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The Goebbels Experiment

by Lutz Hachmeister and Michael Kloft, Directors
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2004
VHS, 107 mins., color and b&w
Sales Video: $398.00; rental video: $125.00
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Artur Golczewski
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa 50614-0362 USA


One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary is the manner in which it "makes history" through the collage-like (re)construction of the life of Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), Hitler’s minister for propaganda. Using cinematic montage, the film is made of footage from WWII-era newsreels, home movies, German feature films, and other archival materials from the 1930s and 40s. These are the visual parallels to the film’s narrative, which consists entirely of brief passages from Goebbels’ diary (which he conscientiously maintained in the years 1924 to 1945), as read by the actor Kenneth Branagh. There is no other narration. At first, this may seem like a promising way to approach such an ambitious undertaking. However, as we follow the (trans)formations of Goebbels’ political identity, as he re-orients his role, one begins to hope that there will emerge an account of the circumstances that both compelled and enabled this curious man to re-fashion Germany’s (and his own) cultural identity into the dreadful ideology of the Nazis. Unfortunately, this never happens. While the film does address now and then Goebbels’ conception of and use of propaganda, too often it returns instead to his personal life for insight into his political strategy. To put it in plastic terms, the result is an expressionistic portrait of Goebbels in which the ethical-moral self is emphasized, thus bypassing more or less the opportunity to look at the re-constitution of his identity in terms of ideas and rationales (however twisted they might be), not solely in terms of feelings. As a result, we learn much more about how Goebbels felt about himself and the people around him than we do about tools and ideas that he used in such a forceful way as the mastermind of Nazi propaganda. To present Nazism as bad (or any historical event, for that matter) because it was the ideology of bad people is, it seems to me, to trivialize the matter. Nor does it better prepare us to deal with similar possible threats. It would be far more helpful to identify the socio-political conditions in which totalitarianism could be rationalized. As it is, the film appears to suggest that the widespread support for the Nazis was the result of Goebbels’ masterful propaganda: a work of a brilliant, if evil, political demagogue. By implication, to secure our own future, we should always be on guard for evil geniuses and be ready to point them out and denounce them. But who will (and does) identify these evil people and by what rationale? In whose interests do the identifiers act? And is not that kind of vigilance the very essence of totalitarianism, as opposed to freedom that we seem so dearly to cherish so? Would it be not more humane (albeit less expressionistic) to foster a cultural setting in which the ethics of empowerment are always paramount (especially in relation to access to media), thereby enabling a public debate about ideologies in terms of their effects on the realities of our existence? Instead, we are all too willing to give up the democratic principle of participation in favor of the idealistic mystification of good or evil, a practice that, only occasionally, is unmasked for what it really is: a totalitarian imperative that is unable to tolerate a critique based on alternative rationales of value.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2005.)



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