It's hardly news that the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was a deranged piece of work. But many people might not know, for instance, that his lust for German world domination extended all the way to the cinema. And not just Leni Riefenstahl's movies, either. According to ''The Goebbels Experiment," Lutz Hachmeister's weirdly enthralling film of excerpts from Goebbels's diaries, he didn't particularly care for Riefenstahl. (He felt she was profligate and unfocused.)
Goebbels wrote that he worked ''indefatigably to eliminate aestheticizing experimentation" from German movies. So the smash Emil Jannings vehicle ''Uncle Krueger," a transparent 1941 work of nationalist PR, was the sort of picture that really got him going. ''It's the kind of anti-England film you could only dream of," he enthused. In a tasty bit of nose thumbing, that line and the others we hear from Goebbels's jottings are read by narrator Kenneth Branagh, that most English of thespians.
Such entries are spoken over montages of archival footage that span Goebbels's miserable childhood at the start of the 20th century to his ghastly family suicide in 1945. The portrait the film arranges is more than a garden-variety incrimination. It is one man's chilling raison d'etre. He loved Germany to death, and he remained a defiant nationalist even as the Allies invaded Berlin. The diary entries the film culls present a man teeming with schadenfreude for all things non-German. Yet at various stages in his life, he found himself trapped in a thick existential crisis: What should he be doing with that schadenfreude?
National Socialism was the answer. ''My party is my church," he wrote. Politics saved his soul, and Hitler saved his country, winning Goebbels's mind and his heart. He actually feels ardent admiration for Hitler's ideas and his oratory. On several occasions in their years at the top of the Nazi Party, Goebbels also suffers disappointment. ''Hitler has broken his word to me five times!" Megalomania tempers his hurt feelings. He knows he's an incredible public speaker, and the movie backs him up. There's a silent-movie theatricality in the way Goebbels cuts through the air with his hands and dramatically shakes his arms: He's a German Expressionist.
In the diaries, he expressed his disdain of non-Aryans with an almost eccentric racism. The Jews are ''parasites." The Czechs are dirty. Some of his ravings have a comic tang similar to the off-key, off-color perceptions of Mrs. Mortimer, the wacky Victorian-era travel writer who never traveled and whose tacky comments are collected in Todd Pruzan's recent book, ''The Clumsiest People in Europe." Like Mrs. Mortimer, Goebbels's perceptions were colored by unfortunate early years. (Goebbels writes that his club foot made him an object of ridicule and virtually friendless when he was young.) Unlike her, Goebbels actually left his country to form his opinions.
Indeed, there were places outside Germany that suited him. He got a kick out of Paris, for example. And Venice was swell, though he hated the pomp of the city's Biennale. ''What good are gala events if the films are hopeless," he fumed in one diary entry. Goebbels's point is well taken. Scarily enough, if his career as an evil Nazi leader didn't pan out, he might have made a fine film critic.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.