This article was originally published on December 2nd, 2021. The director, Vanessa Lapa, requested the opportunity to address the topics discussed. We are allowing her to do so with an update published on January 28, 2022. Following the original article by Mr. Kenny, find Ms. Lapa's response, printed in full. The final update today, February 7, is Andrew Birkin's reply to Vanessa Lapa's response. That will also be published in full, following Ms Lapa's letter. Any further communications about this may be made privately between the parties, or will be allowed only in the Comments section, as each person has had an opportunity to be heard. Chaz Ebert
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.
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.
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.”
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."
"From my telephone - over there."
"But he might not be in."
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.
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.
My name is Vanessa Lapa and I am the director of the documentary film Speer Goes to Hollywood. Together with producer Tomer Eliav, I work via my production company, Realworks Ltd. in Tel Aviv.
I am writing this open letter as a response to Glenn Kenny’s article which was published by RogerEbert.com on December 2, 2021. Since I wasn’t given an opportunity to respond to Errol Morris’ and Andrew Birkin’s allegations made after November 1st in Glenn Kenny’s article, I would like to address these points in this open letter.
Just some background: Born and raised in Belgium, I live and work in Israel, and I have been working on Speer Goes to Hollywood for six years. I’ve done extensive research for this film, travelled all over the world (including to archives in the outskirts of Moscow) to gather material and archival footage. All -mainly historical- sources I consulted, remain fully documented and structurally archived in my studio in Tel Aviv. This documentation contains over 5000 of items.
Speer Goes to Hollywood had its World Premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020, and since the pandemic started right after, we decided to “pause” the film until 2021. We waited and premiered the film in the United States at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival September 2, 2021, then opened it theatrically at Film Forum in New York October 29, 2021and at Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles November 5, 2021. My documentary won the 2021 Ophir Award (Israeli Academy Award) on October 5, 2021, and I was awarded Best Director prize at the 2021 Jerusalem Film Festival on September 1, 2021. On October 21, 2021 Speer Goes to Hollywood got 5 Nominations for the Israeli Documentary Association, on November 8, 2021 Speer Goes to Hollywood won a prize at the Belgrade Free Zone Human Rights Film Festival, and on November 15, 2021 Speer Goes to Hollywood got an IDA nomination for Best Music Score.
One of the most important lessons one can learn from Speer Goes to Hollywood is that all of us should be cautious about how information brought by some media and public opinion can be manipulated easily to shape the way that -perceived- history is remembered.
The lessons learned from Speer Goes to Hollywood raise very actual questions in our times in general and about Glenn Kenny’s article specifically: Are we more easily manipulated than we care to admit? What happens when the media and institutions of power collude with people who have institutional privileged access and power, networking, public presentation with the intent to discredit and damage people by aiming to subvert truth?
In our era of free press that may breed post-truth rapid cycling journalism this question should be of interest to all members of society, the society of film criticism included. For we have learned and, by now, know all too well that where the representation of reality disintegrates there creep in personal motives, at times infected by paranoid haunting. The danger of falling prey to such motives lies at the door of those who intensely are dealing with trauma and violence, particularly trauma due to the violence of Nazi culture. Can we responsibly identify such prevent the damage? Exploring the vicissitudes of answers to this question has precisely been my main goal in Speer Goes to Hollywood.
There are many reasons why we decided to respond to Glenn Kenny’s article, but the main reason is our profound feeling of moral obligation and deep appreciation towards all the people in the film industry who have given the stage to Speer Goes to Hollywood and believe in the documentary truth of all material and sources used for making this film.
All my research materials and our Studio are open to any journalist interested in checking out the authenticity and integrity of my work.
Another reason is to support creators, directors and producers who are abused by powerful people in key positions in our industry who are willing to step on anyone to achieve a story as you will read below.
The third reason is the personal witch hunt that Andrew Birkin and Errol Morris chose to publicly make against me, aiming in the name of decent honesty, to serve a subversive hidden agenda that should nevertheless be revealed. Their agenda, however, should be exposed.
In all modesty, I am an Award-winning documentary film director since 2014. After having been a recognized journalist for over a decade, I recognize the right of people to dislike my work, the films that I make. However, to question my word and moral integrity is something I cannot leave unnoticed, let alone, unanswered.
I am saddened and appalled to learn that wrongfully created insinuations preveail over the duty to research and investigate the mere facts. I was probably wrong to believe that Andrew Birkin, when reflecting now on some of what he said to Speer half a century ago when then 26 years of age, would not widely deviate from his earlier version at the age of 76. I am referring to when Andrew Birkin tells Speer that “I don’t think the facts matter so much”. And this was clearly said in the context of a discussion about their film making process.
The opposite, to us the facts matter very much. Facts is all that really matters.
