Although we all know of a certain mustachioed dictator who failed out of art school, Nazi Germany’s most prominent aesthete was perhaps Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment. A Ph.D. in romantic literature, Goebbels initially struggled to become a published author and began documenting his frustrations in a diary starting 1923. Through its entries, a raw, tragic narrative of Goebbels’ life flowed until his May 1945 suicide.
The Goebbels Experiment (trailer here) attempts to stage the tragedy of Goebbels in documentary form. It enlists actor Kenneth Branagh to read excerpts from Goebbels’ diary against a backdrop of archival footage. The film proceeds chronologically, beginning with Goebbels’ recollections on family and youth and winding through the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.
Unlike Goebbels’ propaganda, the Experiment does not appeal to the masses. Those without prior knowledge of Goebbels or Nazi Germany would be hard-pressed to follow or enjoy the film, as it offers minimal historical context. Even for those with some background on the matter, the Experiment can still seem unsatisfying at times. Indeed, its scope is ambitious; the two hours of a documentary can only fit so many diary extracts. However, while some selections are spot-on, the overall narrative seems somewhat disjointed. Sometimes the film seems to jump too quickly across time, sometimes it lingers too long on a certain point. At certain junctures, events you’d expect to hear about, like the Night of Long Knives or July 20th Plot, never materialize.
The exclusive reliance on Kenneth Branagh’s voice, though logical and cleanly executed, becomes somewhat monotonous. Though occasional archival films offer brief respites, the Experiment can begin to feel like a glorified audiobook with optional pictures. A vital emotional vigor you’d expect from a story like Goebbels’, one replete with numbing internal conflict and paranoia, for the most part does not come through. It is not that Branagh is untalented or lacks feeling altogether; an indescribable spark simply fails to ignite at a systemic level.
The Goebbels Experiment is a fine attempt at reaching a high bar, but unfortunately it does not succeed. It is well put-together and has all the right colors and hues, but lacks the drama needed to achieve artistic enlightenment.
The Goebbels Experiment—Germany/United Kingdom. Directed by Lutz Hachmeister. First released August 2005. Running time 1hr 47min. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh.