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A Tale of the Tapes: On the 'Recreated' Conversations in Speer Goes to Hollywood

A photo of Speer and Birkin in Heidelberg. Taken by David Puttnam, used with permission of Andrew Birkin

The ethics of documentary filmmaking have been, if not in flux, then subject to movable goalposts ever since Robert Flaherty used staged reenactments in his 1922 “Nanook of the North.” It’s an area in which filmmakers do a lot of critiquing and self-correcting. It’s also an area that gets more tricky as technology becomes more advanced. Earlier this year, the filmmaker Morgan Neville was widely criticized for using AI technology to create a “deepfake” voice for Anthony Bourdain in his movie “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” Although the simulated voice was used sparingly to say the least, the breach was such that it was able to fuel an entire New Yorker feature story by Helen Rosner

When watching the new documentary, “Speer Goes To Hollywood,” which features many conversations between then-screenwriter Andrew Birkin and Albert Speer, the one-time Third Reich official, sometimes punctuated by shots of a cassette player with its reels in motion, I didn’t really consider what might be waiting for me in the relatively fine print of the end credits, which many film viewers never bother to stick around for. Those credits list, as one would do for actors, the people providing the voices for ... Andrew Birkin and Albert Speer. 

“Speer Goes To Hollywood,” directed by Vanessa Lapa and co-written by Lapa and Joelle Alexis, tells of how the Third Reich official Albert Speer attempted a rehabilitation of his public image via a book that he then tried to make into a movie. 

Under the regime of Adolf Hitler, who came to power in Germany in 1933 and who killed himself in 1945 rather than surrender to Allied forces, Speer served in several positions. A bit of a prodigy as an architect, he was appointed as Berlin’s General Building Inspector when he was 32. By 1942 he was Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production. But when he was brought to trial in Nuremberg after the war for both war crimes and crimes against humanity, he professed complete ignorance of Hitler’s Final Solution. 

And after his release from Spandau Prison in 1966, after serving his full sentence of 20 years, he stuck to that line. And he continued sticking to it in his first book of memoirs, Inside The Third Reich, published in German in 1969 and in an English translation in 1970. Multi-lingual, polite, and in many respects a man of ostentatious cultural refinement, Speer marketed himself as the Good German in the Nazi narrative. 

For all that, his book contained, for some, much that was of historical and potential dramatic value. So as Inside the Third Reich roosted on international best-seller lists, some British-based young filmmakers determined to make the book into a movie. So Speer started working with the then-screenwriter Andrew Birkin and producers David Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson.

As the title of Lapa’s movie indicates, the collaboration between Albert Speer and these filmmakers makes up the spine of the movie. The collaboration came to nothing, but Lapa uses hours of conversations between Speer and Birkin, a protégé of Stanley Kubrick and a cousin of Carol Reed, to demonstrate just what a slippery character this Nazi ex officio was. 

"Speer Goes to Hollywood"

It’s an engrossing and in some ways illuminating movie, which I reviewed for this website here. As I mentioned in the review, Speer’s ability to trip himself up is perhaps even better illuminated by his on-screen appearances in Marcel Ophuls’ “The Memory of Justice.” Those sequences have an advantage over what’s presented in “Speer Goes To Hollywood.” That is, they feature Speer speaking in his actual voice. Here’s what I wrote about the method used in “Speer Goes To Hollywood”: "This is a fascinating and pertinent tale, but one major aspect of its telling gives me serious pause. There’s a section of audio in which Birkin relates to Speer that Paramount, the studio paying for these research and writing sessions, is frustrated that in a script that by this point runs over 200 pages, only a couple of them have any reference to the Holocaust. And Speer says, ‘That is their problem,’ with a heavy emphasis on the ‘their,’ giving the impression that Speer can’t be bothered. It’s an obviously damning moment among many damning moments." 

