The postwar cliché for Nazi buck-passing has always been “I was just following orders.” Adolf Hitler’s court favorite, Albert Speer, got away with the opposite position: “I was just giving orders.”
Speer controlled the production end of Hitler’s war machine and the government engineering-construction company that built the concentration camps. But he insisted he never saw any atrocities. How was a Reichsminister to know that his inferiors turned Russian P.O.W.’s into slaves and put Jews into gas chambers?
Speer’s 1970 memoir, Inside the Third Reich, written at Spandau Prison during his shockingly low 20-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity, cemented his image as “the good Nazi,” ultra-professional during the war and aptly apologetic after it. When the book became an international best-seller, Paramount began developing a script with budding British filmmaker Andrew Birkin, one of Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand men on 2001: A Space Odyssey and the researcher on his never-made Napoleon. He consulted with Speer at home in Heidelberg in 1971 and audiotaped their discussions. (Paramount scrapped the project, but in 1982 ABC made a mini-series, with Rutger Hauer as Speer.)
In the documentary Speer Goes to Hollywood, Israeli director Vanessa Lapa uses those 40-plus hours of tapes to expose the evil of Speer’s banality. Via a surgical selection of Speer’s own words, deftly edited clips, and some debatable sleight of sound (more on that later), it reveals the power-hungry fascist and instinctive anti-Semite beneath the veneer of a cultured proto-yuppie.
Remarkable archival footage from 1932 depicts Speer and his wife savoring a symphony in Berlin. Before long, they’re relaxing with Hitler at the Berghof. Speer says that as an ambitious and untested architect, “I would have sold my soul to Mephisto” to get “big building projects.” And he knows exactly how to climb the greasy pole in 1930s Germany: become soulmates with der Führer, a would-be artist himself. When he shows Hitler “two or three drawings” for the Third Reich’s Nuremberg rally in 1933, Speer dubs their brief encounter “love on the first sight.”
We see Speer magnify Hitler’s presence on a secular super-pulpit and put an imperial sheen on the Nazi brand with his Teutonic light shows and gigantomania. Once Hitler anoints Speer as his minister of armaments and war production, he delivers weaponry to the Wehrmacht with gusto. He sets outrageous quotas that mandate slave labor, and he abets SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s policy of working concentration-camp inmates, P.O.W.’s, and conscripted civilians to death.
When he shows Hitler “two or three drawings” for the Third Reich’s Nuremberg rally in 1933, Speer dubs their brief encounter “love on the first sight.”
Yet Speer managed to sustain his faux-civilized persona as technocrat-cum–artist manqué. One of two dozen top Nazis indicted at the first Nuremberg trial, he won over enemies and influenced people with a pretense of frank cooperation. He emphasized that he ignored Hitler’s “Nero Decree” to obliterate Germany’s infrastructure ahead of the Allied advance, and he invented stories about attempting to assassinate Hitler in the final phase of the war.
Lapa uses the Speer-Birkin dialogues to conjure an intimate immediacy rare for any documentary. (In 2014’s The Decent One, Lapa molded a devastating portrait of Himmler out of his long-lost letters and diaries.) Speer reacts to Birkin’s script with his usual opportunism. He tells Birkin it will be easier for him to maintain plausible deniability the further the film strays from “the facts.”
But Lapa undercuts Speer’s lies and evasions with documentary evidence, including electrifying restored film of his Nuremberg trial. In one cathartic moment, a Mauthausen survivor who toiled in the camp’s ID department recalls developing photos of visiting Nazi dignitaries. Asked whether he recognizes any defendant, he rises from his chair, points to the dock, and proclaims, “Speer!” Speer contended that his one visit to the camp was a sanitized V.I.P. tour. When Birkin asks whether Mauthausen had gas chambers, he answers, “I don’t know. I can’t tell. It is not certain.”
Birkin informs Speer that Kubrick has passed on the project because Speer doesn’t acknowledge that he knew about Auschwitz. (Birkin told Kubrick biographer John Baxter that Kubrick said, “I’m Jewish. I can’t get involved in this.”) He also reports that Paramount and “the Jewish brigade associated with them” object that the script limits mention of the Holocaust to 2 pages out of 210. (“That is their problem,” Speer retorts.)
