The Architecture of Doom
A film by Peter Cohen
Distributed by First Run Features
The Architecture of Doom is the wrong title for Peter Cohen’s documentary of Nazi Germany, now circulating among the more daring U.S. movie houses. A better, more exact title would have been, since the movie focuses solely on the Führer, The Architect of Doom because Adolf Hitler was indeed an architect of magnificent vision.
Peter Cohen, whose parents emigrated from Germany to Sweden in 1938, has made a remarkably insightful film which shows the Führer not as a psychotic, an anti-Christ, or even Aryan Angel. Instead, Cohen shows the Führer as well-meaning, wishing to achieve as an artist but rejected at eighteen by Vienna’s Academy of Art. Thus thwarted, what are the Führer’s alternatives? Shooting himself? Leaping into the Danube? Cutting off his ears? After all, his watercolors, as Cohen shows, are brilliantly detailed and flawlessly accurate studies of complex architecture, the result of hours of labor, technique, and a heart full of love for beauty, though his streets even then are bare of humanity.
Instead, Hitler chooses to survive, which means changing first from artist to soldier, to one day changing the Academy which had wronged him in favor of “modern” artists, to changing art itself, architecture, the entire world. . . . And to change, by selective extermination, experimentation, and enslavement, Man itself. Certainly, even the Führer ‘s most severe critics could never have accused him of laziness.
Cohen’s film, narrated emotionlessly by German film star Bruno Ganz, shows how Hitler is influenced by Richard Wagner’s Rienzi, an opera about a Roman tribune who revolts against decadence, tries to move Rome back in time to virgin purity, but dies trapped in his flaming palace. Hitler tries to rewrite the opera, but fails.
With the anti-Semite Wagner pointing the way, along with Darwin’s biology and Nietzsche’s aesthetic, Hitler — gaining power with fellow-failed artists Goebbels and Rosenberg — declares that miscegenation and degeneration have ruined the world. To remake the world, one of Hitler’s first acts is to establish the House of German Art, adjudicated by wealthy doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who favor paintings of blond families in flower-strewn mountain meadows.
Intending to “end lunacy in art,” the House of German Art stages “Degenerate Art” exhibits which paired Expressionist portraiture to photos of inmates of mental institutions, thus proving that modern art is degenerate and that Nazis must return to the majesty of the ancients, particularly that of the Spartans, whose sculpture was beautiful without sensuality. The Nazi mission, then, is to beautify the world. And, if necessary, to employ violence to that end.
Hitler’s display of degenerate art and photos of the insane are followed, to protect the German gene pool, by the gassing of German mental patients. The Führer, with his bold “Action Euthanasia,” is now a genetic architect.
Of Germany’s physicians, 40 percent are now uniformed members of the Nazi party and signing death war-rants for the mentally deficient and handicapped. Parents are notified by letter that their offspring have perished in “unfortunate accidents,” though locks of hair and human ash often fall embarrassingly from the funnels of crematoriums to the city streets. In all, 70,000 genetically deficient Germans are gassed.
Finally, when Hitler orders the gassing of brain-damaged World War I soldiers, public outcry is heard. Still, the gassing continues. Hitler, ever creative, dresses his “S.S.” in white coats and stethoscopes, posing them as mobile tuberculosis testers on special, windowless buses which trundle out of town, stop at a convenient crematorium, and pump carbon monoxide among the unwanted.
Hitler’s creativity soars. He designs massive Nazi banners and spectacles, and even designs the snazzy Nazi uniforms. Hitler seems to put as much energy into artistic design and massive political rallies as he does into planning future military invasions. As a flourish, Hitler makes the reading of Karl May, a writer of adventure stories for adolescents, mandatory reading for his troops because May depicts clever tactics and fortitude.
Hitler’s combination of war and art quickly pays off. Poland falls, France falls, and in early film footage, Hitler is seen in an open staff car touring the Champs Elysees, stopping to gaze at Parisian architectural masterpieces as if admiring the plumage of birds freshly shot. Touring the Paris Opera House, Hitler, an expert on European opera house architecture, points out the finer points of the interior to his entourage and even detects the absence of a room which was noted in the architectural plans Hitler studied. The room, it turns out, was combined with another during a recent renovation.