But there was, to my mind, a problem, which brings us back to the movie’s end credits. The conversations between Birkin and Speer, and Birkin and director Carol Reed, are not from Birkin’s own cassette recordings of 1971 and 1972. Rather, Lapa hired voice actors to speak the words of the real-life players. As I stated above, their names come up early in the end credits: Jeremy Portnoi, who is the film’s line producer, voices Birkin. Anno Koehler is Speer. In a statement from the filmmaker I received after making queries with the film’s publicists, the director, taking indirect objection to the phrasing of my question, in which I called the conversations “re-created,” said: ‘Nothing is re-created. Everything from the tapes is re-recorded. [Boldface emphasis was in the email sent me.] This means 100% accurate to the original. Every breath, every laugh, every pause, every intonation.” Lapa’s rationale for so doing was that the audio quality on the 50-year-old cassettes was too poor to be used, even after substantial engineering work. 

After my review of Lapa’s film posted, I got an e-mail from Andrew Birkin. 

Among other things, it directed me to a statement he had posted on the IMDb after “Speer Goes To Hollywood” played at the Berlin Film Festival. I quote it below in its entirety, with the Anglicized spelling intact. The “Erich Goldhagen” referred to is the historian who, during Speer’s lifetime, took issue with Speer’s professions of ignorance with respect to Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Specifically, Goldhagen asserted that Speer was present at Heinrich Himmler’s 1943 speech to the Gauleiters, also known as the “Posen Speech,” which refers explicitly to Hitler’s Final Solution. Birkin wanted this included in the movie.

Although I commend Vanessa Lapa's reasons for making ‘Speer Goes to Hollywood’, her film contains a number of historical errors in its references to my 1972 attempt to dramatise Speer's self-serving autobiography, ‘Inside the Third Reich’. It was never my intention (nor that of my two producers, David Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson) to trivialise let alone whitewash Speer's crimes, as several reviewers have concluded. On the contrary, my screenplay contained several damning scenes not to be found in his book, including his visit to the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp, as well as his presence at Himmler's terrifying speech to the Gauleiters on October 6, 1943, when Himmler spelled out the Final Solution to the ‘problem’ of Europe's Jewish population, in other words extermination.

Ms. Lapa's film is a dramatization based on the 44 hours I recorded with Speer back in 1971/72 when I was 24/25 years old. She has used actors to voice both Speer and myself, but has necessarily paraphrased various topics into a few sentences that in fact lasted many minutes if not hours, with the consequence of over-simplifying complex topics. Additionally, she has imported quotes from Speer that he apparently said elsewhere, but not to me, and has therefore had to invent questions and responses from me that I naturally did not make. Many of these quotes do not matter to me, but when Speer is heard to spout anti-Semitic remarks, it reflects badly on me that I don't take him to task. One reviewer writes: “Speer was an anti-Semite himself. He makes this absolutely clear in his response to one of Birkin's questions: he did not like Jews. According to Speer, eastern Jews in particular were nouveau riche money-grubbers who wanted to take advantage of Germans—a standard argument of every anti-Semite”’ Speer may well have said such things elsewhere, but never to me. He was far too clever, knowing as he did that virtually everyone involved with the project was Jewish. Had he made such offensive remarks to me, I would have undoubtedly challenged him—which, in Ms. Lapa's film, her cinematically constructed 'I' self-evidently does not.

Many who saw "Speer Goes to Hollywood" at the Berlinale did not understand that the “Andrew Birkin” they heard is not me, although—confusingly—contemporary photographs shown are in fact of me. It is a persona somewhat loosely constructed by Ms. Lapa to serve the film's narrative structure and plot line. Thus, the film has given several reviewers the impression that “I” — i.e., the real Andrew Birkin—was Speer's ‘overly impressed’ dupe. Of course it's true that Speer did his best to ingratiate himself to me, but that does not mean that I fell for his self-whitewashing. Indeed, my screenplay proves the contrary to be true.

At the end of the film, Speer is heard to say to the Birkin persona: "May I tell you that I consider this script strictly confidential. It would be disastrous if somebody would see the first draft of the script and then argue about the changes made." Speer in fact never said any such thing to me, which gives the erroneous impression that he was trying to censor something in my first draft. The “script” to which Speer was referring (in an audio-letter to producer David Puttnam) was his draft “Response to Erich Goldhagen,” which he had sent David, and had absolutely nothing to do with my script. Besides, Speer had no script approval, which in any event would have made no sense as by then it had been read by many at Paramount and elsewhere for at least six months.