All along, we worry that Birkin, envisioning an epic movie, will succumb to Speer’s ingratiating charm and lose his bearings. Birkin riffs on mythic visual concepts to Speer, and Lapa conveys their freak-out brilliance, such as photographing Speer’s room-size model for Hitler’s dream capital, “Germania,” as if it were an actual city, then jolting the audience with Hitler’s face leaning into it.
So it’s a relief and a thrill whenever the great British director Sir Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol), Birkin’s mentor and older cousin, enters the picture. In just two recorded phone calls, he cuts through the murk and cowardice with casual authority and becomes this movie’s voice of moral clarity. Reed views Speer as a mediocrity, a main-chancer, and a Nazi taskmaster who “had everyone he needed to do his work for him, under him”—not a “dreamer who just wants to build things.”
Reed speaks not merely as a filmmaker who made classic suspense films in ravaged Vienna and Berlin (The Third Man, The Man Between) but also as a human being who lived through wartime with eyes wide open. He refuses to believe that anyone of Speer’s rank was innocent or ignorant of the Shoah and the systematic torture of political prisoners and occupied populations. He mocks Birkin’s inclusion of Speer playing with a “dear little dog.” “You feel, ‘what a sweet man,’” Reed says. “In the end, it comes to that in a movie.”
Kubrick passed on the project because Speer wouldn’t acknowledge that he knew about Auschwitz.
This is the Reed who filmed that charming monster Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man, spouting his own Realpolitik: “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t; why should we?” This is the Reed who climaxed his World War II documentary, The True Glory (1946) with the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and a U.S. congressman observing the camps: “There it was right in front of us: fascism and what it’s bound to lead to, wherever it crops up.”
Lapa presents her movie as the literal real thing. Unfortunately, it’s not. Faced with deteriorating sound on Birkin’s aging tapes, Lapa re-recorded Speer’s, Birkin’s, and Reed’s voices with actors. But she lists them only in the end credits, where we first see the words “Voice Actors.” Their names don’t appear in the press kit, and, on the IMDB page, the only cast member listed is “Albert Speer”; the performers are lumped into “Additional Crew.”
In a recent Zoom call, Lapa told me she and her cast stayed true to each inflection. Birkin, for his part, disagrees. In a letter written in response to a review on the World Socialist Web Site that characterized him as “Speer’s ‘overly impressed’ dupe,” Birkin says the film “has much to commend it and is driven by a heart in the right place.” But he views it as a “dramatization” rather than a documentary, complete with questions invented to frame quotes from other sources.
When I ticked off his objections, Lapa denied compressing quotes from Birkin’s interviews or stripping them of context. I expected her to reject the charge that she imported quotes. But she estimated that 87 percent of the material heard in conversation in the film derived from Birkin’s tapes. She said she integrated portions from other interviews with Speer simply to provide essential information, and she strove to keep the set-up questions neutral. But the stitchwork shows. Knowing Lapa’s process, we wonder which words are true to the two-man show and which belong to the 13 percent pastiche.
Lapa has been properly ruthless toward Speer and relatively cavalier about Birkin. If Hitler is Speer’s Mephisto, is Speer Birkin’s? Or does Birkin strike a congenial tone to drag as much useful data out of Speer as possible? No less a critic than V. S. Pritchett praised Birkin for being “chary of personal judgments” in Birkin’s 1979 biography, J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. And perhaps this is the quality he exhibits to a fault when interviewing Speer.
Lapa’s defense is that she kept her focus on Speer, not Birkin, and her editing choices lay bare his hatred of Jews and his power lust. She thought critics would recognize the voices as re-recordings without her telling them (really? in this age of digital miracles?) and she wanted to give audiences “the best cinematic experience.”
Nearly 40 years ago, Pauline Kael complained that “documentarians had swung to the position that any clarification by words would be an intrusion on their art.” Contemporary documentary-makers such as Lapa, seeking to create seamless “cinema,” ignore what Kael called “the viewer’s need to know what he’s looking at”—and hearing.
One reason we go to documentaries is to get away from the routine legerdemain and the forced audiovisual immersion of popular storytelling. Would it really shake our involvement in Speer’s apocalyptic drama if Lapa had revealed how she molded the resources at her command?
Lapa has created a hypnotic anatomy of Nazi evil, but I’d like it even better if she had followed the advice of Hamlet’s mother: “More matter with less art.”
Michael Sragow is a film critic and the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master