Seven years ago, director Vanessa Lapa arrived in New York for a screening of her documentary “The Decent One.” The film was based on diaries, letters, photographs and other materials taken from the family home of Heinreich Himmler, and provided a glimpse into the private life of the man who headed the SS and managed the mass murder of millions of Jews with shocking efficiency.
After the screening, a man gave her his business card and asked if they could meet the next morning. He had an idea for a film, he explained, and he wanted her to direct it. Just before they parted, he asked: “Among the materials you collected these past few years, did you find any correspondence between Himmler and Albert Speer?”
Lapa told the man, Stanley Cohen, that she wouldn’t be able to meet him the next morning, but promised to be in touch soon.
She didn’t keep that promise. After eight years wading through the consciousness of one of the most brutal arch-murderers in history, the idea of making another film based on that same horrific Nazi swamp wasn’t intriguing and she didn’t feel able to take on another challenge like that.
“Every two weeks he wrote me an email, and I didn’t answer,” she recalls now. “I didn’t want to hear about it. I had a gut feeling that what he would say would be the kind of thing to which I wouldn’t be able to say no. But I didn’t want any more Nazis in my life.”
She managed to evade the Nazis for nearly a year, but then Tomer Eliav – her sound designer on “The Decent One” – decided that enough was enough: Toward the end of a joint trip to New York, he told Lapa that en route to the airport they were stopping for a 45-minute meeting with Cohen. Lapa went along and her gloomy prediction came true: it was indeed an offer she couldn’t refuse.
Cohen told her that in the early 1970s, he had bought the film rights to Albert Speer’s memoir “Inside the Third Reich.” Speer was the Nazi regime’s chief buildings architect, its minister of armaments and war production, and a good friend of Adolf Hitler. Cohen also said that Hollywood was excited by the idea, and that a major studio at the time had agreed to make the film.
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“He told me that Paramount was excited and had assigned the writing of the script to a young screenwriter, Andrew Birkin, who was a protégé of Stanley Kubrick’s,” Lapa recounts. “Stanley [Cohen] met with Speer himself once or twice and then sent Andrew to him, and for a few months the two of them worked on the script,” she adds.
Cohen told her this was a story that had to be told. “He said he had always wanted it to be a documentary and not a work of fiction, and asked me to meet the screenwriter. So after a few months I wrote to Andrew, sent him my previous film, and in the end he agreed to meet me.
'It was clear to me that these recordings had to be made public, so that people would know this man and what he did'
“He told me he had recorded his conversations with Speer [who would die in 1981]. While I was sitting in his home, he took out a few of the recordings – which he hadn’t listened to for 45 years – and we listened to them together. The minute I heard the conversations, which were in English, I couldn’t say no to this film.”
Fast-forward four years and the resultant documentary, “Speer Goes to Hollywood,” received its world premiere at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, right before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Only now is it getting its Israeli premiere, at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Friday.
As with “The Decent One,” “Speer Goes to Hollywood” makes for fascinating viewing. More than 75 years have passed since the collapse of the Third Reich, but a strong urge remains to try to understand how this well-oiled death machine was created, who the were people who operated it, and what caused seemingly decent people to commit crimes against humanity.
Recordings and personal documents of the type that fell into Lapa’s hands not once but twice make it possible to peek into the souls of the chiefs of the Nazi operation, and hope to find new insights into the banality – or rather, the lack of banality – of evil.
Lapa’s new film, nominated for the best documentary prize at Israel’s Ophir Awards and made with the support of Yes Docu, is gripping primarily because she chose not to suffice with the rare recordings she had obtained, but also dove into many archives in various countries as well as unearthing footage from the Nuremberg trials.
The combination of the public trials on the one hand, and the private conversations on the other, succeed in exposing the image Speer had tried to sell to the world. He dissembled before the Nuremberg judges, minimized his involvement with the Nazi elite, pretended to know almost nothing about the extermination mechanism and forced labor, and thus managed to evade the death penalty imposed on most of his fellow war criminals.
It was exactly this image Speer had sought to enhance in his memoir, which he wrote during his 20 years in prison and which became an instant best-seller upon its release in 1969. He apparently hoped that a Hollywood movie based on the book would help solidify his image as “the good Nazi” – the one who liked to plan buildings, lead the construction of magnificent structures and efficiently arm the Reich’s army, and that this had nothing to do with what happened in the death camps or right under his nose in the huge factories that used forced labor in slave-like conditions (which included people being tortured to death).
