Hans Jürgen Syberberg
Syberberg and Wagner

Hans Jürgen Syberberg is one of the most controversial chroniclers of Germany cultural history – not least because of the influence of Richard Wagner on the work of this German film-maker and artist.

Hans Jürgen Syberberg and Richard Wagner - both names represent an artistic tradition from which the aesthetic and political discourse of the New German Film of the 1970s around Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassinder sought to distance itself.

The starting point of these efforts was 1945 – when, because of Adolf Hitler’s usurpation of Wagner’s art, its value fell “below zero on the cultural stock exchange”, as the literary scholar Hans Meyer put it. Syberberg and the directors of the New German Film attempted each in their own way, to reappraise and come to terms with the Nazi past.

A “German Trilogy”

While during the critical phase of the Red Army Faction’s activities the New German Film focused on depicting the reality of the German Federal Republic after 1945, that symbolic year represented in Syberberg’s treatment of German history less a historical break than a cultural loss. In his essay Die Kunst als Rettung aus der deutschen Misere (1978) (i.e., Art as the Rescue from the German Misery) he wrote: “Germany was spiritually disinherited and dispossessed. [...] the accursed main strand of its being was given over to the Nazis without a struggle and placed under the anathema of fascism”. Syberberg has sought to reclaim this vacancy with his so-called “German Trilogy”, consisting of Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (1972) (Ludwig – Requiem for a Virgin King), Karl May (1974) and Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland (1977) (Hitler, a Film from Germany), along with the five-hour interview portrait Winifred Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried 1914–1975 (1975) (Winifred Wagner and the History of Wahnfried House, 1914-1975): reclaim it, that is, as heir of a romantic, German cultural tradition, which he saw as having been brought into discredit because of the Nazi seizure of power and Hitler’s blatant enthusiasm for the themes of Wagner’s art.

The world as a work of art

German criticism of the 1970s saw Syberberg’s ideas as a rejection of modernity. The fascination with Wagner is a recurring theme of Syberberg’s trilogy, although the composer appears only indirectly in the films – for example, as a link between the fairy-tale king Ludwig and Hitler, who were both among the sponsors of Wahnfried House, or in the use of Wagner’s music in Karl May.
Syberberg’s concept of interpreting these figures of German history as modern myths finds its tacit model in Wagner’s conceit of having turned the Nordic Nibelung saga into the cradle of German culture.

Against Wagners principle of transforming the world into a work of art, which underlay his proclivity to kitsch and formal hyperbole, Syberberg’s trilogy sets a dense web of quotations consisting of images, texts, music and historical events. Syberberg plays with the mythic system of signs that arose round the false cult of Wagner so as to cleanse Wagner’s name of its misuse by the Nazis. “Hitler can be beaten only with Richard Wagner”, he has said of Hitler, A Film from Germany. Abroad, Syberberg has been celebrated for his work. Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française has called him a “Murnau of contemporary film”, and the left-wing daily Libération wrote appreciatively of Karl May: “German Romanticism – freed from Nazism”. Yet Hitler, A Film from Germany was to lead to German film criticism’s final break with Syberberg.

The evil spirit of Nazism

In the concluding film, Syberberg raised Wagner’s artistic conception of a total work of art, his fascination for myths, to the leitmotif of the trilogy. With a playing time of seven hours, Hitler was not only more time-consuming than any stage production; the many disparate stylistic devices with which Syberberg had experimented in the first two parts also came to their culmination in his magnum opus. As in a kaleidoscope, fragments from recited texts, puppet theatre, documentary, feature and music films, original speeches and radio broadcasts, retroprojections and superimpositions fall together into a surreal, nightmarish landscape, defying all rational montage. When the actor Heinz Schubert, wearing an Adolf Hitler mask, rises from the grave of Richard Wagner, the intention of Syberberg’s extravagant production becomes clear. The evil spirit of National Socialism must be exorcized from the lost paradise of Wagner’s Bayreuth.

Creative irrationalism

Syberberg found this sprawling creative will of dream webs, private mythologies and phantasmagorias in Ludwig II, Karl May, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and indeed Richard Wagner. He has often called the disposition “creative irrationalism”. Adolf Hitler was the defiler of this tradition; Syberberg sees himself as a sort of rectifier. He wants to rescue the idea of a “national identity”, which in his view Wagner’s work champions, from the vilification poured upon a false prophet. His film of Parsifal (1982), with which the exploration of Wagnerianism reaches its preliminary climax, continues the method of the Hitler demolition. Syberberg again embraces all available media and arts so as to open opera to cinema – and vice versa.

Total work of art and lost paradise

Syberberg, who gained his first cinematic experience filming rehearsals at Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, finds neither theatre nor cinema an artistically fulfilling form. His Germany films were a continual refinement of Wagner’s idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art: a combination of “found objects into some third thing, optical-acoustic, and perhaps olfactory, tactile, gustatory”, as he remarked in his book on the Parsifal film. Perhaps it is only logical that Syberberg first had to leave the arts behind in order to create his own personal Gesamtkunstwerk. Today he lives at an estate in the Mecklenburg village of Nossendorf, which he is gradually restoring. The progress of the work can be followed daily on webcams at his website, where there are also diary entries and picture galleries. The estate belonged to his parents before the war; after the fall of the Berlin Wall he won it back. Syberberg has succeeded in reclaiming at least this lost paradise.