Friday May 7, 1999
Barry J. Hershey's pretentious and boring "The Empty Mirror" imagines that Adolf Hitler did not commit suicide, at least not right away, but hung on in that bunker long enough to rant and rave as he reviews his life while he watches archival footage on a giant screen behind him.
Extracts from Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" and newsreels presenting Hitler exalting the masses amid pomp and ceremony are interspersed with Eva Braun's home movies, but as time marches on such glorifying imagery gives way to footage of German defeats on the battlefield and finally the inevitable concentration camp horrors. In the process Hitler (Norman Rodway) moves from arrogant leader exulting in his immeasurable Machiavellian evil to a defeated, pathetic old man.
To judge from this film, you would think that Hitler's psyche had never been probed before on the screen. But if you look at "Triumph of the Will" in its entirety, not just in the clips presented here, it will show you how effectively Hitler was able to sway vast numbers of people. Then watch Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's nine-hours-plus "Our Hitler: A Film From Germany," which insists on viewing Hitler as a product of German culture, history and mythology rather than as a crazed aberration, and finally Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary "Shoah," also clocking in at more than nine hours, and you will get an idea of the magnitude of the man's evil, which also has been explored in countless other documentaries, right up to this year's Oscar-winning "The Last Days." It is hardly surprising therefore that Hershey's highly theatrical venture offers no new insights, even in Hitler's imaginary debate with Sigmund Freud.
As it progresses, however, the film becomes increasingly troubling and even offensive. That's because as conceived by Hershey and played by Rodway, a veteran member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, this film's remarkably eloquent and introspective Hitler becomes more and more Lear-like, in short a tragic figure. Hitler may have been complex, but he was above all evil and hardly deserving of the stature that tragedy confers. He triggered rather than embodied tragedy; the Holocaust, not Hitler, was tragic.
Rodway, whose resemblance to Hitler is slight at best, has stamina and passion--and not a little stolidity--but is not at all mesmerizing, which is what intimates like Albert Speer insisted over and over was so potent, so irresistible, about Hitler. In a much smaller role Joel Grey brings wit and a gleam of madness to his apt portrayal of Hitler's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. In mute, brief appearances Camilla Soeberg is too glamorous and beautiful as Eva Braun, and Peter Michael Goetz and Glenn Shadix have little opportunity to make much of an impression as Freud and Hermann Goering, respectively, and bare scant resemblance to them.
There's lots of flashy visuals as punctuation, but they simply serve to underline the theatricality of this entire endeavor, which belongs on a stage, if anywhere at all, rather than a screen in the first place. For a film that exalts the power of film, "The Empty Mirror" is far from cinematic.
The Empty Mirror, 1999. Unrated. A Lions Gate Films release. Director Barry J. Hershey. Producers David D. Johnson, M. Jay Roach, William Dance. Screenplay by Hershey and R. Buckingham. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes. Editor Marc Grossman. Music John Frizzell. Costumes Melinda Eshelman. Production designer Tim Colohan. Visual effects supervisor David D. Johnson. Norman Rodway as Adolf Hitler. Joel Grey as Joseph Goebbels. Peter Michael Goetz as Sigmund Freud. Camilla Soeberg as Eva Braun.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times