Captain Berlin Versus Hitler Review
Jörg Buttgereit - a name perhaps familiar to those primed on cult horror - earned his recognition from the ghastly Nekromantik features made between 1987 and 1991. He hasn’t been incredibly prolific during the time since those indie offerings, having cropped up intermittently to direct documentaries and episodes for various television shows. In 2007, sixteen years after completing Nekromantik II, Buttgereit went back behind the lens to film a feature-length project which would undoubtedly be his most ambitious to date. Based upon the character who originally appeared in a ten-minute short created by him in 1982, Captain Berlin Versus Hitler is in fact a stage play, shot over three days in front of a live audience at Berlin’s Hebbel Am Ufer theatre in November 2007 and during post-production infused with special optical effects for limited theatrical release in 2009.
The story goes that after the Nazis took power during 1933, the resistance took great pains in searching for a solution to end Adolf Hitler’s evil dictatorship. They formulated a plan to bio-engineer super-human assassins, eventually finding their man in one ‘Captain Berlin’ (Jürg Plüss). However, Berlin’s attempt on the life of the fuehrer was unsuccessful, subsequently forcing him to go underground and adopt a new identity.
It’s now 1973 in West Berlin: the former Captain has been carving out a living as a leftwing journalist, whose communist writings have been greatly upsetting the sexy but slightly deranged Dr. Isle von Blitzen (Claudia Steiger) - former personal physician of Hitler. Fortunately for her it seems, toward the end of WWII, Hitler’s attempt in taking his own life backfired: he managed to miss his own brain, which was hurriedly gathered by the feisty red-head so that she might one day resurrect him in a new bid to stamp out all those remaining “Yanks, Tommy’s and Frenchmen”. That day has come, 28 years later, and in the Defence Sector Berlin von Blitzen prepares for her masterstroke. Creating a body from the bones and tissues of fallen soldiers, she seeks to provide a vessel for Hitler’s googly-eyed brain which can all but pine for his beloved Eva and pet pooch Blondie. But von Blitzen needs one thing in order to do so: the blood of Dracula (Adolfo Assor), who as it turns out, has been laying dormant in a crypt on the outskirts of Brandenburg. With his blood she can grant Hitler immortality and unimaginable powers, but if she’s to even stand a chance she’s going to have to present the count - now a mere shadow of his former self - with the offering of a young virgin. And it just so happens that in the years post his resistance days, Captain Berlin had a daughter whom he named Maria (Sandra Steffl). When Maria is kidnapped by von Blitzen and Dracula, Captain Berlin is called into action one more time. Armed with his holy water-pistol, can Germany’s one and only superhero end the tyranny of these insane schemers and save the world?
War is often an easy target for satire; countries the world over have expressed through various emotions and mediums the absolute absurdity of human conflict. There’s been no shortage of poignancy, lampooning and even pretension in past and present cinema, and indeed the best cinematic examples have long since passed. It’s apparent that director Jörg Buttgereit is all to aware of this, so rather than go for any grand statements or realism he chooses to make a complete U-Turn: spilling the bizarre and feverish contents of his brain across the annals of World War history to conjure up his own “What if...” blend of heavy theatrical shenanigans and comic-book heroics born from difficult subject matter. If all of what you read in the synopsis above sounds mad, well, it’s because it bloody well is.
Buttgereit has the good judgement to not underestimate his audience and he keeps his feature on a level which speaks enough without actually having to try too hard. Although Captain Berlin Versus Hitler does harbour an undercurrent of loose political satire directed toward east and western relations which had divided a nation for years, it’s not a production that’s designed to be taken the least bit seriously - as if the title hadn’t already given that away. At its heart it’s simply one big ridiculously cheesy B-movie, which shows the director for his deep adoration of comic books - harking back to Berlin’s 1982 debut in which he originally ran about in a Spider-Man mask - and classic Universal horror features. Buttgereit throws everything at us in a play made up almost entirely of film culture references which offers loving homage’s to the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein, whilst aesthetically the post tinkering in making it almost resemble an old silent, enveloped by comic-strip narrative devices, provides an interesting window for the ensuing action. Naturally then, with such rich sources of inspiration, Buttgereit embraces many well established clichés; ultimately excelling with the knowledge of what his stage’s limits are. In order to combat the obvious difficulties in moving from location to location and generating some kind of pace and excitement within the confines of an intimate setting, Buttgereit relies on the professionalism of his cast to get us through various transition periods, which often entails breaking invisible walls in novel fashion and acting in slow-motion for its silly action sequences, all set to the cartoon-ish sound design of Mark Reeder, much to the giggling from audience members and the viewer at home alike.
And indeed the cast have fun in hamming it up. Curiously enough Captain Berlin himself has very little screen time, certainly for the majority of the first hour, and when we do see Jürg Plüss don the mask and cape he’s little more than deliberate fancy male posturing and ego. That leaves the feature in the rather strange predicament of centering itself on the exploits of three zany mad men, whom quite perversely we find ourselves cheering on. Adolfo Assor’s Dracula has the notable distinction of being the production’s voice of reason; he’s still a bit of a shit, but he serves to illustrate man’s flaws, with his preaching concerning humanity’s ongoing quest to destroy itself through imperfect ideals, which proves the exception to the director’s otherwise ridiculous and nonsensical style of storytelling. Buttgereit’s abject depiction of Hitler as a hopelessly lonely, embarrassing buffoon, now nothing more than an oversized, disembodied brain who ends up looking like Nazi-Dalek by the end of the feature makes for fine mocking, and von Blitzen, well she’s the entire reason to watch. Claudia Steiger does an incredible job of carrying most of the film on her shoulders; completely over the top and utterly barmy she’s an energetic and irresistible force who generates most of the laughter over her consistently foiled plans to provide Hitler with a new lease of life. Who knew creating a fresh dictatorship would be such a pain in the arse?
