The background story

Vanessa Lapa on tapes, Andrew Birkin and Speer Goes To Hollywood

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Speer Goes to Hollywood director Vanessa Lapa on Albert Speer: “The dissonance, the clash that occurs between what we know and the book and what we hear on the tapes, it’s mind-blowing and very disturbing.”
Speer Goes to Hollywood director Vanessa Lapa on Albert Speer: “The dissonance, the clash that occurs between what we know and the book and what we hear on the tapes, it’s mind-blowing and very disturbing.” Photo: Walter Frentz Collection, Berlin

In 2014, I met Vanessa Lapa at Film Forum in New York with her co-producer Felix Breisach for a conversation on The Decent One (Der Anständige), based on previously unseen family diaries, photographs and private letters found in Heinrich Himmler's home. We spoke about Marlene Dietrich singing as a marker of time in her documentary, if Hannah Arendt's Banality Of Evil works here and how the writings were obtained, transcribed and put on film. Now in the fall of 2021, Vanessa joined me on Zoom to discuss Speer Goes To Hollywood, co-written with Joëlle Alexis, and her take on the interviews done by Andrew Birkin with Albert Speer in 1971.

Vanessa Lapa with Anne-Katrin Titze on Stanley Cohen: “Stanley told us about a 1971 Paramount project and he urged me to contact Andrew Birkin.”
Vanessa Lapa with Anne-Katrin Titze on Stanley Cohen: “Stanley told us about a 1971 Paramount project and he urged me to contact Andrew Birkin.”

The voices for Albert Speer (Anno Koehler), Andrew Birkin (Jeremy Portnoi), Carol Reed (Roger Ring), and Margarete Speer (Kornelia Boje); Stanley Kubrick and a lost tape; FW Murnau’s Faust, Tomer Eliav (producer and sound designer), Stanley Cohen (executive producer) and Birkin connection, Claude Lanzmann’s The Patagonian Hare, Speer’s James Bond moment and his publisher Wolf Jobst Siedler, Frankie Goes to Hollywood as subtext for the title Speer Goes To Hollywood, and more were discussed.

Albert Speer was working on a screenplay about his life for a Paramount movie with young British screenwriter Andrew Birkin (Jane Birkin’s brother) in the winter of 1971, who has 40 hours of their discussions on cassette tapes. We see Speer, living in Heidelberg after his release from Spandau prison in 1966. There is a St. Bernard, Speer quotes Malraux in French, switches with ease between three languages, has his publisher as a guest, and wants the film they are working on to be more of a painting by Van Gogh than a photograph.

Who was Albert Speer? Hitler’s star architect, hired to build a new capitol of the world, the man who in 1942 was appointed Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production, who at the Nuremberg Trials was sentenced to 20 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, while Fritz Saukel, responsible for Labour Deployment and working under Speer, was sentenced to death. He portrayed himself as the Nazi who tried to assassinate Hitler and save Germany from scorched earth.

Reading Speer’s Inside the Third Reich Memoirs, gives insight into some of Hitler’s tactics to keep the power. Always choose someone unqualified for their position, as the person’s insecurities will work in your favour. Or, give one job to two people so that they will compete and you will stay in control. We learn about the Führer’s loneliness and his awe of architecture. There is nothing about Speer’s extensive use of Slave Labor from the concentration camps and how he helped companies like Krupp to make a fortune during the war in the memoirs. Vanessa Lapa’s documentary fills in those monumental gaps and juxtaposes the historical facts with Speer’s attempts to shape his legacy for the future.

Albert Speer released from Spandau Prison, 1966
Albert Speer released from Spandau Prison, 1966 Photo: RBB

From Tel Aviv, Vanessa Lapa joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Speer Goes to Hollywood.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Last time we spoke about The Decent One, we ended on the note that Gudrun Himmler [Heinrich Himmler’s daughter] never contacted you. I read that she died in 2018. Did she ever contact you?

Vanessa Lapa: No. It’s more than that. I think I told you that I really hoped and I tried to reach out to her via so many people and researchers. No, she never reached out to me and I read in 2018, we were in the crazy busy production of Speer, and I remember that we read on the Internet that she passed away.

AKT: You called your film about Himmler The Decent One, and there’s nothing decent about him. This one is called Speer Goes to Hollywood, and he doesn’t. It makes sense that the titles are telling us one thing while the truth is another. Tell me about the first meeting with Andrew Birkin! Did you know then that he had all these tapes with Speer preparing for this screenplay?

