Biographical pictures and historical dramas can often go the way of cinematic hagiography, particularly when the subjects are involved in the project’s development. In one of the most extreme examples of such a scenario, Albert Speer, aka “Hitler’s architect,” had dreams of making his life story, consisting of delusional self-mythologizing as a “good Nazi,” into a Hollywood feature backed by Paramount Pictures. As Nazi Germany’s Minister of Armaments and War Production and close friend to the Führer, Speer oversaw 12 million slave laborers, 2.5 million of whom died, yet he evaded a death sentence during the Nuremberg Trials and received just 20 years in prison. While his proposed film was never made, the new documentary Speer Goes to Hollywood explores the process and proves more successful as a look into denial of a horrific reality than the title’s conceit of a Nazi attempting to break into the studio system.

Directed by Vanessa Lapa, the documentary consists primarily of archival materials, featuring dramatized audio re-enactments from the 40 hours of tapes featuring Speer in conversation with screenwriter Andrew Birkin––a protégé of Stanley Kubrick––as well as footage from the Nuremberg Trials, German news reports, Speer’s many post-prison press appearances to promote his hit books, and even a conversation with Carol Reed describing to Birkin his hesitancy with Speer’s “whitewashed” legacy. In one of the most effective sequences, Lapa also uses footage from F. W. Murnau’s 1926 German Expressionist masterpiece Faust featuring the demon Mephisto to tell the story of how Speer become a close confidante to Hitler.

As Speer describes, he was ordered to come up with the aesthetic design of Hitler’s rallies where the lighting, collaborating with a designer for the opera, “were as important as the speech,” so Hitler could be seen from a very far distance. As their work continued, he was carrying out Hitler’s own dreams of being an architect to fruition, desiring Berlin to be the capital of the world with buildings of grandeur. Charting a chronological timeline, the documentary soon shifts to the horrors of Hitler’s grand plan and presents a man who conveniently had very little-to-no memory of the Holocaust. With chilling footage from the Nuremberg Trials we see the stone-faced Nazis looking on, Speer among them, diverting blame because they mostly handled administrative work and claiming the evidence of mass murder and concentration camp atrocities are “exaggerated statements.”

At first glance one wonders why Birkin didn’t confront Speer even further over their many hours of discussion, but the screenwriter himself has responded to Lapa’s filmmaking choice to dramatize the audio tapes, claiming she has massaged a narrative to fit the story of the film. While this continues a discussion of documentary ethics, following Morgan Neville’s Anthony Bourdain documentary earlier this year, the absence of any contemporary dissection of Speer’s mind or motives—whether from the director or various talking heads—is curious. It makes sense why Lapa would want to stick to the appearance of archival materials for more aesthetic cohesiveness, but in already bending the film’s formal conceit with present-day audio dramatization, it calls into question why an expanded modern perspective wasn’t considered. Though the WWII history is compelling, Speer Goes to Hollywood could have been aided by more clarity and focus on the subject’s aims of rehabilitating his image through writing, public appearances, and dreams of movie-making after his prison sentence. Nonetheless, in an age where the truth can be perversely twisted and instantly accepted as fact by a mass audience, Speer’s elusion of the horrific history he had a hand in is formidable evidence of how the past can indeed repeat itself.

Towards the film’s end, Birkin responds to Speer evading a death sentence, proclaiming “I’m delighted that you weren’t [hanged], or we wouldn’t have a film.” Without having access to the tapes, it’s unclear if this dramatization is verbatim, but it does bring up a fascinating question of an artist’s affability with their subjects, particularly those who have taken part in true evil. While Speer Goes to Hollywood effectively shows the delusions of Speer’s mythologization, one wishes it didn’t skirt around more complicated questions of cordiality in the filmmaking process when dealing with such monstrous history.

Speer Goes to Hollywood opens on October 29 at Film Forum and will expand.

Grade: B-

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