This documentary which won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar is one of those unknown but true stories that was begging to be told. Following the publication of his bestselling memoir “Inside the Third Reich” in 1969, Nazi architect Albert Speer was courted by Hollywood who wanted to make his book into a feature. Paramount won the bidding war and Speer sat down with writer Andrew Birkin (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) for a month in Los Angeles to come up with a screenplay. It never made it to the screen, but the process of its writing is a window into the mindset that allowed the Nazis to rise and flourish for a time, and a maddening portrait of a seductive sociopath.
The film could not have been if not for Birkin recording all the men’s conversations about the script and about Speer’s life as one of Hitler’s insiders and confidantes. Combined with archival footage, including from the Nuremberg trials, the portrait of Speer that emerges is right out of Hannah Arendt’s the banality of evil. He paints himself as the good Nazi who saw nothing and takes no responsibility for any of the atrocities committed by his comrades. But equally chilling is Birkin’s inability to see Speer’s deflections and manipulations of his own story, writing a whitewashed version of concentration camp horror and buying into Speer’s alternative history. And Speer doesn’t want to stick to history. He sees the film as a great way to fictionalize his story and make him come out better.
As the script is coming together Birkin asks for input from director Carol Reed (The Thin Man, Oliver) who warns him that he’s being seduced by Speer. And it’s easy to see why. Speer is very intelligent, and has had 20 years in jail to rationalize and frame his behavior. At Nuremberg he claimed not to know what was going on in the camps and he continues that story despite evidence to the contrary. He paints himself as a patriot and claims not to be an anti-Semite, though he does think Jew are disgusting. It’s hard not to be aggravated by Birkin’s acceptance and unwillingness to push back.
The most intriguing part of the film for me though was that anyone in Hollywood would have wanted to get in bed with an unrepentant Nazi war criminal, once the Reichsminister of Armaments and War Production, who spent 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity, particularly for his use of slave laborers from concentration camps, millions of whom died. It’s hard to watch Speer revel in his celebrity and live out his life in freedom. Speer Goes to Hollywood is ultimately a very frustrating and sometimes chilling tale.
(One thing I discovered after watching the film that give me pause is that the “recordings” were in fact all recreated. The originals were too degraded for decent audio so director Vanessa Lapa had actors revoice them all, which makes you wonder about the pauses, the inflections, the meaning of what the men were saying. Just FYI.)
Currently in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.