Ever have something fly completely under your radar for several years, only to be astonished by its very existence and the potential for perfection inherent in that something? If ever a cinematic document possessed the ingredients that might approach the Tenebrous Ideal*, it would be "Captain Berlin vs. Hitler." I first caught wind of this film via a Twitter post**, and within five minutes I was on Amazon.de all but screaming NAME YOUR PRICE at my computer screen.
*It's like the Platonic Ideal, but with more puppets and snappier outfits.
**Whoever says Twitter isn't useful just isn't following the right feeds, y0.
Just... watch the trailer:
Yes, it's a movie about a German superhero battling Dracula and Hitler's puppet brain, set to an infectious retro-synth soundtrack and envisioned by Jörg Buttgereit. And yes, I AM willing to overlook the whole "necrophilia" issue and declare myself entirely enchanted by Mr. Buttgereit*** at this point.
***Bonus points for his appearance at the end of the film wearing a Monster Squad New York shirt. REPRESENT, Jörg!
The Captain Berlin character was created by Buttgereit in the early 1980s and appeared in a series of short films by the director, one of which appears above. In these short subjects, Buttgereit plays Captain Berlin in a yellow jumpsuit with red briefs worn on the outside, capped off by a Spiderman mask and a repurposed flag worn as a cape. Clearly the product of a punk sensibility slamming head-on into a love of the 1960s "Batman" teevee show, these shorts remind me of... well, of the ill-advised "Crow"-inspired short film I helped a couple of pals of mine make while we were in high school (DON'T JUDGE ME). As such, they're funny to watch but low on stuff like "production values," "plot," and "sense."
The movie up for discussion here takes place in 1973 in West Berlin. Captain Berlin (portrayed here by Jürg Plüss), Germany's first-and-only superhero, originally tasked by the German Resistance to defeat Hitler during World War II, has retired and is working as a journalist while raising his sixteen-year-old daughter, Maria. Elsewhere in the city, Dr. Ilse von Blitzen has revived Hitler's brain and is plotting to place it into the body of Germanikus (Buttgereit, under a rubber monster mask and about a million yards of gauze--dude is TALL), a creature created from the bodies of top SS men. She has enlisted the aid of Dracula, whose Communist beliefs vex the good doctor, but who is reluctantly working at her side due to the promise of Maria's virgin blood. Wising up to von Blitzen's plot and refusing to take part in such anti-socialist activities, Dracula defects to his own castle (in the eastern part of Berlin, of course). Dr. von Blitzen takes matters into her own hands and, after Germanikus' resurrection goes awry, ultimately seats Hitler's brain in a giant robot constructed of the strongest Krupp Steel. Will Captain Berlin be able to stop the Communist menace of the vampire and the Fascist threat of Hitlerrobo AND save his daughter from a fate worse than death...? Only a viewing of "Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" will reveal what happens!
Now that you've had a chance to savor the gestalt of this movie, I'm going to have to do a little of what Corporate Overlords like to call "managing expectations." "Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" is a direct filming of Buttgereit's 2007 stage production, lensed and edited by German filmmaker Thilo Gosejohann****. Make no mistake--the play is a LOT of fun to watch, but the film is technically clunky as a result. The shots are static and it looks like there are only three or four camera locations that are used. Gosejohann employs some interesting post-production elements (comic book frames, artificial film grain, pleasantly hokey animated effects) that give a bit of a cinematic feel, but this is very much a piece of theatre.
****Director of "Operation Dance Sensation" and "Captain Cosmotic." Those are trailer links; come prepared for gorgeous insanity, leave satisfied.
This isn't to say that there's not plenty of cool visual stuff to enjoy. Far from it, in fact! The circus-inspired stage set is colorful, and on-set effects like crepe-paper guts and Karo syrup blood are perfectly in keeping with the eccentric world of this production. The Hitler's Brain Puppet is startlingly expressive, with its eyestalks bending erratically and evoking the mania that accompanied the Furer's infamous speeches. And--let's be honest--Hitlerrobo is a show-stopper that's even more impressive for working in real-time, on-stage.
"Captain Berlin vs. Hitler"'s staging is remarkably meta, and I'd argue that it's more effective in its theatrical form than it would be as a fully-realized film. The pre-War cabaret aesthetic underlies the show's look and feel, from the circus tent that frames the action to the burlesque-inspired character depictions. The decadent, doomed air of the 1920s performance culture that was snuffed out with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s***** informs much of the production, even though this era of German history is never directly mentioned. Nazi iconography is front and center in this production (an eagle bearing a swastika in a wreath is perched at the apex of the tent, visible throughout the play), but taken in total, this is a parable about the history of Germany in the entirety of the 20th Century, tracing the story of defeat during WWI, followed by period of chaos, then the ensuing defeat during WWII, and the fragmentation of the country into democratic(ish) West Germany and Soviet-run East Germany.
I know, I know--I'm straying perilously close to tl;dr territory (the "Here There Be Dragons" portion of the Internet's map) with all this talk of Central European history. Allow me to re-route my discussion and get back to the off-kilter kookiness that you WANT to read about!
"Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" is funny, but probably not in the madcap manner you might expect. This movie is German As Fuck, and in keeping with this stereotypical Teutonic Seriousness, its characters don't acknowledge the humor inherent in their actions. The overstated physicality of the performances is an inheritance from theatrical and silent film traditions, evoking the weirdness of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" rather than the slapstick of Buster Keaton. This mock-serious, surrealist humor is in many ways funnier than a similar story based around obvious gags would be--hell, the title alone is already a punchline! Much of the humor is derived from a certain awkwardness and uncomfortableness rather than from overt winking and nudging in the direction of the audience. There are hilarious moments of speechifying or strange verbal exchanges between the characters. The best dialogue, however, is reserved for Dr. von Blitzen, whose eye-popping, hand-talking rants are things of great beauty. Actress Claudia Steiger is a wonderful comedic presence, and her facial expressions when Hitler mentions his wish to see Eva Braun and his beloved Alsatian hound Goldie convey a sense of panic that is a riot to watch. One has to give extra props to an actress who owns her role even when her male lead is a brain puppet. And YES--Baron XIII and I are both more than a little bit in love with her.
"Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" exemplifies a particular type of movie that I enjoy watching--it's a unique product of it's creator's imagination and its steeped in the culture of its country of origin. This is a movie that couldn't have been created anywhere BUT Germany, and which would have looked very different in any other filmmakers' hands. For fans of subversive performing art in all its manifestations, get your filthy mitts on a copy of this DVD, which comes with a gorgeous array of extras (German- and English-language commentaries, Buttgereit's "Captain Berlin" shorts, behind-the-scenes materials, AND a dog tag).