Rather like a more prosaic companion piece to Hans-Juergen Syberberg's hallucinatory "Our Hitler," "The Empty Mirror" provides Adolf Hitler with the dramatic opportunity to recapitulate, explain and analyze his insidious career. Long-gestating first feature by academic and shorts filmmaker Barry J. Hershey automatically will be anathema to some audiences, because it gives voice to the Nazi leader's views.

Rather like a more prosaic companion piece to Hans-Juergen Syberberg’s hallucinatory “Our Hitler,” “The Empty Mirror” provides Adolf Hitler with the dramatic opportunity to recapitulate, explain and analyze his insidious career. Long-gestating first feature by academic and shorts filmmaker Barry J. Hershey automatically will be anathema to some audiences, because it gives voice to the Nazi leader’s views. But for those willing to join in Hershey’s intellectual, psychological and historical exercise, there are rewards to be had in mulling over the terrible but fascinating issues the film raises. Distinctly uncommercial on the face of it, this unusual, highly specialized psychodrama will have to take playing time wherever it can find it.

A virtual one-man performance piece by British actor Norman Rodway, pic imagines a postwar Hitler holed up in an underground bunker dictating his memoirs to a blond officer, prodded by memories provided by the constant projection of movies documenting his glory years and provoked by discussions with such inner-circle figures as Eva Braun, Hermann Goering and Josef Goebbels, as well as Sigmund Freud.

Declaring his legacy “of destruction and grandeur” a success because he achieved immortality, Hershey’s Hitler sees his life’s achievements as the creation of visionary art on a massive scale. “I am the artist and I was the artwork,” he declares, with Goebbels concurring, “Compared to you, Wagner was a minimalist.”

Obsessively running footage of his speeches and giant rallies, and ruminating over a large-scale model of his architectural plans for the new Berlin, Hitler speaks in intriguing ways of how, from the beginning, he designed his aesthetic and public events for how they would look on film, how he edited out any shots that would diminish his charisma and myth of invincibility and how, for him, Nazism was a form of artistic explosion.

Jumping off from looks at Braun’s home movies, Hershey does an extended riff on Hitler’s fascination with blonds, even to having him dye his own hair. The Fuhrer also points with pride to his having served the unspoken needs of the German people via his own prejudices and obsessions, and his “genius” of having combined two great “enemies,” Jews and Marxism, into one great evil.

Along with diatribes about the primacy of race and about Stalin, Churchill and the course of the war, Hitler is gently prodded by Freud into examining the source of his own psychoses, phobias and hang-ups, to somewhat superficial effect. Just when it should synthesize its elements to achieve maximum force, the film instead loses its specific power and much of its interest with Hitler’s quick aging and descent into utter madness, when he tries to step through “the empty mirror filled with hate.”

Rodway has been made up to resemble an old Hitler sufficiently enough that Hershey can comfortably intercut between the actor and footage of the real thing. Speaking in meticulous British English, Rodway gives a forceful account of the demented but nonetheless eloquent dictator, keeping the viewer in the game at times when Hershey’s abilities prove too mundane and unexalted for what he is trying to do.

The politics and moral acceptability of Hershey’s undertaking could easily be dismissed out of hand, and will be by those who want to view Hitler as the simplified embodiment of all evil, and leave it at that. But for anyone willing to ponder the specifics of Hitler’s twisted mind and acts, there are elements here to engage the interest.

Shot on a Burbank soundstage, pic boasts excellent production design by Tim Colohan and lensing by Frederick Elmes, as well as skilled use of Nazi-era docu footage.

The Empty Mirror

Production

A Walden Woods Films presentation. Produced by David D. Johnson, M. Jay Roach, William Dance. Directed by Barry J. Hershey. Screenplay, Hershey, R. Buckingham.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Frederick Elmes; editor, Marc Grossman; projection sequences editor, William Dance; music, John Frizzell; production design, Tim Colohan; costume design, Melinda Eshelman; sound (Dolby), Kenneth McLaughlin; sound design, David Knuepper, Glenn T. Morgan; visual effects supervisor, David D. Johnson; assistant director, Chris Edmonds; second-unit directors, Dance, Roach; casting, Judy Courtney. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week), May 13, 1996. Running time: 129 min.

With

Adolf Hitler - Norman Rodway
Eva Braun - Camilla Soeberg
Sigmund Freud - Peter Michael Goetz
The Typist - Doug McKeon
Hermann Goering - Glenn Shadix
Josef Goebbels - Joel Grey
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