Speer Goes to Hollywood

Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, designed the Concentration Camps. During the Second World War, he was the Minister for Armaments and War Procurements, in charge of millions of slave workers from the camps. He was just about the only leading Nazi who was not sentenced to death at the Nuremberg Trials – getting twenty years instead.

After serving the full sentence, he managed to engineer a little renaissance for himself. His book “Inside the Third Reich” became an international best seller. An English screenwriter, Andrew Birkin – brother of Jane, and a protegé of Stanley Kubrick and Carol Reed – entered talks with him about making a film of the book. Speer goes to Hollywood is a documentary based on the tapes of their talks.

Birkin is either in awe of Speer, or he is too concerned with his film project to ask any difficult questions. Besides which, Speer is clearly a cultured man. He speaks fluent English and French and manages to drop cultural references like Mephisto and Oedipus into casual conversation. Maybe this is the way that he got both Birkin and the Nuremberg judges to underestimate him. Or the people who produced the film poster to call this “the unbelievable second career of a good Nazi”-

In his taped conversations with Birkin, Speer explains how he really didn’t know anything about the Holocaust and any crimes were carried out by his subordinates who didn’t think to tell them. Often his statements contradict each other – particularly about events that he may or may not have witnessed. He also insists that although he does think that Jews have too much money and poured in from Eastern Europe to dilute German culture, he doesn’t think this “in an antisemitic way”.

Occasionally a voice of reason appears. Reed, who is due to direct the film, pops up on the tape to ask Birkin if he’s maybe treating what Speer says a little too uncritically. Or statistics are listed on screen explaining exactly how many people were murdered by the Nazis when Speer held a prominent government post. But as he is allowed to ramble on, he is never explicitly challenged.

Some critics have taken great offence at learning that the voices that we hear are not those of Speer, Birkin and Reed, but those of actors reproducing the original discussions (this is acknowledged in the end credits). I see their point – even if the reproduction is necessary because of faded tape quality, there is a real danger of losing the nuance of what is said and how it is said. But I don’t think that this is the main problem.

Birkin has since disputed that his conversations have been accurately reproduced, but if they have, we spend most of the film listening to a Nazi, an actual Nazi, holding forth, and rarely being challenged about what he says. Sure, his words are idiotic, but he is allowed to take centre stage as if they are something that warrant serious discussion. Speer is allowed a certain poignant victimhood, while his victims only appear as statistics listed on the screen.

I do not think that the film idolises Speer, nor that it should not have been made. Much of the information that we learn is genuinely interesting. But I do not think that it has chosen its format wisely. We are left to assume that Birkin is wrong to treat Speer uncritically, because “we” are assumed to be right thinking people. And yet there is no real attempt to explain why Birkin can be so mistakenly seduced. Instead, we are encouraged to identify with him.

What matters here most is not whether we are listening to Birkin and Speer, or to actors playing them. By default, the film has decided to frame the story in a way that accepts that having a naive and uncritical screen writer asking a convicted Nazi to explain why he has been unjustly persecuted is something that we would enjoy viewing. It’s not that this story should not have been told – but there were so many better possible ways of telling it.

Another problem is that by the end, the film gets a little repetitive. There are only so many times that you can hear Speer either denying that he was anywhere near any instances of Nazi genocide, or misdirecting us to think about other things. And yet, as long as we take this in mind and listen to what he is saying with a critical ear, there is enough here that is both interesting and important for us to know.

Not a perfect film by any means, but very much worth watching critically.

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