As mentioned earlier in the review, Captain Berlin Versus Hitler underwent a considerable amount of post-processing for its theatrical release. Media Target Distribution presents Jörg Buttgereit’s intended vision in an anamorphic 1.85:1 ratio which is unfortunately a standards conversion. Though Germany also uses PAL I would assume that Buttgereit shot the film on NTSC digital, which accounts for the interlacing. What we have is an intentionally degraded image: makeshift tramlines, dirt and scratches haunt many frames, while detail has been slightly softened. Colours are fairly drab, often muddy, save for some of the more colourful costumes, while the director intermittently shifts from colour to sepia tone. There’s also a fair spot of aliasing and minor compression artefacts. It’s a shame that the distributor didn’t put two versions of the show on disc as I’d have far greater interest to see how it looked originally; especially after having seen the wonderfully bright and crisp stage photography included elsewhere on the release.
The Deutsch DD soundtrack also comes with its own unique ups and downs. While it comes across very well on surround channels it’s not particularly dynamic, but that’s not a major issue given its low budget constraints. Buttgereit chooses to match his worn looking print with equally worn sound design. There are instances that rear about pops and cracks, even slight drop outs, although none of it plays any particular havoc with the dialogue. Audience laughter can also be heard regularly, and it proves both a blessing and curse, given the director’s choice to try and make it as film-like as possible, but never succeeding in taking us out of the stage arena. It’s still nice to be felt as one of the members sitting in the crowd, but again perhaps giving us the original version would have benefited in this area a little more.
The disc also comes with English subtitles. The menu navigation however is a little awkward and the “English Export Version” of the film can only be found in the bonus material section; admittedly the first time round I was concerned upon checking the disc, only to not find subs, and thinking there had been a misprint. Once accessed we’re treated to a solid translation which is only let down by a few minor grammatical errors. Additionally the comic-book style word panels are also translated, albeit crudely at times.
The packaging for the film is quite pleasing, seeing it come with a mini comic book featuring lovely retro style art from Rainer F. Engel, who also designed the excellent poster which adorns the DVD sleeve cover; It’s something you can imagine would be developed further. Sadly it’s in German only. Also included is a tin dog-tag and chain featuring Captain Berlin artwork.
Onto the disc’s bonus materials the main draw is the audio commentary by director Jörg Buttgereit and co-producer/cinematographer/editor Thilo Gosejohann. Or it would have been had it offered English subtitles. To make up for that, however, is an audio commentary from Mark Reeder, the film’s composer and sound designer. Reeder is quick to mention that he was roped into doing the commentary at the last minute, having only turned up at the studio to return a borrowed record, thus his stay is short at just twelve minutes. He’s a fairly chirpy and polite chap; speaking with a pleasant Mancunian accent he briefly informs us of how he had to deal with space restrictions in bringing his music to the stage, whilst making sure not to overshadow any important dialogue. He also touches upon providing certain props for the play and coming up with stylized renditions of Nazi themes which were ultimately never used. He does pause several times to allow us to hear some examples of his work, but as he says he clearly has little to elaborate on.
For the curious we also have two short films from the early eighties directed by Jörg Buttgereit, who also stars as Captain Berlin. The first is 1982’s “Captain Berlin - Retter der Welt” (10.09). Filmed out of a bedroom and some cark parks, the story introduces us to Captain Berlin, a fan it seems of Spider-Man and Bruce Lee, who is called into action when a gang of weirdoes kidnap Miss Pricilla. Very amateurish, raw and not particularly entertaining. The same can be said for the amazingly bad “Captain Berlin gegen Hyxar” (1.48), in which a tin-foiled bounty hunter threatens Captain Berlin’s existence. I believe this originally came from a series of shorts entitled Horror Heaven in 1984. Both shorts include optional English subtitles.
The rest of the bonus material, for reasons unknown, are left un-translated. There’s a Backstage Report (10.02) which takes us through some rehearsal footage from 2007 and also a clip from the World Premiere in Gelsenkirchen (15.23), filmed in March 2009. This features Buttgereit and Gosejohann address the audience prior to the film’s showing.
The Still Gallery (4.55) features a selection of fun photographs from the original play, throwing in a few concept designs and backstage shots toward the end.
Finally we’ve the original Captain Berlin Versus Hitler trailer and trailers for two films by Thilo Gosejohann: Captain Cosmotic and Operation Dance Sensation.
The gags aren’t as thick and fast as the trailer might suggest (and indeed there are a few local jokes which may fly over heads), but the suitably OTT performances, cheesy but charming FX and overall surrealist approach makes for some indispensable viewing. Perhaps Captain Berlin Versus Hitler really had to be experienced to enjoy it to its fullest extent, but nonetheless its newly presented format on DVD still promises for a fun night in.
Captain Berlin Versus Hitler can be readily purchased through Amazon de