Ms. Lapa's film implies that the reason our film was never made was because Paramount saw through Speer's attempt to whitewash himself. In fact the then President of Paramount, Frank Yablans, was extremely eager to make the movie, and although some at the studio felt there should be more about the Final Solution, Paramount only began to cool when Costa Gavras dropped out as the director. Incidentally, Carol Reed was never considered as director. He was my much-loved cousin and mentor, and I gave him the script for his opinion and advice.

Ten years later, Speer did finally make it to Hollywood, although he himself had died some years earlier, in 1981. Starring Rutger Hauer as Speer, and with an all-star cast including Trevor Howard, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Derek Jacobi as Hitler, ABC TV produced their two-part, five-hour dramatisation of ‘Inside the Third Reich’ with barely a mention of the Holocaust. Compared to our effort, this indeed was a whitewash, of which Speer would have been unjustly proud. Vanessa Lapa's film has much to commend it, and is driven by laudable motives; it's just a pity that it unnecessarily distorts the historical facts with respect to our attempted movie in order to underpin her agenda.”

In his introductory email to me, Birkin continued: 

“It follows from the above that Vanessa Lapa's statement to you—that "nothing is re-created. Everything from the tapes is re-recorded. This means 100% accurate to the original. Every breath, every laugh, every pause, every intonation”—is a blatant lie, and I should be most grateful if you could add this as a quote from me to your review. I might also add that there is nothing technically wrong with most of the original recordings. Ms. Lapa chose not to use them as (A) they did not suit her agenda, and (B) she did not have my permission to use them. I gave her access to my material when she was planning to make the film with Errol Morris, but she and Errol fell out over various issues and I ultimately backed off for similar reasons.”

As it happens, “Speer Goes To Hollywood” was initially to be a rather different movie than it turned out to be. That is, it was to be a directorial collaboration between Errol Morris and Vanessa Lapa about Albert Speer and his campaign of self-rehabilitation. And in the initial vision, it was to have Andrew Birkin at its center. 

Photo of Speer's house, taken by Andrew Birkin and used with permission of Andrew Birkin

Errol Morris recollects meeting Lapa at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day Weekend in 2014, where her film about Himmler, “The Decent One,” screened. Lapa made a casual proposal that the two work together, and Morris demurred. In fall of 2015, Morris says, she wrote to him about the home movies that Speer had screened for Birkin, Puttnam, and Sandy Lieberson back when the “Inside the Third Reich” movie project was in their sights. (Puttnam and Lieberson subsequently used these images in their 1974 documentary “Swastika.”) She wanted to review the footage with Morris. He was intrigued. 

“Speer was a different deal altogether” from the ideas Lapa had batted to Morris, he told me in a Zoom conversation. “I’d always been interested in Speer. I think I’m one of the few people who has waded through the entirety of [Austrian historian] Gitta Sereny’s book on Speer.” In early 2016 Lapa told Morris about the Birkin tapes. In early spring of that year, according to Morris, they signed a “note of intent.” Which was not a contract, but a way of attracting financing for the picture. In May of 2016, Morris interviewed Birkin, using his well-known camera system. Nearly 20 minutes of that footage, edited, is all that exists of “Outside the Third Reich,” the film that Morris had hoped to make. 

By the end of May 2016, Morris had stopped work on the project. He could not find common ground with Lapa. “I’ve had frightful experiences in filmmaking ... this is close to the worst,” he told me, without going into detail. Lapa continued to work on the film, which still had Andrew Birkin at its center. She brought Birkin to Tel Aviv for more interviews. 

Birkin’s active participation in the project ended soon after this, but Lapa retained possession of digitized copies of Birkin’s original cassettes. Errol Morris, in a recent email to me, says: “In my view the emphasis on the quality of the Birkin-tapes is misleading. A diversion created by Vanessa Lapa. There is little or no problem with the audio. Birkin’s voice is clear and intelligible throughout. You can easily tell this from my short-film. But I would be happy to supply further examples from the dailies of Andrew’s original interviews with Speer. The reason that Vanessa Lapa did not use the audio from the tapes is not because of [their] poor quality. It was because Andrew Birkin never gave her permission to use it. Andrew had withheld permission until he was shown some edited material. Something. Anything. As far as I know, she never sent anything.”