In general, the only true statement by Errol Morris is that we first met at the Telluride Film Festival in 2014.
He forgot to mention that he chose to moderate the Q&A after the first screening of “The Decent One”, my film that screened there, at the Mason Hall Cinema during the Telluride Film Festival.
Obviously, he really liked the film as any reader can judge for themselves from the following links:
“That’s a film that I like and that’s a film that even more to the point that really interests me and has engaged me on all kind of levels.”
“It’s very very easy to make a film about how bad a man Heinrich Himmler was…What is really interesting is to make a movie that isn’t from the outside in but in reverse.”
“It’s one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. A very very very powerful film. And it’s very much to Vanessa Lapa’s credit that she not just made the film but the effort, the collosal effort that was made to collect all of this material which might have been lost to History, might have been destroyed. To save it, preserve it and present it. I think it’s a remarkable film, a remarkable effort and an important contribution to our understanding of the Third Reich. So Vanessa Lapa, thank you for doing this. Thank you for making this movie.”
DVD Introduction of “The Decent One” by Errol Morris:
And here the quote Errol Morris chose to give to “The Decent One”:
“A fabulous excursion into the deep mystery of evil.”
Later, Errol Morris hosted a special screening of “The Decent One” at Brandeis University in Boston on November 9, 2014.
During the subsequent year Errol Morris met with me and Tomer Eliav, my producer, every few months in Boston.
The meetings included invitations by Errol Morris to his home and meetings with his wife Julia.
Errol Morris asked me to help him on a research of Hitler's personal photographer Heinrich Hoffman.
I responded positively and helped Errol Morris research and I used my personal knowledge and connections in the archives to allocate 6000 images, most of which were never published before.
On a different occasion, during that same year, Errol Morris for the purpose of another of his artistic projects, asked me to connect between him and one of the former Heads of the Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) whom I know personally: I immediately helped him and put them in contact, hoping that by doing so Errol Morris could realize his projects. It was my honor trying to help him, given my admiration for his work.
During one of the visits in Boston, while being about 2 months into the Speer Project, I and Tomer Eliav shared in trust – what in retrospect was our biggest mistake - with Errol Morris that I was working on my new film, namely about Albert Speer, and that I was investigating and working on the recordings that were made of the interviews between Albert Speer and Andrew Birkin.
Errol Morris was very enthusiastic about my new project and told me that he always wanted to make another film on the Third Reich. “I have been endlessly fascinated about the Third Reich”
Since that moment, Errol Morris did not stop insisting on him joining my new project. I told Errol that I would love to include him in my project, but that I wanted to make sure that Andrew Birkin would not object to the involvement of Errol Morris.
Since Andrew Birkin did not object, a LOI (Letter of Intent) was signed and therein was stated among other things that Errol Morris and I would be co-directors.
Subsequently, after filming an interview with Andrew Birkin in London (that was fully financed by our production company, Realworks Ltd.), Errol Morris surprisingly and unilaterally decided and communicated to me on May 26 2016 that either he be the sole director or that he shall not be part of the project.
Shocked, humiliated and offended by what I considered to be a reprehensible and immoral proposal, I strongly declined and wrote Eroll Morris on May 28, 2016:
“Sadly enough, again we agree.
We do not want to have this discussion again.
Initially, I chose to remain with our initial position, with all the complexity it would have included.
With a strong and deep believe we would have overcome and create a “Masterpiece” with a message to the world we believe in.
To put things in their context, in essence, and although on a way way smaller level, I am like you, a director.
The “momentum” I have and the story I have been granted after “The Decent One” (whether beginners luck or not) notwithstanding, in response to your having inquired with me the possibility of a collaboration in general, I chose to [offer] co-directing the “Speer” project with you - You of all Directors - in full awareness of what it might mean for me as a director.
You are now putting an ultimatum: “Either I am the sole director or I am out”.
I observe your dichotomy but cannot accept the ultimatum. Therefore I let go.
Tomer and I appreciate your straight forwardness and recognition that the project is ours.
After long discussions with Tomer, my best efforts to convince you, self reflection, consultations with the best of the professionals I know (who was my movie consultant)
and with a true feeling of loss, since you withdraw, I accept your withdrawal.
If you ever reconsider your position, please let me know.
I will call you soon.
Andrew Birkin welcomed my announcement that Errol Morris would not be part of the project and wrote on May 30, 2016:
“I stand unreservedly behind you, mein Fuhrer!
Consequently, I continued my project and in July 2016, Tomer and I met with Andrew Birkin and interviewed him in Tel Aviv for research purposes. I then shared with him all the progress we made in the process of making my film.
