Documentary exposes lies from ‘the good Nazi’
‘Speer Goes to Hollywood’ screens Monday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings
What: ‘Speer Goes to Hollywood’ at Aspen Film Academy Screenings
Where: Isis Theatre
When: Monday, Dec. 13, noon
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
A collaboration between convicted Nazi war criminal Albert Speer and Paramount Pictures to make a studio biopic about his life fizzled 50 years ago. But revelatory audio tapes from development of that misguided project are now fuel for the documentary “Speer Goes to Hollywood,” which seeks to correct the historical record and undo Speer’s reputation as “the good Nazi.”
“To me it’s not a film about the Holocaust,” director and co-writer Vanessa Lapa said this week in a video interview from Tel Aviv. “The questions in the film are extremely relevant today, whether it’s ‘fake news’ or the lust for power.”
Speer was Hitler’s architect and cabinet member who served as the Nazi Minister of Armaments and War Production in World War II and oversaw some 14 million slave laborers to complete his designs.
At Nuremberg he denied knowledge of concentration camps and Speer was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, while his peers — and even one of his subordinates — were sentenced to death.
After release from prison, he wrote the 1969 bestseller “Inside the Third Reich,” became a frequent guest on television, eager to do interviews and to burnish the “good Nazi” lie.
During that period he worked with Paramount Pictures to develop a Hollywood biopic about himself. The project fizzled, but not before Speer spent three months in Heidelberg in winter 1971 with screenwriter Andrew Birkin, a protégé of Stanley Kubrick who had worked on “2001: A Space Odyssey” and at the time was a Hollywood name on the rise.
Birkin recorded everything, amounting to about 37 hours of audio tape of he and Speer breaking down Speer’s story for the screen, Speer spinning his own version of history, where he was unaware of atrocities and, as he puts it at one point, was just “going to work” as an architect.
The tapes (which were re-recorded by actors for the film) drive nearly every moment of “Speer Goes to Hollywood,” which won the Best Documentary prize at the Israeli Academy Awards and which screens Monday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screening. They offer a remarkable document of Speer’s self-delusion and determination to whitewash history.
The audio narrates nearly the whole film (there is also a substantial section of film from Speer’s trial at Nuremberg). But the filmmaking feat here is in Lapa’s adroit visual storytelling.
For much of the film, Speer is lying about his involvement and his use of slave labor. To illustrate those lies, Lapa pairs Speer’s narration with visuals of him with Hitler and top Nazi brass, even with Hitler at his vacation home in the Alps, clearly in the inner circle of fascists. In a few select places, Lapa shows graphic evidence of the atrocities in concentration camps as Speer is denying knowledge of them.
She shows, for instance, the brick factory using slave labor from concentration camps to make the materials for Speer’s buildings, counterbalancing his false statements and his charismatic and convincing self-promotion.
“I think it was very important, especially with a character like Albert Speer, where one might be inclined to believe him,” she said.
During the four-year-long process of making “Speer Goes to Hollywood,” Lapa pulled visuals from 47 archival sources.
Lapa said she is convinced that film footage of Speer inside concentration camps will emerge sometime in the future, though there is none in her film.
She noted parallels between Speer and people in positions of power today who have joined far-right movements out of simple self-interest. Speer, for instance, wanted to be an important architect, the film shows. The chance to design buildings and cityscapes for what Hitler was selling as a millennia-long empire was a way to do that, so Speer went along.
“I don’t think he had a real deep fascist ideology,” Lapa concluded.
This massive film project came to Lapa quite by chance. After a New York screening of her previous film “The Decent One” — a documentary about Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler — she met a man who asked to meet with vague promises of material for a follow-up. Months passed as Lapa put him off.
“I had a feeling that he would tell me a story I could not say no to,” Lapa recalled.
After eight months, she relented and met the man, a lawyer named Stanley Cohen, who told Lapa about the abandoned 1971 movie project that Speer had developed with Paramount.
That led Lapa to Birkin’s home in Wales in February 2016. There, Birkin — whose screenwriting credits include “The Name of the Rose” — revealed he had those dozens of hours of tapes of he and Speer developing the script. As soon as he pressed play, Lapa knew she had to make the film, which premiered in February 2020 in Berlin but then was shelved for the pandemic.
Birkin is not pleased with the film and has publicly criticized it and how it portrays him, calling it a “pseudo-documentary.”
“He’s angry,” Lapa explained. “He feels that he is not coming out good, which I don’t agree with.”