity, so we showed the film to two Nazis who were in the movies: Albert Speer and Arno Breker. Breker said, “Yes, it was exactly like that, except the bodies being bulldozed at the end [from footage of the Belsen concentration camp] are obviously fake to me, as a sculptor. The only place where they make models like that are in Hollywood.” Speer’s reaction was similar, with a different angle: “Yes, it was exactly like that, except the actor you got to voice me has a cold. I never got colds.”
OZY: How did you get ahold of Albert Speer?
PM: Sandy Lieberson knew Speer because he had optioned his book. Sandy, Lutz, David Puttnam and I spent a day with Speer at his home in Heidelberg. Storybook “gemutlich,” talk about banality, a German home complete with a dog with a rum barrel under the collar and a picture window.
We went to his local restaurant and the waiters clicked their heels when he spoke. I asked him what he would do if Hitler walked in now. He said Hitler’s personality was such he would be compelled to obey him! He said what he said at Nuremberg about the Jews: “I didn’t know, but I should have known.” This turned out to be a complete lie — he knew it, it eventuated. He freaked before he died at the Posen transcript of Himmler’s speech, and also he was heavily implicated in clearing Jews out of Berlin.
A slick, creepy, smart Nazi — very Dr. Strangelove. I could not wait to tell my dad I had lunch with Speer. I called him in Melbourne from Heidelberg. There was silence, then my father asked: “DID YOU KILL HIM?”
Speer’s first question to me at the front door was, “Are you Jewish?”
I think he was a bit baffled in retrospect. He knew I was Australian and launched into a WWII propaganda pitch about how the Brits sacrificed Australians in Greece and elsewhere. While watching his home movies, he gave me an example of Nazi humor: “If I had panned to the left, I would have gotten a shot of Goebbels, and that would be worth quite a bit of money now, no?”
OZY: Based on Swastika’s opening statement and the film’s aim to humanize the Third Reich, adding dimension to the one-dimensionality of perceived evil, do you think it managed to do so?
PM: I believe evil comes in many forms, so it is misleading to caricature it. For example, many serial killers have been good-looking. Clearly, Hitler was evil by most definitions, but when reading stenographic records of meetings in his final months, one can conclude he was not clinically insane.
It never occurred to me that there was any debate about Hitler being responsible for the catastrophe, so I thought the home movies were important raw information. Marcel Marceau immediately observed that Hitler kept protecting his genital region with his hands. He looked like a nervous bad actor to me.
Prior to the 1973 premiere, no one had seen Hitler close up in color. Cinéma vérité. No Riefenstahl around, only Eva Braun behind the camera. This imagery really disturbed the audience. Regarding current events, though, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s comment to the effect that “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
On March 3, 9, 21 and 27, Swastika finds a temporary home at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn.
- Zev Deans, OZY Author Contact Zev Deans