‘Goebbels Experiment’ produces fatal resultsby michael fox, correspondent
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"Throw out the Jews, who refuse to become real Germans," Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary in 1924. "Give them a real beating, too."
Two years later, the fervid 29-year-old National Socialist met Adolf Hitler. Two years after that, Hitler named the loyal Goebbels to one of the 12 Reichstag seats the Nazi Party won in the 1928 elections.
Lonely and tormented before he had found his path as a public speaker and party strategist, Goebbels now devoted himself to a strong leader—and helped persuade his countrymen to follow.
Lutz Hachmeister and Michael Kloft's superbly crafted documentary, "The Goebbels Experiment," matches previously unseen archival footage with passages from the shrewd propagandist's diaries. Coolly and methodically, this fascinating historical document delineates the outer limits of megalomania.
"The Goebbels Experiment" opens Friday, Sept. 30, at the Roxie in San Francisco.
Kenneth Branagh reads Goebbels' diaries in English, and the actor's contribution is considerable. His icy, haughty delivery undercuts the empathy we are inclined to feel for a first-person narrator. At the same time he provides Goebbels with enough pathetic desperation and triumphant satisfaction to make him recognizably human.
No one presents himself as evil in his own diary, even Goebbels. Self-deluded, self-pitying, spiteful, hypocritical — he reveals himself to be all of these, but he can't be expected to fully confront the depths of his depravity.
The key phrase here is "reveals himself," for "The Goebbels Experiment" does not connect the dots into a black-and-white portrait. Instead, it invites the viewer to interpret and extrapolate.
For example, the anti-Semitic references are powerful but rare. "Jews don't respond to generosity, or to a spirit of magnanimity," Goebbels writes, as the 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses goes into effect. "You have to show them what you are prepared to do."
The film doesn't spell out Goebbels' involvement in the Holocaust, perhaps because he was too smart to mention genocide in his diary (which he expected would be a historical document enshrined someday, presumably in the Thousand-Year Reich Museum).
But anyone with the vaguest awareness that Goebbels was arguably the second-most powerful man in Nazi Germany and a master of mass communications knows the direct and indirect responsibility he bore for the murders of millions of Jews.
What was the source of Goebbels' anti-Semitism? His diary talks about his paralyzed foot, the result of a childhood illness, and how his friends then eliminated him from their social circle. He apparently channeled his bitterness toward the Jews. Regrettable but not horrific, until he achieved a position where he had free rein to quench his hatred with the bottomless pain and suffering of others.
"The Goebbels Experiment" conveys both its subject's skills and his psyche with a neat bit of juxtaposition. Clips from a Nazi propaganda film about the great man's contented youth in a small town near Dusseldorf show the image Goebbels wanted to convey to the masses. But this cheery portrait does not match the friendless loser miserably meandering through his 20s that emerges from in the diaries.
Goebbels ultimately comes across as more of an ideologue and true believer than an opportunist, though one senses he was an astute and ruthless politician. From 1939 on, though, the ideologue disappears and the cold professional takes over. But he never shakes his paranoia, jealousy and narcissism.
Hachmeister and Kloft have produced an interpretation of Goebbels that is meant to be evocative rather than definitive. Of one thing, though, they leave no doubt: Goebbels' life was an unequivocal failure.
"The Goebbels Experiment" opens Friday, Sept. 30, at the Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F.
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