How a notorious Nazi almost got a Hollywood biopic — and why Kubrick refused to direct
Albert Speer, the Nazi architect who built a Cathedral of Light for Hitler and commanded millions of prisoners in the forced production of weaponry, had a comfortable second life.
After serving 20 years in prison, Speer became a best-selling author, penning the memoir “Inside The Third Reich.” Naturally, in 1971, he and his publisher were interested in a film adaptation.
“The problem is it can’t be a Hollywood movie, depicting the Third Reich as a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle,” Speer’s publisher said in an archival video.
Speer, then a regular on European television programs, agreed. “The book is of a certain quality. The film can’t be beneath that.”
The film Speer wanted was never made, and his meetings with screenwriter Andrew Birkin — a Stanley Kubrick protegé who would go on to co-write films like “The Name of the Rose,” — may have remained yet another Hollywood curiosity among the long list of scuppered Paramount projects. But Birkin recorded their conversations and — pivotally — kept them.
“Speer Goes to Hollywood,” Vanessa Lapa’s Ophir Award-winning documentary recreates the contents of Birkin’s tapes, down to the scuttling of chairs and pouring of aperitifs, shattering Speer’s reputation as a repentant, or even a “Good Nazi.” In candid conversation, set to a staggering array of archival footage, Speer reveals himself to be a vainglorious opportunist convinced of his intelligence and talent and intent on airbrushing his own complicity in the Nazis’ highest crimes as the minister of armaments and munitions.
By following the arc of his life and the pages of Birkin’s screenplay, Lapa and her collaborators have assembled something like the proposed big screen adaptation, but one that challenges Speer’s narrative with evidence from the Nuremberg Trials and Speer’s own bigotry caught on tape. The Speer who feigns ignorance of the death camps — or deluded himself into believing he knew nothing — visited Mauthausen, and was aware of the deadly conditions of his own forced laborers. Even as he recounts his frosty final meeting with Hitler, Speer rushes to take credit for the special spotlights he had made to illuminate the Führer at his rallies.
40 years after his death, Speer’s moment in Hollywood, a chilling true reckoning of his career, has arrived, with his own words damning his account.
I spoke with Lapa, who also directed the Himmler documentary “The Decent One,” about capturing Speer’s voice and how his insidious charm — and ego — made him among history’s worst monsters. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PJ GRISAR: How did you find these tapes of Speer?
VANESSA LAPA: At the screening of “The Decent One” seven years ago, at the Film Forum, someone approached me and asked if I have more of the correspondence between Himmler and Speer. And I told him “Yes” and then he asked me if we can meet. I didn’t really want to meet with him, because I didn’t want to hear about another story that I wouldn’t be able to say no to. He told me that in the ’70s, there was this Paramount project and he urged me to get in contact with Andrew Birkin, the scriptwriter. He did know that Andrew met and spent three months with Albert Speer, but he didn’t know that Andrew recorded. I contacted Andrew Birkin and then I went to see him in Wales, where he lives. After five minutes, when I arrived at Andrew’s, he pushed play. And when I heard the voice of Speer, I understood that this is the next thing.
What were Birkin’s memories of that time? He’s strikingly civil with Speer — they were collaborators, so of course that is understandable on one level.
I think that for him too it’s complicated because on the one hand he’s remembering something 45 years later, when he was 26. So he feels that today he would have asked other questions. On the other hand, he did keep those 44 hours of audio recordings, and made sure 20 years ago he digitized them. They were already in a bad condition. But he kept them. We know that he probably waited for someone to come and ask him or he wanted them to come out
When you started listening to these tapes, what struck you about them?
To me he’s representing the worst that a human being can be. I know it’s extreme, but if I had to choose to be in the line of Heinrich Himmler or Albert Speer, I would have chosen to be in the line of Himmler. I can fairly say that in the line of Heinrich Himmler, you enter a shower and after two minutes or three minutes it’s over. In the line of Albert Speer, you are going to humiliation, to suffering, to hunger. It’s the worst and at the end, you die anyway.
The sound quality in the film is incredible coming from old tapes. How much of this actually restored audio?
The sound is obviously re-recorded. The cleaning process took six months, and we did it with America, with Israel, Europe, with the best technological facilities, but it sounded terrible. One of the major problems was that a lot of recording started in the living room, but then they were continuing to talk in the garden, but the tape recorder stayed in the living room. So it’s very difficult to hear. If it was two or three minutes of the film, we could have used the original. But for 90 minutes? After five minutes, you as a viewer, you would stop, because it’s inaudible. So we edited everything with the original recordings, and then we re-recorded with voices. The Speer voice, he is the same age that Speer was in ‘71. He was born in the same area in Germany, he has the same accent, and everything that you hear, the laughs, the breath, the poses is 100% accurate to the original recording.