A month and a half after the Tel Aviv shoot, I noticed that Andrew Birkin stopped taking my calls. I understood there might have risen a serious problem. Tomer and I discovered that on the second day of the Tel Aviv shoot, Andrew Birkin received an email from Errol Morris that included an approx. 20 Mins. cut of edited material from the London shoot that Realworks Ltd. owns. Errol Morris’ purpose was clear: he aimed again to be the sole director of my project, but now behind my back.
We have this 20 minute cut available. It entirely contradicts what Errol Morris is stating to Glenn Kenny. Any journalist who wish to discover the real truth, can check this cut.
Now, many years later, it feels strange to review these events, especially when one should notice that all this was happening shortly after Errol Morris said to me in a recorded conversation (June 6, 2016) that:
“ It’s not the desire to take that project away from you, I wouldn’t do that actually. Because I think that would be wrong.”
“I feel that I can help you do that…We should be doing [this project] together but not as co-directors.”
“It’s a crazy decision because the movie will never get made.”
Following the events we listed above, Tomer Eliav and I were left with no other option but to take legal actions against the great Errol Morris. Subsequently, on March 16 2018, it was agreed that neither party would publicly disparage the other party personally or on the Speer film.
Obviously, Errol Morris breached that commitment in Glenn Kenny’s article, aiming to cause damage, without any doubt frustrated by my achievement in the making of Speer Goes to Hollywood and the praise for my work.
The following months were a long and painful journey, having had to realize that Errol Morris and Andrew Birkin were working behind my back and trying to find the best way to get rid of me and to lay hands on her project in progress:
“Let’s find what would be the best spin to put on her”
“I am happy she is going after Errol and not you [Andrew]”
“We can always say that I [Andrew] reached out to you [Errol] and not the opposite”.
“Maybe we shall buy her out”
“I [Andrew] just dumped Vanessa and going with lovely Errol Morris”
“We can say that she is hysterical and do not want to work with someone like that”
“Let’s remain careful for the moment…”
“She will be in a coffin and we will dance on her grave”.
I was deathly scared to realize what kind of fate these two “mighty strong men”, particularly Great Errol, were planning for me.
Speer Goes to Hollywood is therefore also about commitment, persistence and respect for younger directors.
Andrew Birkin making up stories is outrageous.
Let’s again, please, stick to facts:
· My first meeting with Andrew Birkin and our collaboration began almost 2 months before Errol Morris asked me and Tomer Eliav to team up for a Speer project. I met Errol Morris in 2014 at the Telluride Film Festival when my previous documentary, “The Decent One” screened there. After I started working on Speer Goes to Hollywood (February 2016), Eroll Morris proposed in April 2016 to team up with him and work on my project together.
· I interviewed Andrew Birkin for research purposes, with the possible future intent, to edit the “making of” of my film. Or, as many times discussed with Andrew Birkin, to produce an additional short TV piece, with a potential TASCHEN publication book by Andrew Birkin and a radio show by Karen Rose: a full PR common strategy of our separate and individual subsequent projects.
· My cinematic approach is known. It is after Andrew Birkin saw "The Decent One" that he decided that I was the right person to make the film. He gave me access to the tapes because he felt I was the right director to present the “Truth” about the historical facts of over 50 years ago.
· A few days after my first meeting with Andrew Birkin in Wales, I shared with him in a Skype conversation (held on February 26th, 2016) my cinematic vision and explained to him exactly how I was going to direct.
“The cinematic language of the film will be similar to The Decent One.
To go one step further with it. It will be a documentary about Speer based on your interviews with him”
This clearly means no talking heads interviews and no external narration.
I can easily evidence that Andrew Birkin is deliberately deviating from the truth in his comments.
· An email that Andrew sends to Errol Morris and shares with me on June 14, 2016:
“Ah Errol –
VD... and I fear in this case incurable. My first loyalty must be to Vanessa, since it was her idea in the first place. It was she who sent me the Decent One, who then jumped a plane, flew to Wales, and persuaded me to get involved – under her sole direction.
When later she told me that she wanted to co-direct it with you, it struck me as a little strange, but mine not to reason why so long as you both shared the same vision – which she assured me that you did. The London shoot seemed to go fine – and yes, a pleasurable experience if a little fraught and not at all what I was expecting – and I was chuffed that you were both happy with the footage. Then the bombshell... Having directed myself, I well understand the lust for dictatorship – I can’t imagine co-directing myself... but then again there have been several successful director partnerships, so I just assumed that you and Vanessa were happy to tango behind the camera. Wrong!
I hope you understand my position, and although of course I would love to work with you (but not as a co-director!), my word to Vanessa must remain my bond.
Maybe see you on Death Row one day?
· As to the percentage of the recording material used: from the 1971 recordings in the film 76% of it is from our labourious transcripts of the Birkin tapes, 24% is from 8 additional audio sources. Something we never hid from the viewer and is mentioned at the end of the film:
“This film is edited out of 47 visual sources and 9 audio sources.”
