Hitler: A Film from Germany has no clear plot or chronology. Instead, each part explores one particular topic.Part 1: Der Gral - Von der Weltesche bis zur Goethe-Eiche von Buchenwald (The Grail - From the Cosmic Ash-Tree to the Goethe Oak of Buchenwald) deals with Hitler's cult of personality in Nazi propaganda.
Part 2: Ein deutscher Traum ... bis ans Ende der Welt (A German Dream ... Until the End of the World) focuses on the pre-Nazi German cultural, spiritual, and national heritage that Nazi propaganda related to.
Part 3: Das Ende eines Wintermärchens und der Endsieg des Fortschritts (The End of a Winter's Tale and the Final Victory of Progress) tells about the Holocaust and the ideology behind it, particularly from Himmler's point of view.
Part 4: Wir Kinder der Hölle erinnern uns an das Zeitalter des Grals (We Children of Hell Recall the Age of the Grail) consists mostly of André Heller reading out scenes from the script that were not shot, climaxing in Heller talking to a Hitler puppet on how he completely destroyed Germany spiritually, combined with a satire on former Nazis who after the war made profits from the Nazi era by running a Nazi tourism and entertainment industry for foreigners.
One particular plot device, especially for mocking post-war fascination and cliches about Hitler and Nazism, is endless recitals from the non-fictitious autobiographies of people in direct contact with Hitler on his lifestyle, such as by Hitler's personal valet Heinz Linge (played by Hellmut Lange) and his adjutant Otto Günsche (played by Peter Kern), talking to the camera as if the spectator would be a young person who intends to learn about Hitler, while these seemingly endless passages end with original radio broadcasts on German war casualties and lost battles. This plot device thus mocks both Hitler's affiliation with his own personality and his increasingly delusional state that made him more and more unable to accurately lead a war the longer it lasted, as well as it mocks post-war German fascination with every little detail about historical Nazism and its personage, indicating that this post-war fascination might be nothing but subconscious admiration that will once more lead Germany to repeat the same downfall as apparent in the radio broadcasts.
Himmler's personality is sometimes explored in a similar way by reciting the memories of such people as Himmler's personal astrologist (played by Peter Moland), or his masseur Felix Kersten (played by Martin Sperr), though not as extensively as in Hitler's case and not ending in such dramatic radio broadcasts.
Especially unusual is the portrayal of Himmler's personality. While Hitler is always impersonated by Heinz Schubert, Himmler's role is split into several actors, including Schubert among others, each indicating a different purported aspect about Himmler's personality, such as "the esoterical ideologue" (played by Rainer von Artenfels), dressed as an SS member, "the military leader" (leading a war for Nazism and Germany, against the Jews and other degenerated, "un-German" influences; played by Helmut Lange as well), dressed like an ordinary Wehrmacht officer, or "Hitler's ideological adherent and loyal servant" (dressed in an SS uniform, played by Peter Kern as well).
Some continuity is given to the film by Syberberg's narration and fictitious characters. Syberberg's offstage narration partly philosophizes on pre-war and post-war German fascination with Hitler and Nazism, while in the beginning he tells a mythologized tale about the shortcomings of the Weimar Republic and its downfall giving rise to the Third Reich. Later, the narration focuses on comparing Nazism to basically "inhumane" pornography, Stalinism and socialist East Germany. In order to draw parallels between Nazism and pornography, Syberberg also arranges quite graphic scenes, involving a realistic, life-sized reproduction of Joseph Goebbels's carbonized, dead body covered in his burned and melted flesh (as found and photographed by the Red Army), inflatable sex dolls, and dildos.
A mythologized portrayal of Democracy and Germany is impersonated by Syberberg's young daughter, Amelie Syberberg, holding a puppet and walking around in mystical sets to Syberberg's narration, also appearing later in the film. It is not clear which of the two—Syberberg's daughter and her puppet—is Democracy and which of them is Germany.
The film's first part 30-minute intro is separated into two 15-minute acts, the first being Syberberg's mythologized narration of the end of the Weimar Republic, the second half being Schubert impersonating a circus announcer within an actual circus set announcing "the great, magnificent" Hitler ("the German Napoleon") in ad-speech and show-biz jargon, while also outlining that the purpose of the film is not only being "the Big Hitler Show" but also a film on Germany and German mentality in general, about "the Hitler within us all" and "Auschwitz as an ideological battle of racial warfare."
A similar role as the circus announcer is later introduced when a freak show compere (played by Rainer von Artenfels as well) enters the film within a prop set of a cabinet of curiosities, demonstrating various oddity objects and Nazi relics, such as the Spear of Destiny ("as owned by Thomas the Apostle, Saint Maurice, Constantine the Great, Charlemagne, Otto I, Henry IV, Frederick I Barbarossa, the Habsburg dynasty...and then Hitler!") and the philosopher's stone both found by Himmler's SS, Himmler's Germanic Urpferd (purported evolutionary ancestor to the modern horse), and Hitler's semen in a phial. This compere then also introduces the various supporting characters, each introducing themselves in third person after he has announced them.
Among them is also Ellerkamp (played by Harry Baer), a fictitious SS-member, later a post-war projectionist and film producer, and The Cosmologist (played by Peter Lühr). The Cosmologist is partly based on Hanns Hörbiger, creator of the Welteislehre, but the Cosmologist is portrayed as still being alive during Hitler's reign and after World War II, and looks more like Leonardo da Vinci or Socrates than Hörbiger.
The film's surreal visual style was developed by Henri Langlois, using props and set designs from the Cinémathèque Française that had originally been used for a film called Der Film - Die Musik der Zukunft ("Film: Music of the future"). It has also been noted that the film's visual style and set design are strongly inspired by Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, musical excerpts from which are frequently used in the film's soundtrack.
The film was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.
The film was a considerable influence on, among others, the critic Susan Sontag and the philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. It provided the underlying metaphor for James Chapman's 1993 novel about AIDS, Our Plague: A Film from New York.
Sequences from Hitler: A Film from Germany are featured in the film The Ister (2004), which includes extensive interview of Syberberg.
As the film was co-produced by the BBC, it was also released in an English version. While all of the monologues spoken by the actors are subtitled in the English version, Heller's translated offstage narration is spoken by a native BBC narrator. Due to the BBC's co-production, the German language used in the film, including the original World War II radio broadcasts and authentic speeches, receives a more sophisticated translation than in many Anglo-American documentaries on Nazi Germany. One advantage of the English version is that every time a new character is introduced or an original recording is heard, it is initiated in the subtitles by the character's name or the speaker's name, while the German version lacks such identifications.