“Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” — Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), The Big Lebowski
Few events of the 20th century had as dire an impact on the world as the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party — better known as the Nazis — in Germany, their slaughter of millions of Jews, and the global conflict of World War II. Its chief architect, to be sure, was Adolph Hitler, who turned his power-to-the-workers socialism and virulent anti-Semitism into rallying cries for the Germans, rising to power in the 1930s and eventually attempting to conquer all of Europe. While he had many infamous lieutenants, such as Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, who made his political and philosophical ideals a reality, no one was more responsible for the wholesale acceptance of Hitler’s ideas than Joseph Goebbels.
Goebbels held a Ph.D in Literature and Philosophy, and spent his early career as a journalist. He joined the Nazi Party in the ’20s before Hitler became its sole leader. He initially aligned himself against Hitler, but later became one of his most devoted followers. When the Nazis rose to power, Goebbels became the minister of propaganda, regulating all forms of media and artistic expression. He met daily with Hitler and became the mouthpiece of the party line. When Hitler committed suicide, Goebbels succeeded him as Chancellor — a post in which he served for a single day, before following Der Führer’s suit and killing himself, but not before killing his wife and six children.
You can read any of that in any history textbook; what, then, sets apart The Goebbels Experiment? The title refers to his grandiose attempts to control all the information disseminated to the German people, particularly how he embraced and extended the concept of the “Big Lie” — setting up a concept, as true or otherwise it may be, that is so preposterously large that no one could possibly doubt its veracity. But the title itself is somewhat misleading. The Goebbels Experiment is unique, at least among documentaries that this reviewer has viewed, in that it allows Goebbels to speak for himself. He kept journals of his thoughts nearly all his life, and much of that corpus has remained intact. The sole narration, presented by Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), is excerpts from Goebbels’s diaries. The accompanying footage is mainly archival film and newsreels, with some modern-day video of the locations from Goebbels’s life. It tracks his life — in his own words, mind you — from his early days as a struggling writer to his final words as the Third Reich was crumbling around him. It’s interesting in an academic sense — you see him as the manic depressive he was, and the personal thoughts behind the public oratory (which, as the consummate politician, are often contradictory). But the problem is the nature of the material itself. Taking such a major historical figure, in particular because of his involvement in such infamous acts, and casting him strictly in his own terms is too myopic to make a truly engaging documentary. There’s no context, no outside opinion, no contradiction, no corroboration. It’s simply one man’s thoughts…about himself. The viewpoint makes The Goebbels Experiment distinctive, but not particularly engaging.
The workmanlike DVD from First Run Features presents The Goebbels Experiment in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film almost solely consists of grainy, scratchy archival footage that no one would expect to be cleaned up, rendering any discussion of the video quality moot. Sound is serviceable stereo. Extra feature are mainly text-based, composed of background on the film, biographies of the filmmakers, and ads for other First Run films of similar topics, with a couple trailers thrown in for good measure.
Billions of souls have shuffled on and off this mortal coil, but few — thousands, perhaps even hundreds — have left enough of an impression that the generations to come recall their deeds, or even their names. As time passes on and those with first hand knowledge of the person become part of history themselves, they become specters — pictures, words, without personality or voice, more the sum of their mark on the world than their true selves. It’s only been within the last century or so that the moving picture has given more dimensionality to the disembodied past, and there’s something truly fascinating about seeing those long gone as they were. In that sense, The Goebbels Experiment is worth watching as the introspection of a historical figure, but it’s a one-sided, narrow-minded look at history.