The Goebbels Experiment (2005)

“Now we just stay the course” Joseph Goebbels

If at first glance the idea of Kenneth Branagh reading excerpts from the diary of Joseph Goebbels seems to provide a poor basis for a documentary, think again. The Goebbels Experiment is absolutely gripping stuff, and if you’re the slightest bit interested in Goebbels, WWII or the nature of propaganda, you won’t be disappointed in this superb unusually crafted documentary.

Goebbels, who earned the title “Mastermind of the Third Reich” kept copious notes in over 75,000 pages of diary entries. These diaries were ferreted away in the Red Army archives in Moscow until they were discovered in 1992. Goebbels has always remained a somewhat shadowy figure–eclipsed by Hitler, but these diaries provide a chilling insight into the thoughts of a man who was at once incredibly intelligent–but also horribly warped.

The diary excerpts begin in the 20s before Goebbels met Hitler and became an integral part of the Third Reich. The excerpts expose the thoughts of a man who hates most of the world, loathes his employment in a bank, and expresses a lack of direction and despair. Even at this relatively early stage of things, Goebbels had a definite vision of a different Germany and states “we need a firm hand.” When Goebbels finally meets Hitler, he seems to realize that Hitler is the person he’s been looking for. He sees Hitler as a “born motivator” and believes “with him we can conquer the world.”

The film mostly covers excerpts specific to Goebbels’ career in the Third Reich and his role as the Minister of Propaganda. Archival WWII footage is set as the background to the excerpts which trace Goebbels’ rise and fall–the halcyon days of travel to Paris and various film festivals–and ultimately to the end in an underground Berlin bunker.

Throughout it all, the film juxtaposes Goebbels’ most private thoughts–read brilliantly by Branagh–against his public persona. The diaries reveal thoughts on Leni Riefenstahl, Goring, Hess, and Hitler while Goebbels expresses hatred for various world leaders and a grudging admiration for Churchill. Goebbels’ hatred for the Jews is present from the earliest parts of his diaries, and the statements that include his long-held plans for the Jews are chilling and leave no illusions about his murderous intentions. One of the most powerful scenes in the film includes Goebbels’ “Total War” speech, and it’s incredible to see the rapturous crowd respond to his calls for death and destruction. Over the course of the film, a terrifying portrait of an ambitious, bitter, vindictive and delusional man emerges–a man whose brilliant manipulation of propaganda swayed a nation and staved off the reality of the failure of the Third Reich until that failure could no longer be ignored. It becomes clear that ultimately Goebbels was consumed by his own propaganda. From director Lutz Hachmeister.

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