Thursday, October 28, 2021

Speer Goes to Hollywood

In the 1930s, Hollywood studios were reluctant to criticize the National Socialist regime, out of fear their films would lose access to the German market. Sound familiar? By the 1970s, Nazis were regular movie villains, but there was still great interest in adapting Albert Speer’s spin-controlling memoir Inside the Third Reich. Eventually, it became a two-part TV movie after his death, but Paramount thoroughly kicked the tires of a prospective feature film in the early 1970s. Vanessa Lapa contrasts Speer’s evasive recorded conversations with spec-screenwriter Andrew Birkin against the tapes of his Nuremberg tribunal in Speer Goes to Hollywood, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum.

The notion of Speer as the moderate National Socialist persists today, in large measure due to his widely read book. An architect by training, Speer was appointed Minister of Armaments, which entailed responsibility for the widespread use of slave labor at munitions plants. Of course, he claimed he never fully understood the horrific conditions workers endured. Based on the tapes, it sounds like Birken (whose credits include
The Name of the Rose, The Final Conflict, and King David) gave him some benefit of the doubt, but kept hoping to hear some genuine remorse from Speer.

The thing is, we don’t really hear any of it, because much of the tapes had degraded to such an extent, Lapa was forced to re-record the transcript, which raises questions similar to those surrounding the Anthony Bourdain doc. The tapes were thoroughly cataloged and documented, so the words themselves are authentic, but there is maybe a degree of subjectivity in their presentation.

Yet, the real problem with the film is its over-reliance on unimpeachable footage of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which play out in long extracts. As a result, viewers who have seen Stuart Schulberg’s historically significant
Nuremberg: It’s Lessons for Today might understandably feel like there is a good deal of redundancy Lapa’s film.

Lapa also fails to really dig into the question of Speer’s controversial rehabilitation. The key question of why Hollywood was so interested remains unanswered. She also ignores the 1982 ABC production (directed by Noam Chomsky’s cousin, Marvin), starring Rutger Hauer as Speer. Technically, the title is also misleading. Speer never went to Hollywood. Birkin came to him. However, we do hear the accomplished director Carol Reed criticizing what he perceived to be “whitewashing” in Birkin’s early drafts, so we can keep watching classics like
The Third Man and Odd Man Out without awkwardness.

It just seems like there were missed opportunities to examine why Hollywood was initially so hesitant to criticize National Socialism and then became so eager to work with Speer. Lapa is clearly driven to document the crimes of the regime, but like her Himmler documentary,
The Decent One, Speer Goes to Hollywood is slow and methodical to a fault. Still valuable for its debunking of Speer’s self-reinvention, Lapa’s film opens tomorrow (10/29) in New York, at Film Forum.