December 6, 2021

There’s obviously something a little suspect about being interested in Nazis. I was one of those kids who went through a Nazi phase, though I guess I also went through a North Korea phase. There’s something cool about the esoterica of Nazi obsession, like you’re learning something scary and subterranean and thrilling about human existence; it’s as if, beyond the low-octane, meaningless insults of consumer society, there’s some surreal tipoff into limitless violence.

They might be wearing Hugo Boss and driving Volkswagens, but Nazis don’t really seem to live on the same planet as us; and that’s why, maybe, Nazi content is sort of like True Crime or UFO stories. And, of course, there’s the taboo part of it: most of the Holocaust freaks I’ve known are either Jewish or anti-Semitic, all of them fascinated by this primal bloodlust that it’s more polite to ignore.

But where does Albert Speer fit into this narrative? Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and lead architect, known for his grandiose designs for the “Thousand Year Reich”, was one of the lucky Nazis. He was sent to prison for 20 years, but afterwards he was able to profit from his actions: in 1970, the man who had commanded an estimated 12 million slave labourers, about 2.5 million of whom died, wrote a best-selling memoir, Inside the Third Reich. He was later approached by Kubrick-protégé Andrew Birkin about a film adaptation, and, in conversations that Birkin recorded as they workshopped their screenplay in 1972, downplayed his relationship with Hitler and his knowledge of wartime atrocities. Fortunately, Paramount Pictures did not pick up the script, and it was not produced.

I couldn’t help asking myself, while watching Vanessa Lapa’s Speer Goes to Hollywood, composed of dramatisations of those Birkin recordings and footage from the Nuremberg trials: what is the point of Nazi documentaries, and why am I watching one? I suppose the straightforward answer is Holocaust Remembrance, as with Yom HaShoah and public memorials and the Holocaust Studies lessons that are mandatory in sixteen US states.

But if Holocaust remembrance is really the point of Holocaust documentaries, I’m not sure these films are up to the task. The most Holocaust-conscious people I know have tended to be, let’s say, “Holocaust-critical independent researchers”, like the shaved-head kid with an Iron Cross ring that sat in the front of my college Holocaust Studies class and “asked a lot of questions”. I think he may have thought it was a workshop.

I’ve never met someone who doesn’t know the phrase “six million”, but I’ve known a number that would say “six million sounds like a lot”, and I’m not sure Speer Goes to Hollywood is going to make much of a difference for them. If these films are simply preaching to the choir, that’s fine; but does that mean Nazi films are just True Crime for boys?

That said, I suppose Nazi documentaries may still serve some salutary function in American society. In an era of increasing groupthink and hyperpoliticisation, we might consider that Nazi eugenicists were, actually, “following the science”, with the eager collaboration of leading American scientists funded by the Rockefellers. And with today’s poorly educated often decried as “Nazis”, we might do well to reflect that the German profession that voted for the Nazi party in the highest numbers was physicians. Speer might fit in there: reminding us that Nazis can be charming, well-spoken, and professional.

Perhaps there’s some value in Hannah Arendt’s idea of “the banality of evil”: that evildoers aren’t scary, “perverted and sadistic” monsters, but instead thoughtless, “terrifyingly normal” joiners. Arendt’s thesis has since been criticised as more research shows that Adolf Eichmann did, actually, have some real ideological investment in the extermination of the Jews. However, as a general rule, there’s some truth there: people tend to think they’re doing the right thing, or at least not committing a crime against humanity — and they tend to do the easiest thing under the circumstances.

But how do you show banality in film, a medium designed to hypnotise the masses with spectacle and splendour? The most obvious answer can be found in Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour-long Shoah (1985); a 355-minute torrent of interviews about the most revolting atrocities, described through minute, twist-of-the-knife probing, but with almost nothing to see. There aren’t photographs; there aren’t newsreels; there aren’t, God forbid, animations. There’s mostly absence: the empty field of stones and grass where there was Treblinka, the grey pond, wide and boring, where thousands of Jews’ ashes were dumped. And, sometimes, that absence extends to the interviews, showing how the Final Solution was executed by commonplace acts and with, even, commonplace feeling: in one chilling interview, a few residents of the village of Auschwitz calmly, undramatically, say they’re happy the Jews are gone.

Speer Goes to Hollywood doesn’t have the visual subtlety of Shoah; it’s more or less what you’d expect, built on familiar black-and-white archival images of rallies, camps and propaganda. But I suppose it, actually, implicitly denies the banality of an evil thesis. Speer mythologised himself in two ways: first, that he was a great architect, and second, that he wasn’t interested in genocide, just in making some really impressive buildings. As he says, “I was just 29 and I would have sold my soul to Mephisto”.

Yet his explanations, an exercise in cognitive dissonance, are sometimes inadvertently absurd in their coldness: for example, when talking about the Jews in Weimar Berlin, he says: “I can’t really say [I had] an anti-Semitic feeling. It was a feeling of disgust when I saw it.” He later claims that though he knew Hitler was planning to annihilate the Jews, he had “no direct knowledge” of the camps since a friend had told him never to go to Auschwitz because “terrible things [were] happening there”.

But however hard he was trying to whitewash himself, he still comes across as narcissistic and deluded. When he emerges from prison, he cheerily says to excited journalists: “You see that after 20 years I’m still relatively good looking”. And when Birkin tells him that “Paramount and the Jewish Brigade associated with them” (wow!) have rejected the script, since only two out of its one-hundred-ten pages address the extermination of the Jews (wow!), Speer states, “That is their problem” (wow!).

Paramount didn’t produce the film, but ‘the Speer myth’ — this poor handsome man; he had no idea what they were doing at those funny places out East — did make him millions in book royalties. Still, I’m not sure how many Holocaust-heads today truly believe that he didn’t know about the camps, given that correspondence released in 2007 made it clear he was lying.

And yet he still commands a unique fascination. Perhaps Speer seemed less obscene; perhaps, 15 years after the end of the war, his “poor-me” memoirs made mankind seem kinder. I don’t know. Speer was a weird figure. And he was neither a politician nor a military man; he was an architect and urbanist, a fairly influential pioneer of sustainable building and planning. He was also a moving writer, who wrote of Hitler’s unhappiness and Eva Braun’s loneliness in ways that are genuinely absorbing. He was almost respectable.

Here’s the thing, though: he was still an official in the Nazi Party, who, as his own book makes clear, was intimate with Hitler, Goebbels, and the whole gang. It’s clear why Speer lied, and not all that surprising how he lied: the real question, which this latest film and countless before fail to ask, is why anyone believed him.