Indeed, the digitized snippets of audio Birkin shared with me was better than entirely audible. The excerpts from Speer’s audio-letter to David Puttnam that are heard in “Outside the Third Reich” are also entirely audible. 

In October of this year David Puttnam, now retired from filmmaking, gave a speech in which, among other things, he announced his resignation from the House of Lords. In that speech he recalled a meeting he and Birkin had with Speer. “Albert Speer, Hitler’s former Architect and Armaments Minister had walked out of Spandau prison five years earlier, having served 20 years for war crimes—he patiently listened for several hours as we took him through our reasons for wanting to make the film and, to our amazement, he agreed that if a movie was to be made, it should be produced by and for a younger generation. That was the start of an adventure which took us and our screenwriter Andrew Birkin on numerous occasions back and forth to Heidelberg. It was during those conversations with Speer that I came to understand what we now call ‘the fascist playbook’—the way democracy can be corrupted and overturned by a few malevolent but persuasive politicians, those who are prepared to exploit divisions in society with simple populist messages.”

I brought up this speech to Birkin in early November, and he responded: “The project was just as much David's as mine—the more so as he was one of the producers. It was he and I who went to see Speer in August 1971 and persuaded him to give us an option on his book. This option point is important: we didn't have the rights, and although Speer assured us that he would never ask for script approval, he effectively had it since he could simply decline renewing the option when it ran out—which is exactly what happened! His publisher, Wolf Siedler, was furious that I'd put Speer in Himmler's audience at the Posen speech and insisted we took it out. Speer said it was up to us—he didn't object (bits of this are in Lapa's film). But when Costa Gavras (who was set to direct) took a six-month break to make another picture, Siedler declined to renew the option. That was the final nail in the coffin. It really didn't have anything to do with Paramount getting cold feet at all.”

Photo of Speer by Andrew Birkin, used with permission of Andrew Birkin

Birkin attached a chapter from a memoir he’s working on (“in a desultory fashion”) about the time he spent with Speer. 

Therein, Birkin depicts himself as striving to get Speer to give up information that will contradict Speer’s assertions that he had not only nothing to do with the Holocaust but had no idea it was happening. In December of 1971, according to Birkin’s diary at the time, Birkin gets some information—handed to him directly, by Speer himself—that he feels may provide an “open sesame” to Speer’s heart of darkness. Here’s a passage from the diary entry: 

Speer still in a rather distracted mood. He poured a couple of glasses of Mosel, then sat back to listen to Richard Strauss’s ‘Death and Transfiguration,’ adding to the air of gloom. At the end he handed me a xerox and asked me to read it, which I did with an increasingly thumping heart. The xerox was a synopsis of an article by one Erich Goldhagen, sent to him by Gerald Gross from Macmillan’s in New York. Seems this Goldhagen chap has evidence that Speer really was at that 2nd Posen speech when Himmler spelled out the Final Solution to the Gauleiters […] and that he (Speer) had even aided Himmler in deporting Polish Jews.

I glanced up to find Speer looking at me.

So I asked, “Is it true?”

“I have no idea. I don’t remember being there. Yes, at Posen – I’d given a speech to the Gauleiters warning them to forego their peacetime luxuries… but Himmler’s speech? The first I heard of it was at Nuremberg.”

Despite being adamant that he had never aided Himmler in deporting Jews, Speer seemed nevertheless concerned that Goldhagen's accusations might prompt his re-arrest and a new trial, but he was also worried (perhaps more worried) that we might not want to make the movie, or is this just me being cynical?

I assured him that on the contrary this solved our own problems about how to address the Final Solution, and that I’d always assumed that he must have known about it.

My remark was met with a look of “Et tu, Brute?”

Speer didn’t take my word alone and wanted me to ask "Mr Puttnam" (why's he always so deferential towards David?!). I told him I'd call him directly I got back to the Europa [hotel].

"No, please - call him now."

"Now?"

"From my telephone - over there."

"But he might not be in."

"Please, try."

I pick up the phone and dial the office. "Is David there?"

No, he’s gone home.

“Please try him at home.”

I dial again and David’s wife Patsy picks up.

“Patsy, it’s me, AB – is David there?”

