THERE ARE countless historical videos on Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich, and the circumstances of the death camps, but this is assuredly one of the best. From its beginning moments, which consist of a drawn-out, completely mute flight over a tranquil German village, this film demands your attention, then holds you firmly by the throat for a full two hours. Its power in part is undoubtedly due to the nightmarish subject matter (I couldn't sleep after watching it). Yet, few accounts of World War II Germany are as memorable, which I think is mostly attributable to the images used (photographs, revealing documents, artworks, and rare and often shocking films, especially those made by the Nazis), the artfully insistent pace of the editing, and the persuasive clarity of the narration. It is not a film that is summarized easily, but its underlying premise is that Hitler (who had initially wanted to be an artist, then an architect) was not entirely irrational, but rather that the things he did, while outrageous and revolting, were seemingly logical methods by which he could "art direct" or "design" society. A devotee of Darwinian natural selection, he believed that the natural process by which the weak (or unfit) are self-exterminating was being subverted by permissive social practices, which he also perceived as analogous to the threat of contagious diseases. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a great admirer of the composer Richard Wagner, especially his elaborate operas, which combined different arts (music, theatre, literature and visual art) into a harmonious single event, for which Wagner used the term Gesamtkunstwerk (German for "total work of art"). Surprisingly, this film does not mention that famous word, although it was widely and commonly used by turn-of-the-century architects and designers, among them Henry van de Velde, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffmann, and Frank Lloyd Wright (who called it "organic form"). In those days, when the finest architects were asked to design a building, they were likely to refuse to make only the basic shape or shell. Instead, they tended to design the entire building (much as William Morris did with the interior of his own residence, Red House), to make it consistent by also designing the furniture, the fittings, the dinnerware, and, in some cases, even the ideal clothes to be worn by the building's residents. This was taken one step further in 1899 when Josef Maria Olbrich was invited to design (as a deliberate Gesamtkunstwerk) the setting and most of the houses for an artists' colony in Darmstadt, Germany. This film does not mention that colony, but it does say that, as Chancellor, Hitler began to imagine himself as the set designer, director and leading actor (or perhaps what designers now commonly call the "corporate designer") of a colossal Wagnerian opera called the Third Reich, for which he really did design certain uniforms, flags, standards and buildings. It also claims that, in addition to Hitler, at least half of his leading officials had direct and significant links to the arts. Those artistic involvements were not incidental, the film argues, because the Third Reich was in certain ways an aesthetic movement’s perversely misguided attempt to improve the world for the German Volk, and to reunite art with everyday life.     



All reviews are copyright © by Roy R. Behrens 

The Architecture of Doom. A film by Peter Cohen. 119 mins. Color and BxW (1991). Available from First Run Icarus Films at <>.

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