VL: First of all, regarding the title, the subtext of the title is from the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Everyone wants to go to Hollywood in his field, and Speer wanted to go to Hollywood. He was who he was; he wanted everything and the bigger the better. Regarding the tapes, after a screening of The Decent One at Film Forum in New York, a man came to me and asked me if I had some more research material about the correspondence between Himmler and Speer. I said yes, and he wanted to meet the next day. I had interviews and previous engagements. It took eight months and Tomer Eliav, the producer and sound designer, he scheduled a meeting with Stanley [Cohen]. Because I didn’t really want to hear because I had a feeling that what I will hear will be something I cannot say no to. Stanley told us about a 1971 Paramount project and he urged me to contact Andrew Birkin. I didn’t know that Andrew recorded all the conversations. He went together with Andrew to meet Albert Speer a few times in the beginning.

Inside The Third Reich Memoirs by Albert Speer
Inside The Third Reich Memoirs by Albert Speer Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: What was your reaction when Birkin told you about the 40 hours of recordings?

VL: We were in Berlin and I took a plane from Berlin to Liverpool. He lives in Wales. When I arrived, after ten minutes of hello, nice to meet you, we went to the office of Andrew and he said “are you aware that I actually recorded my conversations with Speer?” He said “listen to this,” and pushed play. I still have chills. After five minutes I understood, not only that this is a story I cannot say no to, but the curiosity. I really wanted to hear more. We spent the day talking and he told me all the background story, the why and the what. On my way to the airport, I sent him an e-mail that tomorrow from Tel Aviv I really want to talk with him, because it’s the next film.

AKT: It’s a fascinating subject matter. What made you decide to have actors voice both Birkin and Speer and not use the actual recordings? Was it the bad sound quality of the tapes? Why?

VL: Two reasons. First of all, we edited the film with the original recordings. Only once when we had the fine cut that we took voices who came to Tel Aviv and recorded in-synch on screen. Tomer recorded them. The voice of Speer is someone of his age who is coming from the same area with the same accent. Every laugh, every breath, every pause, every pronunciation is 100% accurate. The reason why, unfortunately in a way, I had to make this decision is because the audio was A) recorded 45 years ago on cassettes, which is the lowest recording quality.

It’s only 20 years ago that Andrew digitised them, so for 25 years they were sitting in a box and deteriorated very heavily. The other reason is that Tomer spent six months to clean the audio with the best technology in Israel, in America, in Europe, in order for me to transcribe everything to understand. There were moments in order to understand you needed to stretch it so we managed to understand and transcribe the word, but it’s not audible or usable in a film. On top of this, it was recorded over a period of three months, so there were moments where they were talking in the kitchen and they were going to the library for five minutes, but the tape recorder stayed in the kitchen, so you hear it barely. For the experience of the viewer for 98 minutes it was impossible to use recordings 50 years old, recorded over three months.

Mephisto (Emil Jannings) with Faust (Gösta Ekman) in FW Murnau’s Faust (1926)
Mephisto (Emil Jannings) with Faust (Gösta Ekman) in FW Murnau’s Faust (1926)

AKT: You mention the pronunciation. When I started watching I wasn’t aware that what I was hearing wasn’t the actual voice of Speer, so I took note of certain words that he pronounces in English, in a very strange way. “Soul” he pronounces “Saul”, he says “anhilate” instead of “annihilate” [also “towards” becomes “taowards,” “reprimanded” = “repriminded,” and “chemistry” = “schemistry”.] Did you pinpoint for the actor those words?

VL: To me it’s not an actor, it’s a voice. You also have the moment where he says Speer [rhymes with beer], not Speer [rhymes with pear]. The answer to that is the only direction that I gave to Anno [Koehler] was to be 100% accurate to the tapes. So even if Speer is making a grammar mistake, we kept the mistake as it is. You know, I also had in The Decent One Himmler’s grammar mistakes in German. With a historian we had the discussion shell we correct him or leave it with the mistake he made? My decision was to leave it with the mistake Himmler made and with Speer it was to pronounce it exactly the way he is pronouncing it. By the way, it’s a big compliment that you didn’t realise that it’s a voice, because the first eight minutes of the film you see and you hear Speer.