Andrew Birkin remains apparently frustrated that the film I made is all about Speer and not about him. It has never been my intention to make a film about Andrew Birkin and I have always indicated that much. What takes place on screen is how Speer was, what his intentions were and the way he executed his role given his official position. That Andrew Birkin may have possibly preferred a film focusing on him can be understandable, but again, for me, only Speer was historically relevant, no one else.
In that sense, this film is a descriptive documentary, my work is not a romanticization of historical facts, I brought facts as recorded in numerous historical sources. I can also understand very well how one may be feeling when now looking back at his unfruitful effort or, shall we say, missed opportunity of fifty years ago, particularly when compared to my pursued efforts during many years to describe and unveil the true Speer, a sense of frustration might grow in one’s chest. Any negative personal feeling about the exposure of a historical truth, particularly the truth about a Nazi like Speer, is saddening. It is particularly disturbing when the negative feelings reflect one’s disappointment of not being in the center of a work someone else created or one’s remorse of not having pursued or achieved what was, and should have been an objective fifty years ago. These feelings are understandable, but if projected on the creation made by someone else, especially when such creation relates historical facts and never aimed to focus on the countless people who did not pierce Speer’s hidden agenda. Such feelings projected onto the sphere of film criticism raise serious concern.
I would thus not have remained true to my professional standards if I 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.
Errol Morris claims that the audio quality of the recordings of the interviews between Speer and Birkin is good enough to use in the film. In Errol Morris' style when he uses a sentence and then moves on to the interviewee, there is an option to choose passages that “sounds” (would seem) to the listener reasonable. For even with the best equipment, it is impossible to build an entire film of 90 minutes with the original recordings. Once more, the material is available in my studio. Hear for yourself.
This technical issue was known to all participants from the very beginning of our encounter. But any naïve reader should be alerted and informed about a further post-truth maneuver by Errol Morris: The part that Glenn Kenny is referring to, the one that Errol Morris made him listen to, and that sounds indeed as part of Errol Morris’ reasonable argument, is not to be found in Speer Goes to Hollywood! Again, an obvious attempt to manipulate or to mislead via alleged film criticism, a few days before the Academy Doc Branch members are starting to vote for the shortlist. A prize Errol Morris as an Academy Member is voting on. Up to the audience to decide if such a vote would be honest and fair.
There seems to be a deliberate agenda and tendentious hand in the way Glenn Kenny writes his article, without feeling the need to check with us on the basis of my material that what he writes or what someone asked him to write is true or not.
Glenn Kenny writes that as per my request he publishes my response in its entirety to Andrew Birkin’s and Errol Morris' claims. He is not only implying but saying that he gave us the right to respond.
Here are the facts or, if the reader prefers, the truth:
· Glenn Kenny’s email to my publicist was on Nov 1. His correspondence and additional correspondence with Andrew Birkin took place on Nov 3, 4 and after. His correspondence with Errol Morris was via Zoom and emails.
He is publishing his article on Dec 2, one month of research without asking for my response to the claims made by Errol Morris and additional claims by Andrew Birkin. Glenn Kenny did never ask us to check my documentation or recordings. As said, all my sources and the material I gathered is available to any journalist for check and double check, as in my belief is standard practice.
His email to my publicist on Nov 1, asking for the filmmakers response, does not include the following that he published in his Dec 2 article:
“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.”
Glenn Kenny never mentioned to the publicist that he was talking with Errol Morris.
Glenn Kenny never asked for any reaction of the filmmakers regarding Errol’s statements.
· On Nov 5 my publicist sends my response to Glenn Kenny and asks if he plans to make a follow-up story?
“I’m not certain. But if I do I absolutely will. And I’ll keep you posted. “
At that time Glenn Kenny was already talking with Errol Morris and again and again with Andrew Birkin.
Our publicist saw the article on Dec 2 without any notice from Glenn Kenny.
· In his Dec 2 article, Glenn Kenny writes that he is publishing my whole answer “as per my request” but this precisely is his context manipulation as we answered merely on what Glenn Kenny chose to send us on Nov 1, preventing us from knowing what he was really doing.
And, last but not least regarding Glenn Kenny’s Oct 29 initial review and his Dec 2 article, I mention but will refrain from commenting the fact that surprisingly (or not?) Glenn Kenny is not mentioning at all the numerous Awards and nominations I and Speer Goes top Hollywood achieved since its release.
This brings me to answer the first paragraph of Glenn Kenny Dec 2 article regarding the ethics of documentary filmmaking:
I do believe that the Ethics of Documentary filmmaking is an extremely important and relevant issue. I myself, over the last 7 years participated in many panels on that issue. Now, after this tendentious and disparaging article, I will actively engage in making sure this issue is raised and discussed as much as possible.
