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  • Benjamin May

The Empty Mirror (1996) Review

In a subterranean bunker, displaced from place and time, Adolf Hitler is very much alive. Full of his trademark demented energy and vigour, he rants and raves about art, philosophy and psychology. Dictating his memoirs, the Führer displays little remorse, while compatriots such as Goebbels, Goering and Eva Braun continue to feed his ego. However, the appearance of Sigmund Freud, as well as a mysterious woman in black, cast doubts over the fascist’s agenda; leading him to finally question his legacy and life.

A complex and intriguing experimental film, Barry J. Hershey’s ‘The Empty Mirror’ is a fascinating examination of one of the most infamous characters in history. Written alongside someone credited only as R. Buckingham, Hershey’s screenplay is strongly written, painting a nuanced portrait of the Führer, whilst condemning his National Socialist policies. Much like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s ‘Downfall,’ the film does not take a one-dimensional view of the man, exploring the humanity of a most inhumane character.

Hershey’s version of Hitler is a man struggling to accept the fact that his policies failed, that his ideas for the world were not realized in his lifetime. Though an egotistical lunatic in many respects, the film highlights the magnetic- and to modern viewers, perhaps maniacal- draw he had over audiences. Through his rants- many of which are taken word for word from ‘Mein Kampf’- we begin to understand the man better than in most other contemporary accounts or films; such as the overwrought ‘Hitler: The Rise of Evil,’ or in the rather one-note ‘The Death of Adolf Hitler.’

It is a powerful film with an important- albeit familiar- message at its centre: that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that even the most powerful and evil people are still just that; people. The film doesn’t try to mythologize the man, nor his actions, and is all the better for it. Furthermore, through his encounters with Freud, Hitler is finally faced with someone who disagrees with him on practically every level. In this respect, the narrative showcases that authoritarianism breeds isolated ignorance, leading everyone involved down a dark and sinister path.

‘The Empty Mirror’ is a visually striking affair, containing stylish imagery that compounds the main messages of the film. Influenced by the same expressionism and surrealism so well-utilized by Leni Riefenstahl, Frederick Elmes’s unique cinematography employs a compelling mix of black-and-white and colour footage. This choice deftly contrasts the stark reality of Hitler’s ideology with the vivid, often grotesque fantasy of his envisioned utopia.

Symbolic elements are woven throughout, with the mirror serving as a recurring motif for self-reflection, while the painting and chessboard symbolizes control and strategy. The mysterious woman in black introduces an element of the unknown, casting a shadow over Hitler’s certainty, while Elmes’s use of tight close-ups captures the intensity of his delusions. Elmes’s utilisation of low angle shots elevates the Führer’s imposing presence, while the dimly lit, oppressive bunker interior makes for a claustrophobic experience, trapping the viewer in Hitler’s warped mindset; forcing a confrontation with the disturbing allure of his rhetoric. Elmes’s work not only enhances the psychological drama of proceedings, but also serves as a stark reminder of the power of visual media to manipulate and mesmerize.

Furthermore, John Frizzell’s score is haunting and evocative. Combined with Elmes’s visuals, his work recreates the intense atmosphere that must have been experienced at a National Socialist rally in the late 30’s. Making effective use of pieces by Wagner and others, Frizzell’s stirring melodies create an atmosphere of epic dread, which is only compounded by the affecting sound design, as well as Melinda Eshelman’s remarkably accurate costume design; while Marc Grossman’s intuitive editing holds everything together adroitly.

‘The Empty Mirror’ finds Norman Rodway starring as Hitler, delivering a powerful and poignant performance that highlights the man’s madness, as well as his humanity. Rodway could be the fascist’s double, at times, so uncannily does he capture Hitler’s expressive gesticulations. It is a grounded performance, full of nuance and subtlety. Camilla Søeberg is equally good as the somewhat naïve Eva Braun, while Peter Michael Goetz, Glenn Shadix and Joel Grey do sterling efforts as Freud, Goering and Goebbels, respectively.

A fascinating film, ‘The Empty Mirror’ is a clever and canny examination of Adolf Hitler, that doesn’t attempt to excuse the man or lessen the inhumanity of his actions. A balanced and provocative portrait of the madness borne of absolute power; it is a film that will keep one thinking long after the credits have rolled. Boasting strong dialogue, power-house performances, a stirring score and striking cinematography, Barry J. Hershey’s ‘The Empty Mirror’ casts a reflection of life one cannot ignore.


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