While Syberberg was making this film, over three thousand West German schoolchildren were asked to write an essay on the subject 'What I have heard about Adolf Hitler'. The wording was not intended to elicit a prepared answer, but to trawl the everyday fragments and commonplaces gleaned by the children from parents and neighbours. The results prompted widespread hand-wringing in the serious press. Hitler's birth was variously placed between the 16th century and 1933, his nationality given as Swiss, Dutch and Italian, his politics as Communist and Christian Democratic. Alongside sharp and telling detail ('No more bicycle thefts') came involuntary testimony to thoughts which had been put out of mind: the Jews had 'had their ears boxed'; some had been killed ('many hundreds', 'several thousand'), but they had asked for it, and anyway the Germans were not the only ones. Unacknowledged guilt perhaps explains why Hellmut Diwald's reassuringly apologetic Geschichte der Deutschen was a recent best-seller. It certainly reinforces the moral imperative behind this film and explains some of Syberberg's lyrical intensity. Mad Germany has hurt him into poetry, as it did Heine, quoted at the beginning and the end of the film. Syberberg wants to confront Germans with their collective responsibility for Hitler, conceiving his art as a 'work of mourning'. As Susan Sontag notes in her introduction to this book of the film, he is close to the position of Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich, who argued in The Inability to Mourn that the Germans remain the victims of a collective melancholia which follows from their refusal to accept and work through the grief of their own recent history.
LRB 3 March 1983 | PDF Download