Goebbels Experiment

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THE GOEBBELS EXPERIMENT Comes Up Short of Conclusive Results.

Oct 7, 2005 (Updated Oct 17, 2005)
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Pros:Fascinating subject, some good quotes, some good visuals, adequate music.

Cons:Given the material and its significance, the film is thin.

The Bottom Line: THE GOEBBELS EXPERIMENT misses a chance to give us a fuller understanding of the genius who created Modern Propaganda, and aspects of Public Relations and Advertising which mold our lives.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State." -- Perhaps the most famous and significant utterance of Paul Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), Nazi Reichsminister of Propaganda.

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Opening in selected theaters, THE GOEBBELS EXPERIMENT, the new 107 minute documentary about one of the 20th Century's masters of propaganda, begins and ends with the charred image of Joseph Goebbels' body. He lies in the garden of the Berlin Reichchancellery, in May 1945, like some ancient unwrapped mummy, one black, shriveled hand raised as if trying, one more time, to hail his Fuhrer, or perhaps Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Beside him is the equally burnt corpse of his handsome wife Magda, and the bodies of his six young, perfectly Aryan children -- as if laid down in their night clothes for sleep. [Instead of . . . to be poisoned by their mother.] In between, narrated from the Reichminister's Diaries by Kenneth Branagh (passages in German by Udo Samel), we learn of Paul Joseph Goebbels' life and times, as he saw it all, in his own words, from 1924 to shortly before his death.

Bright, intelligent, artistic, Goebbels was born of a good Catholic working class family in the Rhineland. Unfortunately, in childhood, a botched operation left him with a club foot, one leg four inches shorter than the other, and this may be the reason, some claim he never grew taller than five feet. [Certain sources say, more like 5'4" in height.] He grew up depressed, schizoid, at times charming and buoyant; at others melancholy and jealous. Rejected as unfit for service in World War I, a bitter Goebbels consoled himself by writing a novel and poetry. He was a young man who once said: "I want to be a hero!"

After completing a Phd. in History at Heidelberg, and an unsatisfactory stint in a Cologne bank, he got a job at a radical paper, "The Attack," and became a speech writer for Gregor Strasser. There, in 1924, he caught the attention of a street revolutionary, Adolph Hitler, who won him away from Strasser, a formidable political rival in the young National Socialist Party. Goebbels immediately impressed Hitler, and he was made Gauleiter of Berlin, an extremely powerful position, in 1926; and as Hitler ascended to the position of Fuhrer, Minister of Propaganda, in 1933. From that time, Goebbels wielded extraordinary control, drawing together the newspapers, magazines, theater, music, opera, radio, and cinema of Germany, to create the myth of Nazi culture and invincibility. It may be said that under his supervision modern propaganda, if not Public Relations and Advertising, were created.

[Pushed into the background by Hitler, SA Chief Ernst Roehm, and Goebbels, the once powerful Gregor Strasser, shortly before he was taken to Gestapo Headquarters, in 1934, and shot in the back of the head, said to a friend: ". . .I am a man marked by death. We shall not be able to go on seeing each other for long and in your own interests I suggest you do not come here any more. Whatever happens, mark what I say: From now on Germany is in the hands of an Austrian who is a congenital liar, a former officer who is a pervert, and a clubfoot. And I tell you the last is the worst of them all. This is Satan in human form."]

THE GOEBBELS EXPERIMENT alternates newsreels, photographs, home movies, and current footage to show us the rise and fall of this media genius, Goebbels. The arc of his life is commented upon by narration from the primary sources, and music of the time (most memorably the triumphal but stirring bombast of Herbert Windt). In the early days, we see the area of Cologne where he worked, the scene of his marriage to Magda, him posing with his six blond children as a kind of early day Father Knows Best, evidence of his interest in Cinema (and sub rosa, in starlets and actresses of the German Film Industry), his experience with Leni Riefenstahl on OLYMPIA, and the coming of war.