That is what really matters. For myself, for my colleagues (who should know how their ambition and creative process can be jeopardized (or hijacked) by some obscure dark forces) and, above all, for the audience, who deserves to know what really happened, be it 50 years ago or today. Ultimately, only the truth matters.
Among Vanessa Lapa’s more bizarre claims in her response to Glenn Kenny’s article is that Errol Morris and I were plotting her demise. Where is her evidence for this, or the other random, unsourced snippets of alleged dialogue?
Lapa claims that she told me from the outset “exactly how I was going to direct.” If this were true, why did she let Errol Morris co-direct with her, given that his style is totally different from hers as exhibited in “The Decent One”. And when Errol interviewed me in London in February 2016, Lapa stayed completely in the background. “Just do whatever Errol says,” I heard her tell the cameraman. “I’m just here to watch him work.” On July 29th – over five months later – I emailed her Israeli producer in response to them trying to pressurise me into signing over my rights:
I don't see any point in a meeting unless and until Vanessa sends both Sandy and me a written synopsis of at least a couple of pages as to what her film is to be all about. It was understandable that she had no clear idea at the beginning, but after having heard and read all 35+ hours of conversations between Speer and me, having interviewed me for 15 hours, and having had more than a month to chew it over, she should by now have some fairly precise idea about what kind of film she intends to make. I want to hear that before proceeding any further. This is no new demand: both Sandy and I have been asking for Lapa's pitch ever since we first started discussing this project.
The following day I emailed Lapa:
Sandy told me after his Tel Aviv visit that he had no clearer an idea of your concept than at the beginning, and I have to say that I was never clear either - hence our growing concern. If you can send a short pitch, that would be much appreciated. You have to remember that I am the one up on the screen, not you, and that this is a very personal part of my history
In short, Lapa had no idea what sort of film she wanted to make when she first approached me; or if she did, as exhibited in her finished film, she kept it very dark.
Lapa says that I “welcomed” Errol’s departure. Is she kidding? I enjoyed being grilled by Errol in the London shoot; I liked his sense of irony, and felt we were on the same wavelength. Lapa was an unknown, but when she rang me in tears to say that Errol was now demanding that he solo direct, I felt sorry for her and agreed to carry on sharing my tapes and research with her while awaiting some sort of pitch as to the kind of film she intended to make. I emailed her tongue-in-cheek with the words Speer (in)famously said to Hitler: “I stand unreservedly behind you, mein Fuhrer!”
Before flying out to Tel Aviv in June, at her request, I emailed her then co-producer Sandy Lieberson:
As you know, I am flying to Tel Aviv next Monday for three days of filming on the Speer project. In the absence of any sort of contract or agreement, I would like to put on record what Lapa and I have agreed verbally, namely that I retain final approval (aka final cut) in terms of my contribution to the documentary. By this I mean what gets used from the old audio tapes I recorded in 1971/72, what I said on video with Errol Morris in London, and what I say either on audio or video in the days and weeks to come. I am particularly anxious that any words of mine do not get used out of context, implying something other than what I meant to say
Sandy emailed me back:
You made your conditions clear to us from the beginning of our discussions and involvement in the Speer project and I passed that information on to Vanessa and Tomer. We also agreed that your remuneration could only be negotiated once the extent of your participation in film was determined. [and in a 2nd email a few hours later] Andrew, don’t sign anything in Tel Aviv without me seeing it first. I know you’re perfectly capable of looking after yourself but this is crucial point.
Lapa and her producer Tomer Eliav wrote the same day:
Thank you for your mail, this is a good opportunity for me to thank you for your trust and cooperation. It goes without saying that we won't abuse your trust nor misuse your words. … To answer your email and reassure you, we do agree that everything you say on camera or said on the tapes (and maybe will say to us on tape and not on video in the coming weeks/months) will be shown to you and you will have the final approval on your words and be able to ensure that nothing that is in the film from what you said is implying something else than what you actually said or meant.
