Wednesday, January 24, 2007

They Saved Hitler's Brain: Why We're Fixated On It

They Saved Hitler’s Brain is a film you and your family need to see. It’s far from mere entertainment – in fact, it’s not entertaining at all. It’s just a cold, hard look at what happened after the war.

Y’see, when the jig was finally up, these Nazi dudes in the bunker sawed off the Fuhrer’s head and kept it in a jar, where – thanks to surprisingly advanced medical techniques – it continued issuing orders and consulting them on the creation of a Fourth Reich. Fortunately, the good guys found out and chased the Nazi dudes around and, like, somebody threw a Molotov cocktail at the car with the head in it and it melted like a scented candle in a bong shop. There are some facts in between, but the cough medicine I’d ingested to help me “understand” this cinematic milestone was unexpectedly potent.

Originally filmed in the early '60s under the title Madmen of Mandoras (that’s the mythical South American country where the bad guys are holed up with their jarful of “Mister H,” as he is for some reason designated), the film proved too short for TV broadcast and fell into the hands of some other people who shot new footage in 1968.

Now, the original film is truly dreadful – a Z-grade horror flick fraught with painful overacting and a script so retarded that the cast members seem ready to slap their own foreheads in mortification. But the '68 footage makes the original stuff look like David Lean standing on Eisenstein’s shoulders. We’re talking orders of magnitude worse. In fact, I wouldn’t call it so much a film as, oh, what’s the word for a troop of orangutans randomly pointing a camera? I’ll think of it in a minute.

Suffice to say that some catatonic-looking college freaks with too-long hair, some of whom (as has been remarked elsewhere) resemble the Blues Brothers, skulk around and commit acts of lackadaisically rendered mayhem; meanwhile, a spy chick in a miniskirt drives her VW bug to the apartment of a spy guy with a porn-star mustache and they mumble some groaningly awful one-liners about “women’s lib” before discussing secret formulas or something. Imagine a porno flick with all the sex scenes removed and only the “plot” remaining, then imagine the person who was supposed to bring the script smoked it instead.

Nope, that doesn’t sufficiently convey how bad it is.

In any case, it seems fair to note that watching this hippie-fried home movie from 1968 spliced into a feature from five years earlier is a bit like seeing one of the cavemen in Quest for Fire using a ray gun.

Fortunately, most of this stuff dissipates after a while and we’re returned to the comparatively swank environs of early-'60s horror schlock once more. Sadly, like cross-country motorists making their way through Kansas, we must brave many more miles of flat, plodding exposition before we get to the good stuff. Can we agree that a film that makes Jews like us fast-forward to get to Hitler is a unique atrocity in its own right?

But the Hitler scenes – they’re so good. In the titular role, Bill Freed (whose only other credit, according to IMDB, was an ensemble part in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1962 cowboy nudie flick Tonight For Sure) really sinks his choppers into the scenery – understanding that the essence of history’s most notorious fascist maniac is the yelling. Seriously, the dude is apoplectic 100% of the time, and that, my friends, is movie gold.

And since the Nazis knew that without his yelling they would lack direction (really, what have they accomplished since 1945?), you understand why they preserve his keppe in a relatively portable container. That way he can yell at them anywhere – in the car, in the basket of a Schwinn bike, even on roller skates! How they rely on his yelling to give them purpose and meaning. Although Freed’s guttural faux-German tirades prevent the audience from dozing off during the production’s many tension-free chase sequences, the same cannot be said, alas, for Freed's stunt double, the dummy head carried around by Hitler's truculent (and, I must say, easily defeated) underlings.

Why, then, are we so fascinated by They Saved Hitler’s Brain? There are many layers to the answer. As most Jews now realize, Hitler is probably still at large – and the primary role of human creative endeavors like film, literature and interpretive dance is to help us figure out where he is and what he’s doing. But there’s also the place of this unique enterprise in movie history.

And the more cough medicine I drink, the more I wonder about it. Sometimes, after the little swirly angels fly out of the 30-milliliter cup, I envision exchanges like this one, between the creator of the film and a would-be exhibitor:

EXHIBITOR: OK, first off, I love the title.

CREATOR: Yes, we think it has a lot of zip.

EXHIBITOR: There's just one thing ...


EXHIBITOR: Well, in the script it's just a brain. I mean, they call it "Mein Fuhrer," and so forth, but, well, it could be anyone's brain.

CREATOR: You can tell right off it's evil, though.

EXHIBITOR: That's true. That's very true.

CREATOR: It swells and throbs and whatnot.

EXHIBITOR: Mmm. Yes. And that's all great. But here's the thing: How do we know it's Hitler's brain?

CREATOR: Well, the heiling and "Mein Fuhrers" and what have you ...

EXHIBITOR: Sure, sure. All good for context. But I think we want to make sure the audience, you know ... that we remove all doubt.

CREATOR: I'm not sure where you're going with this.

EXHIBITOR: Well, what if they save the whole head? I think when you put Hitler on that poster, people want to see the mustache. They want to know for sure.

CREATOR: "They Saved Hitler's Head?" I'd be a laughingstock!

EXHIBITOR: No, no. Keep the title. It has, as you say ... it has zip.

CREATOR: A lot of zip.

EXHIBITOR: A whole hell of a lot.

CREATOR: Only an idiot would see "They Saved Hitler's Brain" on the lobby card and expect to see a mustache. Brains, I hasten to remind you, are unadorned by facial hair.

EXHIBITOR: Listen, Shakespeare. I don't know much about all that, but I know what sells tickets. I'm telling you they can save Hitler's brain inside his head, for Pete's sake, and the title still applies.

CREATOR: Well, technically.

EXHIBITOR: Sure! Think about that scary Hitler head in, oh, I dunno, a jar. You got the evil jerries angle and the sci-fi angle.

CREATOR: Let me think about it.

EXHIBITOR: What's to think about? Brain on the poster, head on the screen. Mark my words: People are going to want to see that mustache.

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