AKT: Yes, in the beginning we hear Speer speak French; he’s very proud of his language skills. He uses every opportunity to show his education, he name drops anything he can. His book Inside The Third Reich, I read it years ago and there was material that impressed me, that stayed in my head. For instance how he explains, when he himself was a minister [responsible for arms, as an architect] how Hitler liked to choose people unqualified for the position as a tactic. Speer explains well some of the strategies, but he himself, as you have in the film, did everything to present himself as the “good Nazi.” There must have been a shift happening for you too, while working on this material. Also Himmler and Speer are two very different personalities.

Vanessa Lapa with The Decent One co-producer Felix Breisach at Film Forum in 2014
Vanessa Lapa with The Decent One co-producer Felix Breisach at Film Forum in 2014 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

VL: Very different. The book, I feel exactly like you said. The more I heard, day by day by listening, transcribing, it made me crazy. Because I didn’t know much about Albert Speer. I knew he was this very fascist architect, the architect of Adolf Hitler. I knew that he was good-looking, smart, different than the other Nazis. But all the slave labour part, I didn’t know anything about it, so in the research I learned a lot. A lot more that I learned about Heinrich Himmler historical wise, I learned a lot about his private side, historical wise, I knew most of it.

With Speer I learned a lot, and then the dissonance, the clash that occurs between what we know and the book and what we hear on the tapes, it’s mind-blowing and very disturbing. To your question about the difference between the two characters, yes they are very different. This may be shocking, but this is really how I feel: If I had to choose to be in the line of [fire from] Heinrich Himmler or Albert Speer, I would have chosen to be in the line of Heinrich Himmler. Because in the line of Heinrich Himmler, you take your clothes off, it takes two minutes, and it’s over. In the line of Albert Speer you are going through the worst humiliation, the worst human conditions, starving to death, at the end either dying or barely surviving and then psychologically or emotionally for however many years you have left believe you are dead. To me Speer is representing the worst kind of human being one can be.

AKT: You chose to include clips from Murnau’s Faust [Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage, 1926]. The images are very beautiful, very haunting. A man selling his soul to the devil. What were your thoughts about that?

Speer Goes To Hollywood poster
Speer Goes To Hollywood poster

VL: Thank you. On the one hand it’s very one on one, what you hear is what you see. Some people may not like it, those two moments. On the other hand, to me it’s extremely deep because the subtext and my message is that I’m not sure that the devil in the relationship between Speer and Hitler, that the devil is Hitler. One may ask if not Speer is the devil. And for those who know Faust, there is this visual of both of them hugging and looking from above - for me it’s like Hitler and Speer looking above Berlin and the new capitol of the world, conquering the world.

AKT: There is a moment when you have Speer’s publisher sitting in the garden, talking about the prospective film, saying it can’t be a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle. Who is he?

VL: His name is Wolf Jobst Siedler {head of Ullstein]. It is his longtime friend and publisher. It is to him that he smuggled when he was in prison the notes that became his memoir. Ziegler was responsible for the translations for the book in every country, he was rights owner of the book.

AKT: There is a great smugness in the way he talks. Birkin’s film connection are his mentors and you bring up conversations Birkin had with Kubrick and a phone conversation with Carol Reed, who I think is also a relative. Were those on tape as well?

VL: With Carol Reed it was on tape.

AKT: Birkin taped his phone conversation?

VL: Yes, he taped these two phone conversations with Carol Reed on the same audio cassette, there’s side 1 and side 2. With Stanley Kubrick, he did record but he didn’t find it, the tape doesn’t exist. That’s why in the film you don’t hear the discussion between Kubrick and Andrew. But, which was on the tape you hear Andrew telling Speer when he spoke with Stanley Kubrick. I drove Andrew crazy, begging: Look and look better! He said, Vanessa, I want to hear it as much as you want. I just don’t have them anymore, I don’t find them. I’ve been looking. The discussion with Stanley, I did record it, because I recorded everything instead of taking notes. It doesn’t exist anymore.

AKT: The archival footage of the Nuremberg Trials and especially the liberation of the camps is cleaned up so well, that for a moment it takes your breath away. It makes time collapse. We are so used to the footage not being pristine. We talked about the sound design, the footsteps. You commented that finally someone likes it. Yes, I still like it, I think it is very powerful because it brings the archival footage closer. You may think for a second that what you see is reenactment and then realise, no, it isn’t, this is the real thing.

Vanessa Lapa: “On the tape you hear Andrew telling Speer when he spoke with Stanley Kubrick.”
Vanessa Lapa: “On the tape you hear Andrew telling Speer when he spoke with Stanley Kubrick.”