Heigh ho. Throughout this period I was working on several other projects with deadlines, as well as being the father to two young children, one with cystic fibrosis. I had never given Lapa’s transcriptions of my tapes – over 500 pages – more than a cursory glance, pointing out a few mistakes (“Who is Ronald?” asked Lapa early on. It was actually Erwin Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, a Field Marshall in Wehrmacht) but not having the time to wade through them all, let alone compare them to the original recordings. Now, somewhat belatedly, I started working my way through them with an eye on writing a book, but became increasingly concerned at the many mistranscriptions. I wrote to her producer on August 1st:
I'm finding so many mistakes in the tape transcriptions that I am more or less having to start again for my book. Did anyone ever proofread them from scratch? Some of the mistakes are understandable, but others seem just wrong. A tiny example from the tape I happen to be on at the moment, 6-1: the transcription has Speer saying that Julius Schaub was "of course the Bavarian type" whereas Speer actually says that he was "a coarse, Bavarian type" - an understandable mistake perhaps, but in the previous sentence the transcription has Speer saying "He was tall" whereas in fact Speer says, "He was stout" ... !! Since the two words sound totally different, I can't understand why the mistake was made. I'm really worried that Vanessa will be basing some of her choices on these sort of inaccurate transcriptions, and strongly urge an English-speaking proof reader
Lapa and Eliav were by now pressuring me into signing a Deal Memo, and on August 13th they rang just as we are sitting down to a family meal. I reiterated my insistence on seeing something put together before signing anything. Lapa wept and tempers flared, finally curtailed by me. The following day I sent her a long email, ending our relationship:
I'm afraid that after digesting our Friday night phone call, I realise that I cannot work with you. I've experienced several emotional meltdowns from actresses in my career, but never from a director. I don't blame you, but I am quite unable to work with someone prone to this sort of response. ... I'm truly sorry that our mutual efforts have thus been wasted, but I know myself well enough to know that I cannot work with someone whose temperament is so incompatable with mine, nor do I wish to do so at my age
That was more or less it from my point of view, and I got on with other projects.
The years flowed by, with periodic threats from Lapa’s legal team that inhibited Errol from making his Speer film with me. Towards the end of 2019 I was called by Lapa’s German lawyer, Guido Hettinger, with a view to finding a “two-picture solution” whereby Lapa could make her film and I could make mine with whomever I liked.
We were close to reaching an agreement when, on 17 January 2020, I received a somewhat cryptic email from Guido: “Do you have time for a phone call tomorrow? It would be very important.” The upshot was that, unbeknownst to Guido (or so he claimed), Lapa had already made her movie and moreover had had it accepted by the Berlin Film Festival for screening the following month. I was gobsmacked. He proposed flying to London the following Monday to show me (and, at my insistence, Sandy Lieberson) her film.
Sandy and I met up with Guido to watch it – on Guido’s laptop. There was no time to take notes, but more than once I asked Guido to stop the film to express my abhorrence at what we were watching, or rather, hearing. This was no documentary, but rather, a mockumentary of the historical facts in so far as my relationship with Speer was concerned. We heard an actor (who turned out to be her production manager) pretending to be me, but with an accent and intonations nothing like mine, who came across as a jaded anti-Semite with neither the interest nor the balls to take the actor voicing Speer to task over anti-Semitic remarks that the real Speer never made to me and are nowhere to be found within the 500+ pages of tape transcripts. Nor indeed were many of the other remarks heard during the movie, neither “my” questions nor “Speer”’s responses, and even when some sentences were verbatim, they were more often than not plucked out of context.
Despite a few assurances that certain changes would be made, Lapa screened her film at Berlin more or less unaltered. When I started making noises on the internet, I received several heavy-handed “cease-and-desist” letters from her lawyers, although not from Guido, who I felt (naively?) was genuinely embarrassed by his involvement, despite his name appearing on the credits as one of Lapa’s producers. To the last such threatening letter I responded to her lawyer:
A number of people who saw Vanessa’s film in Berlin concluded that I was/am an anti-Semite. If you doubt me, ask David Finkel, Director of the Austin Jewish Film Festival to name but one. As my eldest son David is Jewish, the matter is also familial, and to be branded an anti-Semite as a direct result of Vanessa’s film is deeply painful and an absolute smear on my reputation. That she should seek to gag me from defending myself in the face of such a smear is an attempt at censorship worthy of Goebbels himself.
I never received an answer.
In November 2021, the film was released in the United States to mostly positive reviews, garnering 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. A few weeks later it was released in Germany, and met with an equally positive response. Few had either the time or energy to research the net, otherwise they would have seen my March 2020 posting on the IMBd, but then again, why should they? In the face of it, this award-winning Belgian-Israeli film-maker had unmasked Albert Speer’s attempt to goad a naive young English scriptwriter into perpetrating his version of history via a Hollywood movie onto a gullible world. Thanks only to the heroes at Paramount, his evil plan was thwarted. End of story – but a seductive story nonetheless, and one that most reviewers devoured.
One of the few who didn’t was Glenn Kenny. In answer to his probing questions, Lapa and Eliav told him (and others) that her film is “100% accurate to the original [tapes]. Every breath, every laugh, every pause, every intonation.”
What follows are examples of provable inaccuracies, distortions and outright fabrications. The timings refer to Lapa’s film as screened in the USA. The tape timecodes refer to the original audio recordings.
07.12: Speer never sent me any audio letter prior to consulting with him in November 1971. Yet we hear the actor voicing Speer purring, “Maybe you can hear the music: Brahms…” Pure invention!