However, the biopic was never made and Speer apparently never foresaw that his conversations with Birkin – during which he made grossly antisemitic remarks and admitted, among other things, that he had visited death camps, knew that “terrible things’ were happening there, and agreed to have his forced laborers tortured to death – would ever be revealed.
He was determined to hide all this, and did a fairly good job of doing so at Nuremberg and in his memoir. But in “Speer Goes to Hollywood,” the truth finally emerges from the audiotapes of his conversations with Birkin and smashes the friendly Nazi persona he had worked so hard to create.
Lapa, 46, was born in Belgium and made aliyah on her own at age 19. She studied Middle Eastern studies and Arabic at Tel Aviv University and began working as a researcher on Channel 1 news programs. When Channel 10 was launched in 2002, she worked as a reporter and researcher on the foreign desk. At some point, she began to feel frustrated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was taking up most of the broadcast while foreign and culture news was being pushed to the margins, and she began studying filmmaking with the aim of producing “content with depth.”
Her entry into the documentary field was a tough one because her first film, “Olmert – Concealed Documentary,” dealt with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Lapa had wanted to use him as a mirror to reflect Israeli society as the state reached its 70th anniversary, portraying a premier who had come from the right and changed his positions to the point where he was prepared to negotiate with the Palestinians and even discuss the future of Jerusalem.
But a week before it was supposed to air on Keshet in May 2008, the Morris Talansky “cash envelopes” scandal involving Olmert came to light. Lapa hastened to conduct another interview with Olmert to update the film, but it didn’t help. “Keshet didn’t want to broadcast it for political reasons, because suddenly it would look like it was mollycoddling a prime minister about to be charged with crimes,” she recounts. The documentary was shelved and Lapa had to go to war with the channel’s bosses; it was several months before Keshet relented and agreed to air the film.
The following year, though, the god of documentary luck changed its mind and came down on Lapa’s side – bringing Himmler’s private diaries and letters, and those of his family, to her attention.
She spent several years making “The Decent One,” which premiered at 2014’s Berlin Film Festival. It was named best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival and was screened at dozens of other festivals worldwide. This glimpse into Himmler’s idyllic home life as he oversaw the Holocaust was done with great skill and generated a lot of international interest.
Then, as noted, Lapa’s desire to leave the Nazis behind fell apart. After Birkin gave her the Speer tapes and sound designer Eliav removed the background noise from them – there were 40 hours of recordings – she sat and listened to the material.
“It gave me the chills,” she recalls. “There are whole sentences that I got stuck on for hours, and afterward I couldn’t sleep because of them. Right at the beginning, even before I thought about how I would tell this story, it was clear to me that these recordings had to be made public, so that people would know this man and what he did – because in his memoir, Speer doesn’t mention lots of things. He doesn’t mention the crematoria or the gas chambers even once, for example.”
If things had gone differently and certain people in Hollywood hadn’t warned that the Speer biopic was problematic and whitewashed the horrible things he had been a part of, Paramount might have made the film in the ’70s. It would have been a disaster if that had happened, Lapa says.
“When I listened to the recordings, I understood how important it was to tell the story of the film that wasn’t made,” she explains. “After all, a lot more people see a Hollywood movie than read a history book. Take ‘Schindler’s List,’ for instance. Even if that’s not the kind of cinema I like, [Steven] Spielberg’s genius was that he succeeded in bringing the topic of World War II and the Holocaust to half of humanity, because it was a well-done Hollywood pic. So if your children had seen a Hollywood film based on Speer’s book, they’d think what he was saying was the truth.”
“Speer Goes to Hollywood” smashes the version of reality Speer was trying to peddle to the world. It does so with great sophistication, by contrasting his testimony at the Nuremberg trials with the truth that emerges from his private conversations with Birkin.
Because these are audio recordings, the film complements them with an incredible amount of unique archival footage, unearthed by researchers in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, France and Hungary. Hitler’s body, for instance, is seen lying on the street – one of the 66 million deaths caused by the war he had started.
For the scenes at Nuremberg, the production team had to digitally capture a huge amount of material originally shot on film, which the director says she plans to donate soon to Yad Vashem.
Also about the present
For Lapa, “Speer Goes to Hollywood” is not just a film about the past. The Nazi architect’s attempts to rewrite history, to alter the facts and reshape the truth according to what was most comfortable for him, reminded her of what has increasingly been happening in recent years.
