In the company of Birkin, who he regards as an artistic collaborator—their project is to be a fictionalized biopic of Speer drawn from the rehabilitated Nazi’s own accounts—Speer is unguarded. The pair come to an early agreement: they must not depict “the Third Reich as a Cecil B. De Mille spectacle.” It is no small irony that in his design of the Cathedral of Light at Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies Speer created just such a spectacle in real life. Asked by Birkin about his own attitudes toward Jews in the 1930s, as his boss was ramping up his attacks on German Jews, Speer shrugs. Well, they were clearly prosperous, they got by through money-lending, many of them were illegal immigrants, and the more affluent ones had very nouveau riche tastes and traits. “But again I can’t say,” Speer insists, “that it was an anti-semitic feeling. It was a feeling of disgust.”
For all this sort of thing—and there’s a good deal of it—“Speer Goes To Hollywood” depicts a Birkin who’s reluctant to stand against Speer. He’s clearly attached to this destined-to-be-abortive project (a TV mini-series based on Speer’s memoirs materialized many years later, without Birkin’s involvement and after Speer’s death), and doesn’t want to blow it. And he doesn’t want to give up on the “good Nazi” narrative Speer’s trying to sell him, although it’s clear over time Birkin doesn’t buy it. Indeed, as his questions to Speer become more pointed, Speer’s hemming and hawing suggest Speer knows he’s walked into some kind of trap here.
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. Only there’s a problem here: the conversations between Birkin and Speer, and Birkin and Reed, are not from Bikin’s cassette recordings. Rather, director Vanessa Lapa hired voice actors to speak the words of the real-life players. 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 to the author.] This means 100% accurate to the original. Every breath, every laugh, every pause, every intonation.” The rationale is that the audio quality on the 50-year-old-cassettes was too poor to be used, even after substantial engineering work. That said, I think the viewer should be aware of this from the beginning, instead of having to find out in end-credits fine print. Given how much hangs on those intonations, I’d like to have more than just the director’s word that they’re accurately reproduced. But that’s just me.
Now playing in select theaters.