“AB! How are you? Hope you haven’t joined the Nazi party yet!”

“Er, no – but, uh – is David there?”

“He’s right here, having tea with Debbie and Sacha.”

Finally David comes on the phone.

"What's up?" asks David, no doubt hearing a tremble in my voice.

"Uh - listen - I'm here with Herr Speer, and he's just given me a xerox of an article by a chap called Erich Goldhagen who's written an article in some American magazine called Midstream, accusing him of having been present at that Posen speech given by Himmler to the Gauleiters when he spelled out the Final Solution ..."

"You're kidding me ..."

"Not only that, but Goldhagen says that Himmler actually pointed to Speer in the audience” – and I read out his damning words. [“Speer is not made of the stuff of which Jew-loving obstructors of the Final Solution are made. He and I together will wrest the last living Jews on Polish soil, dispatch them to their death and thereby close the last chapter of Polish Jewry."]

If you’ve seen “Speer Goes To Hollywood,” you may believe that in his correspondence with me, and in the accounts he’s published elsewhere, Birkin wants to get some rehabilitation for himself. After all, several reviewers of the movie have cited Birkin’s arguably damning characterization of a “Jewish brigade” of people at Paramount standing in the way of a potential Speer self-whitewash. I brought this up with Birkin in a November 3 email, and Birkin responded on November 4. 

My email: “One remark that many reviewers have seized on that the movie attributes to you has you citing a ‘Jewish brigade of producers;’ this is to them the definitive proof that you were not just Speer’s dupe but almost cheerleader. I was wondering if you wanted to challenge or contextualize that wording.”

Birkin’s response: “I did use the term, and it was poor wording on my part. But it was indicative of a truth in the situation. Don't forget that Paramount was owned by Charlie Bluhdorn, who also owned the parent company, Gulf & Western. Bluhdorn had been born in Vienna, and most of his family were wiped out in the Holocaust. Little wonder that his one condition for financing [the movie] was that it should address the Final Solution. This posed big problems as Speer maintained he was ignorant, hence our relief when Goldhagen accused him of being at Himmler's Posen address. Cut to a year later, November 1972, when I am summoned to Berlin to be excoriated by Speer's publisher Wolf Siedler for having included the scene since they could now prove that Speer had headed up to Hitler's Rastenberg HQ by the time Himmler took to the podium around 5 pm; apparently George Gross, head honcho at Macmillan’s in N.Y. was similarly appalled and insisted we take it out, as it would have dented Speer's reputation in middle America, and—more pertinently—dented potential sales of Macmillan's upcoming sequel, Speer's ‘Spandau Diaries’. 

“Later that day, Speer and I met in our hotel. If the scene came out, Paramount would probably cancel the movie. On the other hand if it stayed in, Speer would (from his POV necessarily) have to deny its veracity. I was still trying to play on Speer's ego and get him to admit something—anything—that would help satisfy Paramount. The fact that Speer oversaw 12 million slave labourers cut no ice since most of them were Russian communists! I'm attaching my recording from the moment I switched on the tape, mid-conversation ...”

And it is on this recording that not only does Birkin’s mention of a “Jewish brigade” appear, but Speer’s “that is their problem” response, which I cited in my review. And as it happens, the re-recorded version of the conversation in the movie, in which Speer says the sentence with a stress on the word “their” is not an accurate recreation. Speer says it with a slight stress on the first syllable of “problem.” The arrogance conveyed by the re-recorded version is still there, but in a lower register; Speer isn’t directly expressing contempt but attempting to put across a resigned equanimity. It’s simply a different conversation than what’s in the movie. 

A photo of Speer's house and nameplate. Photo by Andrew Birkin, used with permission of Andrew Birkin

Finally, I contacted the U.S. publicist for the picture. Here is the text of my email in full; it restates material that I’ve already covered in this piece, but I think it’s important to reproduce the correspondence exactly:

I have received some interesting correspondence from Andrew Birkin. In addition to stating that several photos by him, and photos of him by David Puttnam, were used in “Speer Goes to Hollywood” without permission, he also avers that the audio cassettes of his conversations with Albert Speer were and are, with one or two slight exceptions, audible and entirely usable for the context of a film documentary. 