The Diaries, themselves controversial because of publishing, authentication and translation problems, are written in a jazzy you-are-there-style. What we hear of them is interesting and telling, but the selections of Screenwriter Michael Kloft and the direction of Lutz Hachmeister, often mismatch or neglect aspects which might have made the documentary more effective.

One of THE GOEBBELS EXPERIMENT's failures (for what else does the title mean, if not a mistaken translation?) is that it never selects the statements which would fully illuminate the great problem Joseph Goebbels faced, nor his hypothesis, the logic of his methodology, and his conclusions. In short, the nature and course of the experiment. All of these factors are surely taken up in the Diaries.

The problem Goebbels faced was how to rally a disillusioned, shamed people, who had lost a war, suffered a loss in standard of living, and bring those disgruntled citizens together around their cultural heritage, their government and a single leader, in a purpose satisfactory to the philosophy of the state: in this case, National Socialism. In order to solve his problem, he developed the hypothesis that the Nazi Party, and by extension, the citizens of Germany needed enemies, real or imagined.

In the first years of the regime, there were competing parties, suitable scapegoats for why Germany lost the War, the bureaucracy denounced for incompetence, the interference of democratic forces, poverty, unemployment, depression. All of these "enemies," given a recognizable face, provided the energy on which the Nazi Party ran. By publicizing the coming the Nazi New World Order, the greatness of the German Aryan race, the consolidation of power around The Leader, and the building of a War Machine, Goebbels impressed the World with a stage dressing which lasts to this day.

Goebbels stressed, as is inherent in his most famous quote above, that the Big Lie on which these accomplishments would be based must be credible. He stressed, in broad outline, that the supporting facts and figures should be accurate, wherever possible. His work came in providing details and innuendoes which would shape the Big Lie to his purposes. He did not care if the results were elegant or conventionally logical, only that they be effective, that they got results.


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By the mid-1930's, Goebbels had completed his apparatus, and he was able to refine his methods. A superb orator, second only to Hitler in Germany, he often held forth on cultural and political subjects along a favorite theme: Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer! But in private, he liked to observe that the Fuhrer was dangerous because he actually believed much of what he said. On the other hand, he would point out, with his ferret-like smile, that he, Goebbels, was equally dangerous by right he didn't necessarily believe anything that he said.

Toward the end of the 1930's Goebbels had in some ways become a victim of his own success; many of Germany's enemies had been liquidated. She needed, in the Reichminister's opinion, to redouble her efforts against those enemies remaining -- trade unionists, Communists, gays, physically and mentally challenged individuals -- and to begin a search for new enemies. The coming of the Second World War provided many opportunities on both fronts, and brought Goebbels back into the limelight. Goebbels gained popularity throughout the War because, where other leaders like Himmler, Goering, and even Hitler avoided the populace, he went among ordinary Germans and apparently often told them the truth. But he also provided them new enemies, or old enemies more starkly relevant: the Jews, the remaining trade unionists, the Roma, Seventh Day Adventists, the Poles, the Russians, Communists in general, and of course the Allies. He was quick also, in private, sometimes in public, to express criticism and contempt for the ex-chicken farmer, ex-champagne salesman, ex-dope addict, and other cronies who made up the Nazi inner sanctum. Toward the end of the War, he chimed in with his boss to condemn the General Staff, the political generals, and if not quite fully, for his part, the people themselves.

[As we now know, under Germany's facade of smooth invincibility, aside from the old-line General Staff (hard to displace from its Junker aristocratic roots), Hitler did his best to replace a basically efficient bureaucracy and civil service (troubled by turmoil and lack of funds) with a gathering of idealogues. Distinguished doctors and scientists were driven out, replaced by quacks who might have been drawn from B-Horror Movies; judges who had no experience on the bench; economists and diplomats who came from failed businesses or from the the old spy corps. Goebbels' Propaganda Bureau and Heydrich's SS drew the most talented and, in retrospect, kept the insane Nazi train on its single line track longer than might have been expected. Goebbels remained to the inevitable Gotterdammerung both a behind-the-scenes critic, and a major contributor, to the process.]


This is the stuff from which THE GOEBBELS EXPERIMENT is (or should have been) made.

