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I Survived (and Thrived) Watching Half of the Seven Hour Hitler Movie

Scenes from a rare screening of the first half of the seven-hour experimental 1977 film, "Hitler, a Film from Germany."

A still from the movie "Hitler, a Film From Germany"

A still from the movie “Hitler, a Film from Germany” (Lincoln Center)

The first time "Hitler, a Film from Germany" screened on 35mm at Film at Lincoln Center, back in January, tickets for the 442-minute movie sold out. "The hottest ticket in New York is a seven-hour-plus movie about Adolf Hitler," the New York Times raved about the screening, a rarity since its release in 1977.

This was the vote of confidence that inspired Film at Lincoln Center to bring it back for an encore screening, spread over two nights—Parts 1 and 2 on Wednesday and Parts 3 and 4 on Thursday. Outside of the theater on Wednesday night, as I was picking up my ticket, a woman who appeared to be in her 70s tried to sell a pair of tickets before the show began, but couldn't find anyone to buy them off of her. "I thought it was going to be sold out, so I snapped them up, but it's not," she told me. She'd almost offloaded them on a pair of college students, but they didn't have cash. "They wanted to Venmo me," she said, amused. "I got the wrong generation!" Eventually, she gave up and headed into the theater.

From a glance around the room, I'd guess the median audience age for "Hitler, a Film from Germany" was somewhere around the ticket-hawker's—60s or 70s, and the crowd definitely skewed male. Patrons sat in rows of friends or with their spouses, and talked before—and a little bit during—the first two parts, or 227 minutes, of the movie screening on Wednesday night. Before the movie started, I talked to Roman D'Ambrosio, a theater worker who told me it was actually his second time seeing "Hitler"—his first watch was in the midst of COVID quarantine, in one-hour increments on YouTube after hearing about it from Susan Sontag's rhapsodic 1980 review of the movie in the New York Review of Books.

"I was really attracted to the theatricality of the film," D'Ambrosio told me. "So part of why I want to watch it again is to see if there are any theater techniques I can use in my own work." He said his favorite part of the film, the first time he watched it, wasn't going to come until close to its finale: a giant monologue performed to a puppet of Hitler, in which the speaker, who is Bavarian, says that the hypernationalism that characterized Hitler's rule over Nazi Germany ruined any genuine pride or patriotism Bavarians could possibly feel about their country, forever tinging the emotion with guilt. "That shame about being on the wrong side of history really resonated with me, especially during that time," D'Ambrosio said, adding that he was excited, he said, to experience this piece of "endurance cinema" again—this time, on the big screen.

And he was in great company. I didn't know there was a book, written by the film's writer and director, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, with the same title as the movie, but multiple people in the audience had brought it and were reading it—the man next to me even had a PDF of it open on his laptop, which he scrolled through during intermission. Here was a room full of people who'd looked at their calendars and decided—with gusto!—that there was room to spend four hours on a weeknight watching an abrasive, phantasmagoric, experimental, 47-year-old capital-F Foreign Film about Adolf Hitler and the existential toll his reign of terror wrought on the German people and humanity in general, as told through a series of non-linear, non-narrative scenes that involve (and I checked my notes for this): schlocky greenscreens from inside the New Reich Chancellery, cartoonishly swollen plastic penises, full frontal female nudity, non-stop monologuing (I can't remember any moments, in the first two parts of the movie, where two people on screen spoke to each other), mannequins covered in charred and smoking meat, Hitler as Charlie Chaplin, Hitler as Napoleon, a circus motif, blow-up dolls, a concentration camp snow globe, and zombie Nazi puppets, all interwoven with audio from speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, audio from book burnings, archival images of Hitler and Nazi Germany, plus narration from Syberberg. 

Although I consider myself a movie lover, I have to confess: This movie kicked my ass and I did not make it to the second showing, but I have nothing but admiration for the people who did.

For me, Part 1 of the movie, which started at 6:30 p.m., was a relative breeze. Like D'Ambrosio said, it was extremely theatrical. Props were props, sets were sets, and we got our first glimpse at the ensemble cast in their various, sometimes ill-defined roles. There was little attempt, that I could perceive anyway, to connect scenes to each other. Everything just happened to us, the audience, as it happened on screen. It's a movie about movie-making and film as medium as much as it's about Hitler, and it lays this thesis bare from the outset. Watching it made me feel the same way I do when I'm reading something a little more academic than my usual media diet. Was I catching every reference? Definitely not. Was I having a good time stretching my brain out? For sure. 