I was thinking it sounded a bit too clean and pristine throughout. I do think about the Anthony Bourdain documentary. There’s no disclaimer at the top of the film to say after a point we’re not hearing Speer’s voice, that these were actors.
I think that, at the end of the day for a documentary filmmaker, what is important is the trust that the audience gives to the director. And I hope that people trust me. I know that everything audio-wise is accurate and I can prove it. I know that every visual archive shot is accurate, to the best of my knowledge after six years of research. So I stand behind everything. There is no fiction part. Just to give you an example, the sound of the Nuremberg trials we edited with the original sound. During the last seven years the Holocaust Museum in Washington did this huge project to restore the sound together with the Hague Tribunal in Amsterdam. So, we were lucky that when we were finalizing the cut, we had access to the restored version of the Nuremberg trials. If not, I would have had to re-record the sound of Nuremberg. It’s not for nothing that the Holocaust Museum did a seven-year project to restore the sound of Nuremberg. Most of the people who are not, you know, cinephiles or people who understand film, like you, they don’t realize that it is rerecorded until they see the end credits.
I need to revisit those — I must have missed when the voices were credited! But on sound, throughout there’s also a lot of Foley, or reproduced sound effects. We hear the prisoners breaking stones, and chattering in the crowds over film we usually see without audio. Can you tell me about that choice?
My approach is that the reason why those film reels are silent, is not because there was no sound, it’s because either it was not recorded or the sound reel is in another archive and is not near the 35 or the 16 millimeter film reel, where we found the picture. But if you were in Berlin, in 1930, there was sound when people were going on the street. And it’s also going back to the black and white question, because the trees were green, even in 1900! It’s also part of my approach to give the viewer the experience to feel and to be there and not to see it as an outsider. It’s like the decision not to have talking heads, or external narration, it’s really for all of us to feel that we are in the scene, and not that it is something that we are looking at from [the] outside.
There is video of Donald Pleasence doing screen tests as Hitler in this. How far into production did this film go?
Andrew told me that he remembers that he filmed Donald Pleasence. He doesn’t have anything of it, but he does remember that he filmed. So we started to search all over England and then there was a hint from the BFI that they may have a reel, but it was not in the records. There was nothing written on it. It took almost two years. But I didn’t let go.
And also Kubrick at one point was considering directing! Was there anyone solidly attached?
Obviously Kubrick is Kubrick, so Paramount wants Kubrick to direct. Andrew knew Kubrick because he spent the two years before working with him. But Kubrick told him on the phone that unless Speer is not that whitewashed, he won’t direct the film.
That seems to have been the major hurdle — Andrew having to contend with his mentors and a studio who didn’t want a hagiography, though of course Speer was giving him that.
Andrew is there to push the narrative forward and to help us understand and unveil Albert Speer, in his own words. If someone has the responsibility, it’s Paramount and not Andrew, and this is one of the messages to me of the film, the connection between media and publishers and best sellers.
You mentioned the differences between someone like Himmler and Speer. What do you think Speer’s dynamic was within Nazi high command. He himself brings up Faust to explain himself. What made him uniquely susceptible to the Nazis, or unique among them?
I think that Speer was outstandingly smart, a brilliant manipulator and he understood that if he wants to get out of it alive, he needs to cooperate, to charm the Americans or whomever caught him. So from the moment that he was caught, he immediately said, “I deserve to be caught.” This is what makes him different than the other Nazis during the Nuremberg trials; he immediately cooperated. He didn’t say “Who the hell are you guys? I hate you. Germany über alles. I stand behind everything I did. I hate you, I hate the Jews. I hate everybody.” Speer said, “I deserve to be in court. I did some bad things.” He charmed everyone, but it was part of his strategy, because I don’t believe a word of what he’s saying.
And then afterwards, I’ll enrich myself by being the penitent one, but also one who didn’t really know everything that was going on. I mean like he wrote a tell-all! It’s that pattern we’ve seen before, you speak up after, when it’s convenient and it’s good for your bottom line.
He was the best friend of Hitler, of course he knew. The whole world knew. One of the messages of the film is not to be busy with the question of whether he knew or not, but how someone like him did what he did, and how someone who is an educated person, who knew after Stalingrad that the war is lost, decided to prolong the war, and because of his production capacities, managed to prolong the war for another two and a half years. You realize how many people died? Even Germans. Not only Jews. How many people died the last two and a half last years of the war, led by a man who knew that the war was lost?
“Speer Goes to Hollywood” will premiere at New York’s Film Forum on Oct. 29 and on Nov. 5 at the Laemmle Royal & Town Center in Los Angeles.