Sonata For Hitler was a collection of clips from German Nazi-era newsreels edited together by Aleksandr Sokurov over a soundtrack of Bach played on a flute. So we had 10 minutes of Hitler orating, some shots of tanks, some shots of everyday life, a shot of a hanged man etc. The footage was not contextualised in any way: no commentary or explanation was provided. It seems that Sokurov often uses this approach in his documentaries but it is hard to see why unless the footage selected actually conveys some kind of meaning. Otherwise it is merely pointless and vacuous – fodder for the kind of critic who delights in seeing patterns and meanings where there is probably only random selection.
Moloch used a similar approach but over a span of 107 minutes. My main comment on the film is to wonder whether Sokurov could not afford lights – the entire film looked as if it had been shot in a dimly-lit cellar, even when the filming seems to have been done outdoors in the daytime. Was it a deliberate choice to achieve this dim, murky effect; was it technical incompetence; or was it due to lack of money for lights? The film starts with an apparently naked woman, who appears to be all alone in a hilltop lodge, stepping out onto her balcony and striking poses. She is at or above cloud-level. There are sounds of distant thunder, or it might perhaps be gunfire. She notices that someone is watching her through binoculars so she waves at him. Back inside, she goes into what seems to be a corporate board-room with a large table. She leafs casually through an album of water-colours of ruined buildings. Back in her bedroom, she empties out her handbag and we see a powder compact with a swastika engraved on its lid. And then some other people arrive so she goes downstairs to meet them. We hear dialogue for the first time. Needless to say, there was no title card to explain where and when this scene was set because that would go against Sokurov’s creed of not providing relevant information to understand what he is presenting. It emerges that Hitler, Mr and Mrs Goebbels and Martin Bormann have arrived with their entourage of SS people. Presumably this is Berchtesgaden and the “naked” woman was Eva Braun. This is just lazy film-making.
The staff line up to welcome Hitler and he asks them paternalistic questions before becoming queasy at the sight or smell of a litter of puppies. The Goebbels joke with Eva at the expense of Bormann, claiming that he smells of mustard gas. Bormann is the butt of all the “jokes”. He is clumsy, oafish and stupid. He topples backwards in an armchair at one point. His main function is to tell his aide when to start and when to stop recording the Führer’s conversations. Hitler himself oscillates between acting like a self-centred child and delivering insane rants. At mealtimes, he eats his vegetarian meal while haranguing the rest of the company about “corpse tea” – his name for food made from disgusting meat. He rants about how all Finns are crazy and why Czechs grow vertical facial hair. He chases Eva around the table at one point in some kind of reversion to childhood. A newsreel is projected showing the success of the German advance along the Don and then showing Furtwängler conducting (unacknowledged of course, given Sokurov’s aversion to providing useful information – or maybe he simply did not know who Furtwängler was)… at which Hitler stands up and starts to conduct. After it finishes, he denounces the newsreel and decides to abolish films. Eva tells him that, if he feels that way, he should send the camera crew to Auschwitz. He repeats the place name slowly, obviously not aware if it is a real place or just a made-up name. It is a key moment in the film, crystallising just how crass and devoid of insight it is. This is not the banality of evil that we are seeing. What is gained by depicting these people as idiots?
If this account gives the impression that it is a knock-about farce, nothing could be further from the truth. It is played at a funereal pace. So not only is it crass, it is actually crushes the spirit as you watch it.