Intermission rolled in around 8:15 p.m. and things started to go downhill from there. I ran into a friend, and his friend, and asked them what they thought about the movie. "Actually, we were kind of just talking shit about it," he said. They were already debating whether to come back for Parts 3 and 4. Fair enough! But I made the critical mistake of asking them how long they thought the rest of the movie was going to be—I hadn't looked at my phone at all during part 1—and my friend's friend grimly informed me that we'd be here for "at least two more hours," something I should have known but had the unfortunate side effect of making me feel insane. I took my seat and steeled myself for Part 2.

The second half of the first half of "Hitler, a Film from Germany" was definitely "endurance cinema." While the first part had flashed between scenes relatively quickly, Part 2 intentionally dragged, lingering on long monologues from characters spooling out the German cultural, spiritual, and historical precedent that gave Hitler's Nazism its initial allure, plus some testimonials by actors playing Hitler's inner circle, apparently directly lifted from their autobiographies: Hitler's valet dominated the last 30 or so minutes for the screening, droning on about his hiring process, the Führer's morning routines and hosting quirks, and the fact that apparently Hitler could not fucking dress to save his life—the only portion of the movie that elicited laughs from multiple audience members. 

Around 9:00 p.m., I started checking my phone every ten or so minutes, between scenes, which was an incredible mistake. I felt like this. Around 9:20, I made a brief escape from the theater—my phone was dying, and I needed to talk to more people after the movie ended, I told myself. I was alone in the lobby, except for one other woman, who was strolling around and clearly killing time like me. When she saw me, she made a beeline for me. "Do you know what time this is over?" she asked. I told her I didn't know for sure, but I was beginning to suspect somewhere around 10:30. "Oh my God, it's four hours?" she said. I asked her if she'd be back for the second screening on Thursday. "I don't know," she said, exasperated. "My husband wanted to see it." 

After around ten minutes of lobby and bathroom time (the concessions stand had tragically closed for the night), I headed back inside and grabbed an aisle seat close to the door—and, incidentally, behind my fellow break-taker and her husband, who quietly but audibly fought for the rest of the movie. When the actor playing Hitler's valet mentioned his boss's propensity for wearing light socks with black shoes, she turned to her husband and said, "Seriously?" By 10:15, they were both regularly pulling out their phones to check the time. 

The film finally released us from its clutches around 10:40 p.m.—four and a half hours after I arrived at the theater. Someone in the audience said "Yessssss," as the screen flashed "END OF PART 2." But the people I spoke with after the movie weren't exhausted by its runtime or its content—they were invigorated. 

Henry Butash told me he'd come to see the movie with his father after looking forward to it for years. "My dad saw the movie twice when he was in college, and had told me about it, so I'd been waiting to see it for a long time," he said. "I missed the one in February, so I'm glad they scheduled another one." Butash told me that for him, a movie's runtime is no deterrent. "In the fall at the New York Film Festival I saw La Roue," a silent French film from 1923. "That's like…seven hours? They had an intermission, but it was all in one day—it wasn't split up like this. That was great—it was a lot of fun. As long as it's a good movie, I don't care [about the length]."

But after only a few minutes talking to Henry, my options for other people to ask about the film were suddenly sparse—everyone had gotten the fuck out of the theater, presumably to get to bed. Luckily, I bumped into a trio of friends just outside the door who were eagerly discussing what they'd just seen—with the endurance to do so, as 23 and 24-year-olds. Max Gaan, who'd brought his friends to the movie after Sontag's essay put it on his radar. "I always have to trust Sontag! And I kinda brought these guys along—Parker is from outta town, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to show something New York screening-themed."

"I was personally enthralled by the seductive and destructive nature of fanaticism. Quite easy to want to believe in something so much that you'd die for it, and kill for it…" Parker O'Keefe, visiting from Richmond, said.

When I asked what they thought of the movie, they agreed that they loved it, and couldn't wait for the final half on Thursday. "I'm a huge experimental fan," Gaan said. "I don't feel like a lot of commercial cinema really broaches topics and forms like this. So, for me, I was watching this kind of responding to the form 'Zone of Interest' takes, where people are thinking, 'This is the most incredible, important sort of film!' and I used to say that too, but after seeing this, I'm like, well, this is a film that actually challenged me."

"Parker and I were almost asleep in the first 30 minutes, then we woke each other up, but from that moment, we were kinda locked in," Sam Eilerman told me. "I defer to Max on most points, really was Sontag that really kept me in it, and a number of scenes…" 

"It's so much," Max jumped in. Sam laughed. "It really is."

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