08.53: “You have the script here? A copy for me?” It was my outline - I hadn’t yet written the script.
12.12: Speer never said to me that he destroyed a file that could have gone against him at Nuremberg. In fact he said virtually the opposite:
SPEER: I read several things which were afterwards evidence of the trial, you know? Of my files. And I didn’t realize that such could be used against me in our own case because I didn’t feel involved. I remember the only thing which I said to my secretary that should be destroyed, it was a file of some minor people who were asking for gas warfare, of the industry. I don’t know who it was. But in any case, it was not important. I said put that away, destroy it. And that was the only thing, you know? And then afterwards, to my great astonishment they found in my files a lot of things, which are really, which I agreed with that they are really justified as a part of the prosecution against me. [Tape #5-1-36:44]
14.60: Speer’s comments about the Jews were never said to me – “I had a feeling of disgust” – had he said that, I would most certainly have challenged such blatant anti-Semitism. Later, in discussing the actor Mark Burns, “I” am heard to say, “He’s not Jewish, is he?” and “Speer” answers “No, no – no.” I never asked him any such thing; besides, why would I even think that Speer might know, Burns being a relatively unknown British actor.
19.28: Speer never said “it looked really great” re the Nuremberg rally, nor “For my family I would then be a star” if Hitler had shot him. What he actually said was “So I thought if Hitler will kill me, that’s a good thing for my family. That gives my family a start, you know?” – i.e. a [fresh] start, not a star. [Tape #1-1-13:19]
21.20: Speer never said “it was love at first sight”.
22.08: I took this photo of Speer. No permission to use it was sought or given, nor for any of the many others that Lapa has pillaged (whether taken by me, David Puttnam or Sandy Lieberson), nor the gaudily-colourised 16mm footage of Donald Pleasence auditioning for Hitler, obtained from the BFI on condition that she obtained copyright clearance with us, which she never did.
27.13: My “Okay” sounds like I’m agreeing with Speer. I never said “Okay” in this context.
39.22: Speer never said to me re the war, “It was just good fun.”
39.53: I never said “And we’ll take them all.”
39.58: “I” am heard to ask Speer, “Had your ambition heightened somewhat?” “Certainly,” says the actor voicing Speer. In fact Speer said the exact opposite:
BIRKIN: At the beginning of the war, you said that your ambition was that, at the end of the war, you would go back to being an architect. In 1943, had your ambition heightened somewhat?
SPEER: No, no, no. Architect, I supposed that Hitler would have succeeded in getting through the war more or less unharmed, and that he would have started again with his architectural plans in Berlin and so. I would have preferred always those plans, too, because his plans were much more than to be a minister of Hitler’s. Every minister of Hitler, even if he was a very important one, was always in the shade of him. But architect, never. And everything, what a Hitler minister did, if it was Goebbels or Himmler or somebody else, was for history, for the history, was always a part of Hitler’s activities, you know? But architect was independent, ya? He had his own role in the history of arts or so. I was as conceited to think that it would be a major part of history of art when those buildings are finished.
BIRKIN: But ambition tends to increase as each particular ambition is realized. And since you’d come a very long way, by 1943, from your position in 1938, it would seem credible that your ambition also would have grown.
SPEER: No, no, no. Yes – but no, I always said this task to make ammunition or so, that’s a minor task compared with the task of an architect – architect of this kind, you know, with those– well, what Hitler said is, “buildings which weren’t built since the Pyramids.” The architect of the pyramid is still living in History besides the Pharaoh, but nobody mentions who made his spears for conquering somebody. No, I was quite aware of that.
50.45: Speer never told me he “had to be witty, like Voltaire”.
56.40: “I will lower that, that’s wrong – 35% casualty rate” … This was in response to Speer’s factual comment. On the tape I added, “We have someone researching this in London, these certain points. So, you know, in the end they can come up with an accurate figure.” [Tape #22-02-13:58]
57.07: Shots of the wheels of a cassette tape recorder turning (not mine anyway) reinforces the lie that we are hearing the actual recording, emphasized by Lapa’s camera slowly zooming in on it.
57.22: “Going to a wine restaurant” – was never said by Speer to me or even suggested. The photo was taken much earlier by David Puttnam when we (Speer, David, Sandy Lieberson and I) went to a restaurant on our first visit with Sandy.
