Architecture of Doom: Hitler Channeled Artistic Frustrations into Coherent Ideological Apparatus

That Adolph Hitler had a conventional, rather banal, taste in art-kitsch paintings–is well established. That he and many members of his government were failed artists is also well known.

What is fresh about Peter Cohen’s chilling documentary, The Architecture of Doom, is his point of view. Cohen shows how Hitler channeled his artistic frustrations and political ambitions into the creation of a coherent ideological apparatus, whose self-styled mission was to enhance “beauty” in the world.

Hitler held that the once resplendent world had been defiled through miscegenation and degeneration. And once beauty was accepted as a legitimate goal, all means–genocide, annihilation–were justified. From this perspective, the gas chambers were the “logical” culmination of a global “beauty” campaign.

The Architecture of Doom, at once a cultural reportage and a riveting film, focuses on Hitler’s politics of aesthetics and aesthetics of violence. Reworking archival footage, photographs, and Nazi propaganda films, some of them familiar, Cohen provides a new perspective on the Third Reich. Born in Sweden, Cohen, whose father fled Germany in l938, has produced about 40 documentaries, of which the best known is his formally disciplined l983 Holocaust documentary, The Story of Chaim Rumkowski and the Jews of Lodz.

According to the film, the fuehrer had three fixations: Linz, his hometown; the age of antiquity; and Richard Wagner. Wagner’s Rienzi, set in medieval Rome, was Hitler’s favorite opera. Hitler’s fixation with antiquity extended to his military aims; Cohen describes WWII as a hypermodern war with ancient objectives. His plan to transform his provincial birthplace, Linz, into the world’s cultural center was a lifelong obsession–even when it was clear that Germany was losing the war. In February l945, the completed model of the town was delivered to Hitler’s bunker. The Nazi lunacy reached such proportions that some buildings were specifically designed to make proud ruins for future archaeologists!

The twin threads of aesthetics and genetics run throughout the documentary. For the Nazis, war and classical art were matters of racial health and purity. Modern art was perceived as one of several diseases threatening the German Volk. Indeed, a crucial document about “degenerate art” and cultural decay was conceived as early as March 1933, two months after Hitler seized power. And in July of that year, Hitler designed a comprehensive offense to weed out the sick, mentally ill, and retarded. Images of Expressionist paintings and the avant-garde were juxtaposed with medical photographs of physical deformities. Still, one of the ironies is that the exhibits of “degenerate art” drew masses of viewers all over Germany.

Within this limited space, it is possible to single out only some of the film’s shocking highlights. For example, the gassing and cremation of 70,000 German mental patients, carried out by doctors, whom Hitler perceived as “biological warriors.” Apparently, 40 per cent of all German physicians were members of the Nazi party. Or Hitler’s arrival in Paris before dawn, just hours after the city was conquered, to examine its opera house; the dictator knew inside out the blueprints of the world’s famous landmarks. For a brief moment, Occupied France became a laboratory for Hitler the art critic.

Cohen judiciously includes clips from the 1937 propaganda short, Victims of the Past, in which the deadly menace to the Aryan body politic is mental illness. And it discusses the l940 pseudo-documentary, The Eternal Jew, which used lurid footage shot in overcrowded Polish ghettos, to show “how Jews looked before they hid themselves behind the mask of the civilized European.” The Jews were compared to vermin: in an early documentary on pest control, termites attack a sculpture and are exterminated with poison gas.

What contribute to the unity of Cohen’s multi-layered work are Bruno Ganz’s poignant narration and Richard Wagner’s music. If the last half an hour of the documentary is not as powerful as the rest, it is only because the information is more familiar. In this sequence, the film somehow loses its focus by recounting in detail the construction of the gas chambers and Hitler’s defeat in the Russian winter. Another shortcoming of the documentary is the omission of homosexuals, who, from Hitler’s point of view, represented yet another manifestation of deformity; the gypsies are briefly mentioned.

Watching the fascinating Architecture of Doom makes one wonder how the course of history might have been changed if Hitler had been accepted to Vienna’s Academy of Art and had a successful career as an architect.