He made several other claims. Most of these were originally in a post he put up on IMDb. I found these interesting: One, that Vanessa Lapa "has imported quotes from Speer that he apparently said elsewhere, but not to me, and has therefore had to invent questions and responses from me that I naturally did not make. Many of these quotes do not matter to me, but when Speer is heard to spout anti-Semitic remarks, it reflects badly on me that I don't take him to task.”

Also: "It was never my intention (nor that of my two producers, David Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson) to trivialise let alone whitewash Speer's crimes, as several reviewers have concluded. On the contrary, my screenplay contained several damning scenes not to be found in his book, including his visit to the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp, as well as his presence at Himmler's terrifying speech to the Gauleiters on October 6, 1943, when Himmler spelled out the Final Solution to the "problem" of Europe's Jewish population, in other words extermination.”

And: "Many who saw 'Speer Goes to Hollywood' at the Berlinale did not understand that the 'Andrew Birkin' they heard is not me, although - confusingly - contemporary photographs shown are in fact of me. It is a persona somewhat loosely constructed by Ms. Lapa to serve the film's narrative structure and plot line. Thus, the film has given several reviewers the impression that ‘I' - i.e., the real Andrew Birkin - was Speer's 'overly impressed' dupe. Of course it's true that Speer did his best to ingratiate himself to me, but that does not mean that I fell for his self-whitewashing. Indeed, my screenplay proves the contrary to be true.

"At the end of the film, Speer is heard to say to the Birkin persona: 'May I tell you that I consider this script strictly confidential. It would be disastrous if somebody would see the first draft of the script and then argue about the changes made.’ Speer in fact never said any such thing to me, which gives the erroneous impression that he was trying to censor something in my first draft. The ‘script' to which Speer was referring (in an audio-letter to producer David Puttnam) was his draft 'Response to Erich Goldhagen' which he had sent David, and had absolutely nothing to do with my script. Besides, Speer had no script approval, which in any event would have made no sense as by then it had been read by many at Paramount and elsewhere for at least six months.”

But, finally, what he said to me, after watching the latest cut of the movie, is that "Vanessa Lapa's statement to you that 'nothing is re-created. Everything from the tapes is re-recorded. This means 100% accurate to the original. Every breath, every laugh, every pause, every intonation'—is a blatant lie,

I would be interested if the filmmaker had any response to these claims." 

Through this publicist, I received a response from Vanessa Lapa (shared below), with the condition that if used in any piece, it had to be quoted in full. I then shared this response with Birkin, who commented, “I'm gobsmacked! She's clearly trying to dodge the question, yet in stating that "we brought the facts as they were recorded in numerous historical sources" she's effectively admitting that much (I would guess over 60%) of what we hear Speer say was never said to me, ipso facto her original statement to you that ‘every breath, every laugh, every pause, every intonation’ is indeed a blatant lie. Even those bits that are more or less verbatim have often been twisted, taken out of context, or acted out flippantly. I never wanted her film to be about me, but I did expect the right to contextualise my relationship with Speer. This I did on camera in Tel Aviv with over 15 hours of interview by her, but she chose to use none of it and instead ‘let Speer tell his own story’. This is why I walked away from the project, without having signed away any of my rights to my own private recordings, photographs and other materials.”

Errol Morris said, in his first e-mail to me: “There is so much to be said about this whole experience. But at this point, the main problem is that her film misrepresents Andrew Birkin. It’s not just her use of the specious voice-over. That’s bad enough.” But, he says, the idea “that Andrew and David Puttnam were planning to whitewash Speer is nonsense.”

Here is Lapa’s response to my email, in full, as per her request: 

We thank you very much for your attention to our work, especially our historical fact-finding and for our years of analyzing the numerous sources that dealt with the person of Speer.

With regard to the question of the usefulness of the analog recordings made by Andrew Birkin 50 years ago and which he made available to us, we can be very clear: we spent countless hours trying to restore these cassette recordings, but this proved to be technically impossible. It would simply have resulted in a film that for the most part would have been completely inaudible. So we can be very brief about the unusable quality of the recordings from 50 years ago and the accurate transcriptions that were made: all our source material and complete archive is available and accessible.