1.02.08: It’s true that I referred to “the Jewish brigade” at Paramount, which is a term that might now be judged by some as faintly anti-Semitic, but back in 1971 did not carry any such connotation. The Jewish Brigade was a military unit in the British Army during WW2 (Jewish Brigade – Wikipedia) and denoted those with a strong sense of Jewish identity, e.g. Charlie Bluhdorn, who was the chairman of both Paramount and G+W, as opposed to Paramount’s then president, Frank Yablans. “That’s their problem” sounds like “but it’s not ours”. Speer actually said, “That is their problem” – as indeed it was mine since Paramount wouldn’t make the film unless the Holocaust was addressed. Not that we disagreed with them – virtually everyone involved with our attempted movie was Jewish – our problem being how to weave it into the fabric of Speer’s story, given that he denied knowing about it. [Tape #24-2-00:07]
1.03.02: “I don’t think the facts matter so much.” This has been plucked out of context, from a discussion I had with Speer in Berlin in November 1972, five months after finishing the script. I had been summoned to Berlin by Speer’s publisher, Wolf Siedler, who demanded that I remove the scene in which Himmler spells out the Final Solution to the Gauleiters at Posen, given that they had now proved that Speer was not present. I pointed out to Speer that if the scene was taken out, Paramount would pull the plugs. I proposed we keep the scene in, to which he somewhat surprisingly agreed.
It must be remembered that this was a character-driven dramatic film, not a documentary. What I was saying to Speer was, “Okay, maybe you weren’t at Posen, but for the sake of this movie, let’s say you were – what would have been your reaction to Himmler’s revelation of the Holocaust?”
BIRKIN: I think what matters in dramatizing the thing is that the characters should be documentary. I don’t think that the facts matter so much [i.e. the fact of whether you were there or not].
SPEER: No no.
BIRKIN: But I think that the characters must be documentary. And as accurate as possible. Otherwise there’s no point in making the film. So that if your reaction to the Himmler speech is out of character, then I think it must be changed. On the other hand, if it’s in character, in other words if you think that had you been there, had you heard about it, you would have probably reacted in the way we have it [in the script]. [Tape #26-1-25:52]
1.03.10: Speer never said “certainly when I was present at this speech of Himmler” – another of Lapa’s inventions. If he had been present, we would surely have been able to make the movie!
1.25.56: I am heard to say, “I can imagine how you felt, driving back then.” This remark has been plucked totally out of context.
1.26.19: Speer’s “I started to cry” is all pure invention. My response, that “it gives a slightly exaggerated picture” referred to the bizarre Berlin Philharmonic performance of Gotterdammerung during the Battle for Berlin in April 1945, not this instance.
1.31.41: Speer suggesting he might have said “Amen” to the Nuremberg judges and our laughter is pure fiction. The only reference to “Amen” on the tapes is Speer telling me that Hitler sometimes would cry out “Amen!” when sufficiently worked up at the end of his speeches.
1.32.14: Speer’s “Disastrous if somebody would see the first draft” … Speer was talking to David Puttnam, not me, re. Speer’s draft script about Goldhagen, not my script:
SPEER: Dear Mr Puttnam … Now to this first draft of the manuscript I have sent you, concerning the Goldhagen article. I have finished now the final draft, which differs from the first one by some better arguments and by better arrangement. 9/10th of the old manuscript is as it was but in another order which is reading better. … May I tell you that I consider this script strictly confidential, I sent it now to the lawyer Kempner who is still very active, he’s all problems of Nuremberg trials and than he will decide together with me if Goldhagen gets the script, it would be disastrous if somebody would have the first script and than argue about the changes made.
These and other instances of fabrication, condensation, or verbatim lines plucked out of context cumulatively add up to a very real distortion of historical truth unworthy of someone posing as a documentary film-maker.
Perhaps I should have been forewarned back in February 2016 when Lapa first got in touch with me and sent me her documentary, "The Decent One". Although I'm no expert on Himmler, it seemed accurate enough, but I was more than a little surprised when an actor playing Albert Speer read out a letter to Himmler in which Speer was heard to say, “In the wake of my visit to the Auschwitz camp...” I wrote to Lapa: "It's news to me that Speer actually wrote ‘after my visit to Auschwitz’. Of course he knew about Auschwitz, specifically the IG Farben complex, but always maintained that he never went there, having been warned away by Hanke. Where did you find this letter?” Lapa admitted the error and blamed the English sub-titles, although the German is identical. I google-searched the actual letter, and found that Speer in fact wrote, “After the inspection of the Auschwitz concentration camp by my colleagues Messrs. Desch and Sander...” This may not seem important, although the difference might well have earned Speer the noose at Nuremberg, but it was an early example of Lapa's mishandling of historical facts, and a taste of things to come.
On 27 January 2022 I received a letter from Lapa’s Belgian lawyers, accusing me of “continuously making false accusations about alleged historical inaccuracies. … Your deliberate deviations from the truth and blatant lies constitute continuous tortious wrongdoings since your mere aim seems to be to damage our clients as much as possible.”
My response: “I refute each and every allegation [and] I shall continue to defend both my reputation and the truth whenever and wherever I see fit.”
If Vanessa Lapa would like to discuss these issues in a public debate with an audience Q&A, I would be only too happy to do so.