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The documentary is laced throughout with present day shots of places then, later, and now. And the selections from the Diaries often offer commentary or counterpoints to the visuals. For instance, when Goebbels has a big wedding (at which the Fuhrer was best man) to Magda (a divorcee, four years older than he, with a son), his fawning attitude is almost as if he were taking Hitler for his bride. Soon, however, after he has swiftly impregnated his wife six times, he can look at the resulting children, and say, like a good National Socialist: "Now we are truly happy!"

But when he devotes himself to his work in propaganda, Goebbels' critical sense clicks in, displaying a mixture of shrewdness, romanticism and mystical fervor. We see him entice the great Emil Jannings (THE BLUE ANGEL) back from Hollywood to do Nazi clap-trap. He can lounge in a stylish beach suit and Panama fedora at Cinecitta outside of Rome (where Mussolini would create one of the largest film studios in the World), but mockingly denigrate the Italian product. He visits Egypt, for which he has a fascination, and seems strangely at home standing rapt on the steps of the Great Pyramid that exudes a sense of continuity the top Nazis appeared to feel with the Classical World. Then, he concludes Czech Films are inferior to German ones -- these people are Slavs, after all -- but when Lida Baarova, a 1930's Czech Britney Spears, does cartwheels in a revealing dress for a piece of Nazi cinematic kitsch, Goebbels' critical sense deserts him, and he is all agrope and agape.

Goebbels, in the mold of many diminutive, handicapped men, was not only obsessed with the subject of Power but with that of Sex. Apparently a victim of arrested development and experience in the latter realm, he made up for lost opportunities by womanizing wherever he could.

[Liked by Hitler, a useful hostess for him, Magda Goebbels went to the Fuhrer, in 1938, when her husband's philanderings became too public. Hitler put his Propaganda Minister in his place, humbled him, and ordered that the luscious Lida Baarova, in particular, be banished. Sixty years later, in 2000, Baarova was living in Austria when she died, riddled with alcoholism and drugs, at age 86. She had been 28 when she was forced out of Germany. She had lost her chance at a Hollywood career, and she was rejected in her own Czechoslovakia. She ended up in Italian Films at the end of the War, but her career never recovered.]

Like Baarova, ace propaganda documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, an undoubted technical genius of Cinema, claimed that she was never attracted to Goebbels, nor had she submitted to any sexual overtures. In Riefenstahl's case, facts and most of the testimony would appear to support her. The Propaganda Chief, whom one would expect to prize a film artist of such brilliance, was irritated by her no-nonsense manner, her insistence on complete artistic control, and demands for additional budget.

THE GOEBBELS EXPERIMENT brings up OLYMPIA, Riefenstahl's great two part study of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, but ignores her record of two Nazi Party Congresses, most surprisingly, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, often cited as the most effective political documentary ever made.

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World War II shows a more focused Joseph Goebbels. He is everywhere, visiting factories, damaged apartment complexes; chatting in the street with bomb-shocked citizens; bringing a huge audience of stolid German functionaries to their feet screaming allegiance, as he with biblical cadences for which his oratory was famous, he proclaims the doctrine of Total War. Germany will never yield until Victory is won.

Goebbels still, on occasion, has time to grin with pride on his domestic scene, as when the six children, dressed in Tyrolian gear by Magda, tootle and bang away on a collection of musical instruments for his 46th Birthday.

Looking at what's left of him, rigid beside his family, it is terrible to contemplate, that possibly over a hundred million human beings -- the six million Jews, the civilians, the people of the occupied countries, the soldiers, the political and religious dissidents -- were sacrificed for a collection of fantasy ideas, for imaginary or exaggerated acts of terrorism against the German State.

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As I was checking quotes from the Diaries on the Internet, I came across, several times, the quote I began this review with. In two cases, just below the quote from Goebbels was the citing, "Similar Quote":

"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda." President George W. Bush.

Cheap shot or not by quote site people, the inclusion of that remark by Our President suggests the relevance of THE GOEBBELS EXPERIMENT, and its failure.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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