“The news shows, fake news, social media – the atmosphere today is one of ‘The facts aren’t important, let’s change them.’ So I think that what you hear Speer say in the film is very relevant to today,” she notes. “In his case, as well as today, you see how easy it is for certain people to manipulate things and use the media – whether it’s television, social media or Hollywood – to tell their lies and distort history.”
She continues: “Speer was a huge manipulator who fooled everyone, including the judges at Nuremberg. And when I followed [Donald] Trump’s campaign, I often saw a resemblance to Speer – a megalomaniac who sells lies and sweeps millions along with him. There are so many parallels between then and now that it’s obvious history is repeating itself and that the same type of people are getting into power. So the message I hope to convey with this film is that we shouldn’t believe everything we’re told, and that before we go out to vote, let’s take a moment to think about whom we’re voting for and what the implications could be.”
Among the archival footage, there are hard-to-watch scenes of forced laborers, emaciated prisoners in the camps, dead bodies, and so on. The use of such material always raises the question of where you draw the line. Did you struggle with that?
“You’re always weighing things like that, but I will definitely continue to take advantage of any opportunity I have to scan every cylinder of archival material, since the film could disintegrate and then the material would be lost. The choice of shots that went into the film was made very carefully – and, believe me, the really hard shots did not get into the film.
“In the last few years, there’s been a pornography of bereavement and the Holocaust. I believe that if the shot’s only purpose is to shock, then it doesn’t belong there. But if it has another purpose, including it in the film can be justified.
“In this film, the decision to include tough shots was made in order to provide a contrast with the figure of Speer, with the German star whom everyone loves. For example, shots of people running barefoot on rocks and train tracks were put in to show that most of his work was based on slavery. And footage of dead Germans appears after he says how much he cares about the German people, to show what happened to these people because of him. At a certain point, Speer knew the war was lost, but he still managed to drag it out for another two years – two years in which a huge number of Germans, his own people, were killed. So in a case like this, even if the material is bit pornographic, it’s there for a very specific reason.
“There’s a section of the recordings that didn’t get into the film, where Andrew is telling Speer about Kubrick, and says that he spoke with him the night before and that he recorded the conversation,” Lapa recounts. “I begged him to turn the house upside down to find this tape – just like he found the tapes of his conversations with Carol Reed [the British film director who warned Birkin that his script supported Speer’s lies] – but he couldn’t find it.
“The film’s producers and managers at Paramount wanted Kubrick to direct the film, but Kubrick didn’t want to do it. He told them, ‘As long as Speer is presented this way in the script, I’m not directing the film.’ And he was right: Sending a 25-year-old [Birkin] to talk with a Nazi who came out of Nuremberg and 20 years in prison – what were they thinking? What could have come out of it? Costa-Gavras was also offered a chance to direct the film, and he turned it down too.”
Even today, people are still fascinated by the top Nazi officials, perhaps with the idea that understanding them better will help answer the question of how such atrocities could have happened. After movies about Himmler and now Speer, do you feel you have a better understanding of it now?
“I feel that I understand it even less – and am much more horrified. While working on this film, the whole time I was hoping to find something intellectual with Speer, some intellectual challenge, some ideology that even if I didn’t agree with it, I would still be able to understand that there was something to it. But no. The horrifying thing was to discover just how empty it is, less than mediocre.
“For example, he talks about building everything bigger, but his explanation for it is dripping with megalomania, with hatred, with a devaluing of human life. I expected and hoped to find something smart that would let me say, ‘OK, I don’t agree, but there is something to this.’ And if there were something like that, it would be easier to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. But this mediocrity attracts people – and there are so many like this today. Like Trump, for one, who attracted so many people. Forget about his political views for a moment. First of all, this is somebody who thinks of no one but himself.”
You didn’t want to make another film about Nazis, but you plunged into it anyway. What was your state of mind like after 13 years of intense focus on them?
“If before [doing the film on] Himmler, I wasn’t optimistic about humanity, and a little less so afterward, now I have hardly any hope at all. It affected me badly. I understood that the human race is no great shakes. And I’m deeply worried. I never felt a physical need to be pregnant, but I always wanted to adopt a child or two. After these years, I know for sure that I won’t bring children into this awful world. Maybe I’ll adopt, but that would also require me to get a bit stronger beforehand – because I’m not sure my emotional state at the moment is right for that. We live in a very difficult world, and humanity is on the decline. These years definitely reduced my hope and faith in people.”