In 2007 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 superhero 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?
Kevin Gilvear, DVD Times
written and directed by Jörg Buttgereit
director of photography: Thilo Gosejohann
Pilo Adrian Ilea
Music: Mark Reeder, Peter Synthetik.
Robot by Hannes Heiner
Production design: Claus R. Amler
Edited by Thilo Gosejohann
Optical effects: Ulli Fleischer
Best boy: Veit Gries
Production: JB Films / Neverhorst Company
2009, 75 min.