VL: Like in The Decent One it’s a decision. And it’s a decision that I stand behind 100% because we all know that most of the scratches and the dust is not because it was filmed with scratches and dust, it’s only because it was not well-preserved and was only digitised 20, 30, 40 years later. In the case of Nuremberg almost 70 years later. And there is this moment where we are stopping the cleaning, because it becomes fake and you have artifacts. In Speer Goes to Hollywood there are scenes that are very dirty because any cleaning effort was making it fake or creating digital artifacts. In this case I want to leave it as is, because it needs to be real. The same goes for the sound. The reason why we believe in our psychology and think that it was silent 50 years ago - it wasn’t silent! The footsteps were either not recorded for financial reasons or it was recorded and the soundtrack is just in another archive or lost and not together with the image. But the trees were green in Munich in 1930, they were not grey, they were green.

AKT: And footsteps made sounds when people were walking on the pavement. Ultimately what is at stake is truth and the question of truth. One sequence is about the question whether Speer was at the speech that Himmler gave in Posen in October 1943 about the final solution. The way Speer expresses himself makes it so clear that the concept of truth doesn’t enter this man’s thoughts for one second. It doesn’t matter. It is completely unimportant for him if he was there or wasn’t. I think that’s a core point of your film.

VL: Thank you. It’s a scene we worked very hard on and very long. With the editing, you see the first part of the scene and then you see it again but longer. The way we built the scene is to visually emphasise that the truth has no meaning for Speer. He is also not reflecting, he has no moral reflection moment. Truth is not an issue. Whatever works.

The Patagonian Hare by Claude Lanzmann
The Patagonian Hare by Claude Lanzmann Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: His vanity was fully intact. He gets out of prison, the first thing he tells the reporters is don’t I still look smashing after all those years? That’s what he cares about. Complete self-centeredness and everything for effect. I remember reading in Claude Lanzmann’s The Patagonian Hare and there is a chapter where he visits Speer and they talk for an afternoon. It becomes dark outside, Speer doesn’t turn on the light. He doesn’t offer him water or anything to drink or eat the whole time. His personality is so repellant!

VL: It’s so accurate what you are saying. For the most part of the year and a half of editing, the scene of the Spandau release was in the beginning. Then I started to challenge Joëlle [Alexis], the amazing editor. To put it in the beginning is easy on the viewer to give historical information, but once we tried it and put it in the end, it’s a last Machiavellian turn. Anyone I can imagine after 20 years in prison you would look thin and devastated. How can someone look so good and say it on top of it? But he really does look good for someone who spent 20 years in prison. How is it possible?

AKT: Your editor is your co-writer. Did you work together from the beginning?

VL: The first two and a half years is cleaning the audio, transcribing it, research. Once we start in the editing room, the script is actually chosen while editing. So I really co-wrote it with Joëlle.

AKT: The moments when Birkin and Speer are discussing what should and shouldn’t go in their script are fascinating. Along the lines of: Krupp doesn’t work so well, should we use Dora instead? By the way, did you see [Anthony Giacchino’s] Colette, the short that won the Oscar this year?

VL: I didn’t almost see anything in the last six years because of Speer.

AKT: When Speer says “this is my James Bond moment,” referring to 1945, the final days of the war, you show the juxtaposition so well. There is the world of Speer and the world that exists beyond.

VL: The editing was the biggest challenge to manage those three timelines and to go back and forth and forth and back. Joëlle is just an amazing editor and we had a very good co-operation. She understood what I want to say but she also has the ability to manage to put those three timelines, Nuremberg, history, and the here and now that is ’71 together to keep the viewer’s tension.

Albert Speer sworn in at the Nuremberg Trials, 1946
Albert Speer sworn in at the Nuremberg Trials, 1946 Photo: Realworks Ltd.

AKT: Will there be a third film to form a trilogy?

VL: Listen, I hope that next week, the premiere on Friday evening - I’m so thrilled and moved and excited to present at Film Forum - that there won’t be someone to take me aside and say that he has this story about … I do hope there will be many people there. But I’m not thinking about a next project yet. I do hope that the next one will be less dark, maybe.

AKT: I wish you a good trip tomorrow! Thank you for this conversation and have a good flight!

VL: Thank you, I’m happy to come to New York! Thank you so much for your time and interest!

Speer Goes To Hollywood opens at Film Forum on Friday, October 29. In-cinema Q&As with Vanessa Lapa and producer Tomer Eliav will take place on October 29 after the 7:00pm screening; October 30, 7:00pm (co-presented by the Museum of Jewish Heritage), and October 31, 12:30pm.

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