Style and Substance

Steven Erickson on Hans-Jürgen Syberberg DVDs

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King, 1972, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 140 minutes.

THE NEW GERMAN CINEMA that blossomed in the 1970s is often reduced to three directors—Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—for US consumption. The distribution company Facets has slowly been working to counteract this trend: Soon to come is a stream of Alexander Kluge DVDs; for now, Facets has completed its release of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s trilogy of films on the roots of German pathology, following Hitler, a Film from Germany (1977) with Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) and Karl May (1974).

Ludwig blends the influences of Wagner—who is repeatedly name-dropped by the characters—and Brecht with those of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith. It’s easy to imagine eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig I (played here by Fassbinder regular Harry Baer) holding court in the Chelsea Hotel. The film presents a series of colorful tableaux with very little camera movement. The stylized performances make for an unusual type of narrative film, but it nevertheless tells a story, and one less drawn toward elaborate metaphors than its successors. (Though May and Hitler both get cameos.) Syberberg here seems less sure-footed than he is in his later work, but the mix of cinematic and theatrical influences, reflected both in visual style and in acting, draws one in nevertheless.

Karl May is the most conventional of Syberberg’s films. Until its final half hour, it reads as a naturalistic biopic of the eponymous author (played by Helmut Käutner). Stylistically, it’s a step forward from Ludwig’s minimal cinematography; Syberberg seems to have suddenly become aware of the expressive potential of camera movement. (He’s also fond of wipes.) May stands in for Germany’s tormented relationship with the rest of the world: He claimed to be a world traveler, with firsthand knowledge of Native American customs, but never left his homeland and wrote many of his books in prison. It’s the subtlest film of the trilogy, but one still powered by an overwhelming sense of paranoia and anxiety.

Hitler, Ludwig, and Karl May are all available through Facets. For more details, click here.