During his three-hour tour of Paris, Hitler sketches a German variation of the Arch of Triumph and returns to Berlin, assigning the architect Albert Speer to prepare detailed plans for a Berlin Arch of Triumph exactly twice the size of the French original.
The Führer’s ever-present challenge, as architect of a new world, is to prepare the German people to be world leaders, specifically to accept brutality as essential to the attainment of beauty. The pseudo-documentary “The Eternal Jew” exposes, says Hitler, “the Jews as the microbes which infect society, hiding themselves behind the mask of the civilized European.” Jews are compared to termites attacking wooden art, and film after film depicts food supplies crawling with vermin until white-coated technicians prepare canisters of Zyklon B, tape the windows, and let the gas loose.
As for more traditional, less lethal architectural projects, the Führer assigns his architect Speer to develop a model the size of an elongated ping pong table depicting the total redesign of Linz, the provincial Austrian city privileged to be Hitler’s city of birth. In Linz, massive buildings of classic Greco-Roman architecture, similar to those on the Mall in Washington, D.C. are to connect the Reich to the mighty empire of the past. The Führer sketches plans for these museums which will hold the treasure trove of art to be “gathered” from conquered nations.
As World War II progresses, Hitler, the artist-conqueror even forbids the bombardment of Athens, commanding his infantry instead to utilize only the rifle and machine gun to minimize destruction. Athens falls with its antiquities intact, Hitler declares Nazism’s absolute affinity with the virtues of antiquity, and German sculptors accordingly produce bronze and plaster renditions of the graceful Greek works of cool, white marble. The Führer is shown touring a hall lined with these new Nazi sculptures, walking with his familiar cavalryman’s waddle (perhaps modeled after battle portraits of Napoleon), hands locked behind his back, his smile one of genuine delight, and his massive military cap pulled low on his forehead. His statues, though, stare back, not with serene majesty, but with a pained expression, as if their living models were somehow physically uncomfortable, even in pain while they posed.
The narrator gives only the briefest mention that the air war over the English Channel is not going at all well, intimating that Hitler is often too preoccupied with his artistic visions to act the soldier. The war against Russia, however, is going splendidly. Scruffy Russian prisoners fill the screen by the thousands. A camera, set up 50 yards or more from an execution ditch, shows where Russian soldiers in groups of fours are trotted out, double-time, and shot. The distance of the camera from the ditch makes it difficult even to see what is exactly happening, thereby lessening revulsion and horror.
Cohen also handles the Holocaust with similar detachment. We see only families waiting to board trains, mothers holding the hands of frightened children. Auschwitz is seen only from the air, tidy and of city-like proportions. Cohen’s strategy, then, is to dwell not on the Führer as murderer but as failed artist, more in need of a good psychologist, a pat on the back every now and then, and a civilization that does not glorify militarism. Cohen’s Hitler is more to be pitied than feared.
The Führer’s design to improve the world, enslaving some populations while exterminating others, goes irrevocably awry in Russia. Hitler has planned to obliterate Moscow and build a dam to submerge it under hundreds of feet of water, intentions which are seriously upset when 90,000 Nazi soldiers surrender outside Moscow. The movie screen fills with scruffy, frozen Nazi soldiers. Hitler hastily creates a new S.S. force to locate the trenches of executed Russians and destroy the remains so the now invading Russian army will find no trace of the mass murder of their fellow soldiers and vent their fury on the teetering Reich.
More upsetting news arrives. Paris is about to fall, and Hitler, despite his love for architecture, orders the complete demolition of the French capital. His stalwart troops, however, are stunned by an intense French Resistance offensive. Undaunted, Hitler orders the Reich’s captured art treasures stashed in an Austrian salt mine and wired with explosives for destruction.
In a near-final scene, Hitler — now deep in his bunker — is presented with the completed model of the new Linz. His boyish delight is evident as he pores over every detail, his hands clasped behind his back, his cap pulled low over his forehead.
The final scenes of The Architecture of Doom show block after block of bombed Berlin where, here and there, a fragment of wall still stands. Berlin is now rubble, and somewhere beneath it all is the Führer, enraptured by the ping pong table-sized model of his hometown with its rows of Greco-Roman art museums.
The Führer knows he will die, but perhaps he thinks that the impending gasoline-drenched moment will rival even the fiery finale of Wagner’s immortal Rienzi.