Film pairings at festivals often appear more happenstance and convenient than inspired, but thankfully Venice has delivered a really stimulating pair with Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s Hitler montage short, Conference, and Romuald Karmaker’s documentary feature on public responses to the death of Pope John Paul II and the choosing of Ratzinger in Die Herde des Herrn (The Flock of the Lord).
Conference, after starting with its credits running backwards, reveals a two-part film made up of 8mm black and white footage of video clips of actors who've played Hitler in the cinema—over 60 of them. Clarity of mise-en-scène in individual clips avoided in favor of a uniform aesthetic across the short, suppressing the ability, and desire, to identify which clip comes from what movie, thus creating what seems a single film of a multitudinous mass of Hitlers. It begins (that is, "ends"), at first, with a series of Hitlers walking into rooms and looking at each other, creating both a study of all the iconicity that makes up his photographic figure—the eyes, the hair, the slouch, the moustache, fatigue and mania—and an entirely new meta-cinematic movie which conjures a fantastical gathering of multiple Hitlers. This cinematic "conference" thus posits an endless series of Hitlers, each subtly different from the other but from the same essence.
The short then transitions to include more comedic interpretations, cleverly moving from Chaplin's dictator to Downey Jr.'s Chaplin's dictator, drawing into the fold Hitler's performative nature and the nature of performing Hitler. The soundtrack throughout is a degraded vocal sample of Chaplin's pseudo-German nonsense langage from The Great Dictator, put into the mouths of all, with constant applause abstracted to static and giving the film a relentless, hall of mirrors rhythm, moving from the paranoid gathering at the beginning of the film (but narratively the end), ending (at the beginning) with a speech, and between finding so many variations as to suggest that Conference is but a fragment of something larger and even more grotesque, morphing but recognizable, elusive yet everywhere, about both Hitler the man and Hitler the cinematic figure.
This reversed narrative, the multiplicity of performative interpretations of something seemingly firm and pure but in fact totally permeable and various, is echoed in a profoundly different context in Karmakar's documentary. It too begins at the end, opening in Ratzinger's home town right after his appointment is announced and showing the town already beset both with the opportunistic (selling Pope cakes, Pope herbal tea, tours of Ratzinger's mere 2 year existence in the town) and the spiritual (large public processions of praying and singing Catholics).
The approach is mostly satiric but far from accusatory or rude, and it assuages embarrassing advertisements and admissions from the more commercially-minded or prideful townfolk through an interview with a woman who looks at the Papal announcement on a television out of frame while she expresses some of the complexities, misgivings and strengths of her personal faith, as well as long sequences where the filmmaker does not question participants and simply films marching, singing and praying. This latter style is then picked up in the film's second half, which chronologically takes place first, during the gathering around St. Peter's square on the occasional of John Paul II's death. This includes significantly less questioning from Karmakar directly and trades it for a generous and contemplative approach for filming various aspects of the gathering: the day-long queues, the cliques of national groups (including, most movingly, Polish audience members), and the meditative, trance-like nature of large masses absorbed in song and prayer.
Between the two films is a suggestion of the infinite variations of the soul, and the soul's dealing with expression and being in the world around it. For the short we see dead horror wrung from fictions; and for the feature, we see the complexities of living faiths.