That Andrew Birkin would have preferred the film to be about him and his analog recordings we can understand, but that was not our concern, the film is about Speer and only Speer. And so the choice to have voices read our transcripts was the only technically feasible option. But of course we understand that Andrew Birkin looks at his old cassettes with the technical knowledge of 50 years ago, but we have to work with the technical requirements of today. The technical means with which we have to work today and the quality standards of today are in no way comparable to what Andrew Birkin knew 50 years ago. Of course we don't blame him that all this technological evolution has passed him by and that he is not a sound engineer. Each to his own profession.

In the same sense, it was never our intention to make a film about Andrew Birkin and we have always indicated that. What takes place on screen is how Speer was, what he intended and how he behaved. That Andrew Birkin would possibly have preferred a film focusing on him personally is possible, but again, for us only Speer was historically relevant, no one else. In that sense this film is a descriptive documentary, our work is not a romanticization of historical facts, we brought the facts as they were recorded in numerous historical sources. We would not have remained true to our professional standards if we did not give an accurate account of the historical facts, or romanticized certain facts: Speer is Speer, how he acted, how he thought and above all how he continuously tried to manipulate and mislead people. And in the latter he was outstanding.

As I was putting finishing touches on this piece, I heard again from Errol Morris. It was in this message that he made his assertion as to what he believes was Lapa’s reason for “re-creating” the conversations between Birkin and Speer. He also composed some reflections on the case of Speer, and why he believes Lapa’s film falls short in addressing the most crucial issues that case brings up. 

To me the story of Speer concerns a central question for our times. To what extent do we knowingly participate in a criminal regime? Or do we first deny the reality of what we’re doing? Do we somehow convince ourselves of our own rectitude?  

Speer was certainly in a position to know about the Holocaust. Was he uninterested? Oblivious? So concerned with his personal advancement in the hierarchies of the Reich that the issue of the Jews never surfaced for him? Gitta Sereny’s book on Speer struggles with this. Did he know about the Holocaust? She cites Himmler’s Posen speeches. Particularly the second speech on October 6, 1943 where Speer is mentioned by name. In particular, Himmler’s remarks about the extermination of the Jews. Martin Kitchen writes about this and the Erich Goldhagen article in Speer, Hitler’s Architect, p. 346 —   

“Speer…[who] seemed to be entirely vindicated by the worldwide success of his memoirs [Inside the Third Reich], was suddenly confronted with a devastating disclosure. He immediately phoned Joachim Fest [his sympathetic biographer] in a state of panic, insisting that Goldhagen had preconceived ideas and got it all wrong. He said that he was determined to prove that he was not at Posen that afternoon, but let slip he had heard about Himmler’s speech ‘a considerable time later.’ In other words, he knew all about the murder of the European Jews… Faced with Goldhagen’s accusations, Speer began to shift his position somewhat. He conceded that he ‘sensed’ that dreadful things were happening to the Jews and that he admitted to his Billigung—a word meaning endorsement, agreement, or approval—of the persecution and murder of millions of Jews. Speer did not pause to question how one could endorse something of which one knew nothing.” 

OK. Speer heard about Himmler’s speech "a considerable time later.” But the issue here is not whether Speer was present at Himmler’s October 6th speech. Or even whether he knew about the Holocaust. The issue here—ironically enough—is about Speer’s reaction to Erich Goldhagen’s claims—and about Andrew Birkin confronting Speer with those claims. The claims may be hyperbolic, inaccurate—there is an extensive literature about them—but again, here we are interested in Speer’s reaction to them—whether he believed they could be true. This is discussed by Andrew Birkin in my twenty minute film. 

Vanessa Lapa does not address this. She sidesteps all of it by creating a cartoon. So many questions; so many evasions, so few answers. She claims that her movie is not about Andrew Birkin. But it is about Andrew. Andrew and Speer. They are front and center. And Andrew is misquoted and seriously misrepresented. Instead, we are presented with a grotesque over-simplification and a falsification. For Vanessa Lapa, Speer once again dupes everyone around him—the judges at Nuremberg, Andrew Birkin, David Puttnam—everyone except Vanessa Lapa. Having been presented with an opportunity to add to our knowledge of Speer, she instead subtracts from it.  

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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