By Anees Aref.

An informative if somewhat dry history lesson, Speer is a cautionary tale of historical whitewashing that reaches for urgency in a time of increased worries over misinformation and “fake news” being peddled around the world.”

Whatever one may say about the Nazis, and a lot has been said over the past seventy-six years, they certainly had an appetite for cinema. Whether it’s the films of infamous director Leni Riefenstahl, or the vast film archives produced under propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s watch, the Third Reich’s connections to the silver screen are plentiful. It’s a great irony that a regime with so much affinity for the movies caused so many of its greatest talents to flee abroad, such as Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, amongst others. All this comes to mind while watching Speer Goes to Hollywood, a new documentary film from Israeli filmmaker Vanessa Lapa chronicling the ill-fated attempt by ex-Nazi minister Albert Speer to get his controversial memoir “Inside the Third Reich” adapted into a film by the Hollywood studios. An informative if somewhat dry history lesson, Speer is a cautionary tale of historical whitewashing that reaches for urgency in a time of increased worries over misinformation and “fake news” being peddled around the world.

The filmbegins with an older Speer answering letters regarding his best-selling book, which was published after he had served a twenty-year prison sentence following the Second World War. Like a celebrity writer moaning about fan mail, Speer points out the favorable notices while singling out one letter from a disgruntled German who accuses the book of misrepresenting events of the Nazi period. Speer dryly remarks, “it’s important to get both sides…of course not everyone must share the same opinion.” Granted, the good Mr. Speer has a point that is valid in the field of letters and historical debate, yet, as the rest of the film and many critics pointed out, Speer endeavored to do anything but provide a balanced historical account of his experiences serving in Adolph Hitler’s regime, employing large-scale slave labor, and being an accessory to the Holocaust.

According to his version of events, Speer was an unwitting participant in the forced labor and eventual murders of millions of Jews, political opponents, and other undesirables. In his mind, he was merely an architect, excited by the opportunity to work on “big projects” that happened to employ up to fourteen million workers at its highest point during the war. Speer’s rather selective memory tends to forget instances where Jewish families were being separated or when final plans were discussed concerning mass executions at camps. For a man considered a good friend of Hitler’s and an oft promoted minister, he wasn’t in the room quite a bit when decisions were made.

His material is straightforward and engaging enough. Yet I wonder if an opportunity was missed here…. His book and Hollywood pretentions seem ripe for satire.”

Ms. Lapa provides a parallel narrative structure that takes us through Speer’s career from his arrival in Berlin in 1931 to the post-war Nuremberg trials of 1945-46. This story is framed by Speer’s collaboration in 1971 with aspiring filmmaker Andrew Birkin, who spent a winter at the former’s home developing the script for the planned production. Lapa makes use of abundant archival sources to provide a visual and audio record of the pair’s interaction. Birkin, an alleged protégé of legendary director Stanley Kubrick, comes off as suspiciously eager to get the film made and mold the character of Speer into someone the audience can “identify” with. Birkin has telling exchanges with the distinguished British director Carol Reed, who repeatedly decries the script and how “whitewashed” the Speer character comes across.

As someone who wasn’t as familiar with Speer’s story, this material is straightforward and engaging enough. Yet I wonder if an opportunity was missed here. Speer is essentially a rather dull figure, a dotard casting himself as a dreamer who just wanted to build and never had bad intentions. When Birkin asks him about his feelings towards the Jews in those days, Speer says “it wasn’t an anti-Semitic feeling exactly…it was a feeling of disgust.” His book and Hollywood pretentions seem ripe for satire. Imagine if the subject had been given the Orson Welles “F for Fake” treatment, or something along the lines of Mel Brooks. Call it “Springtime for Speer.”

However, Ms. Lapa isn’t here for laughs, and perhaps Mr. Speer doesn’t deserve them, though I think a more memorable film may have been the result. An early scene in the film catches Speer chatting with his publisher about a potential film adaptation. The publisher is enthusiastic, though he says it can’t be a Hollywood film, a “Cecil B. DeMille spectacle” about the Third Reich. With how blissfully eager the good Mr. Speer was, one can easily imagine him on the phone an hour later saying “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille.”

Speer Goes to Hollywood opened 10/29 in New York City and will open 11/5 in Los Angeles.

Anees Aref is a writer on film, history, and politics based in the Los Angeles area who has published abroad as well as in the United States.

One thought on “The Man Who Wasn’t There: Speer Goes to Hollywood

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *