Goebbeldegook, or Numbed into silence

The Goebbels Experiment 2004, released 2005. Lutz Hachmeister. spiegeltv

By Peter Hulm

Lauded by critics and promising hitherto unseen footage (presumably of the Goebbels kids and wife), this 1hr 47min. documentary fell with a dull thud in front of me when I watched it seven years after its release.

The film promotes itself as being about “The Man Behind Hitler”. On the evidence of his diaries, he was way behind.

Drawing solely on what he confided, usually in clichés, to his diaries between 1924 and 1945, the film nevertheless fails to provide an illuminating psychological, emotional, personal or political portrait.

Not surprising, perhaps. Most diaries have very little connection with the outside world and often fail to record major events in their writer's lives.

It is clear, though, that he had little involvement with Hitler’s foreign or military policy, or with Hitler's political manoeverings.

Goebbels often worried privately he was being demoted or moved aside. But these tend to be jottings of his feelings at that moment, and we have no sense of the arc of his development.

He criticizes and rhapsodizes over Hitler, but the film gives no clue why he stuck so closely to "the boss" when it was clear things were going badly.

The diaries tell us of his early despair and disgust with Germany’s bourgeois society but not why his mother was persecuted, or his extra-marital affair with a film star (except to celebrate his reconciliation with his wife). And nor does the film.

The first Nazi catastrophe

In the film at least, and perhaps in the diaries, Goebbels treats the flight of Hess as a major catastrophe for Nazism.

We only see one occasion where his confident public speech is contradicted by his private diary entry. Context seems completely lacking.

He speaks regularly in public and in his diaries of the power of propaganda and the necessity of control over information. We hear him, in Kenneth Branagh’s voice, praise Churchill (when things were going badly for Nazi Germany) for his blood, sweat and tears speech of a few years before.

He notes that a colleague suggested Germany should adopt it. Goebbels declares that with this slogan Germany could resist any invader and Churchill is suddenly transformed into a clever leader from being a buffoon in Goebbels' eyes.

But as the film excerpts show, the mistakes of the Nazis (the ill-equiped invasion of Russia) and Soviet military forces destroyed Germany’s fighting power. Propaganda had nothing to do with it.

No concentration camps but gossip

He rants against the Jews but we hear nothing of the concentration camps and exterminations. They probably meant nothing to him.

His doctorate in German literature is simply mentioned. We do not hear of the Nazis determined attempt to fill their ranks with intellectuals in addition to thugs and crazies.

The film does indulge some of the pleasures of gossip. He hated Leni Riefenstahl, describing her as hysteric. We then see him awarding her the top film prize for her Berlin Olympics film.

But all of this we could have read in the print version.

The killing of his children and his wife, followed by his own suicide, goes without comment, perhaps because this, too, was omitted from his diary.

Nor are we told why the film is titled an experiment. He talks of creating a new kind of German but never of experiments – and in fact declares that art that aims to speak to the masses should never be experimental.

Struck dumb by the past

After nearly two hours, this lack of context or commentary gives the impression that the film-makers, i.e. modern Germans, have been struck dumb by their Nazi past.

They seem not quite sure how to judge it. Simple condemnation does not seem adequate in the face of continually cheering crowds, huge militaristic parades and happy Nazis filling the streets.

The Nazis, and Goebbels, were careful, of course, to ensure that all their public recordings presented only what they wanted the world to see.

The Goebbels Experiment has nothing to show, except inadvertently, to counter the propaganda.