CONVERSATIONS WITH ALBERT SPEER
October to December, 1971
These extracts are taken from tapes that I recorded with Albert Speer while preparing a script based on his autobiography, Inside the Third Reich. In the event the film was never made, which was perhaps just as well. After reading my efforts, Carol Reed called it a tragedy. Why? "Because they lose the war."
These extracts are for audio testing purposes only, in which Speer talks about:
FAUST (0 min 51s)
FUNK (3 min 27s)
HIMMLER (8 min 47s)
HITLER #1 (3 min 0s)
HITLER #2 (1 min 12s)
HEYDRICH (3 min 17s)
SPEER ON HIMSELF #1 (8 min 49s)
SPEER ON HIMSELF #2 0 min 50s)
These conversations took place in Speer's drawing room in Heidelberg, in the autumn and winter of 1971. There's an old Indian maxim, to the effect that if you want to really understand someone, you have to wear their moccasins for awhile and walk about in them. This is what I was trying to do with Albert Speer. I was then 25, about the age Speer had been when he first impressed Hitler with his zeal. In a microcosmic way, I had just spent several two years working for Stanley Kubrick, firstly on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then his aborted Napoleon. Knowing well enough what it was like to fall under the spell of another, I was thus intrigued by Speer's relationship with Hitler.
David (now Lord) Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson shared my belief that Speer provided the best insight into Hitler's third reich; we were all roughly the same age, and empathised with Speer's situation. We believed that a movie based on Speer's entanglement with Hitler would make the Nazi phenomenon a little more comprehensible, our theme being "there but for the Grace of God go most of us."
We visited Speer several times before persuading him to let us make the film based on his book rather than one of the major Hollywood studios then eagerly bidding for the film rights to his best selling account. Having lured Paramount into funding a script and pre-production, I set off for Heibelberg in October 1971 and spent the next six weeks visiting Speer almost daily. I'd already sketched a script outline, and after some general talks we started going through this outline page by page, Speer pointing the inaccuracies and any overt dramatic licence. This frequently - and inevitably - led to the ethics involved in choosing between fact and fiction.
It was an unlikely partnership - I the 25 yo son of a British war hero (my father had won the DSC and Legion d'Honneur ) and a failed pupil at Churchill's old school, he just under 70 - Hitler's former architect and Armaments Minister. I had to watch out for succumbing to the "I shook the hand that shook the hand of Hitler" temptation - undeniable, however politically incorrect that might be -while at the same time befriending Speer in order to gain his trust and confidence.
With Speer's permission I taped most of these conversations, which have remained in a trunk for the past 35 years. In time I intend to post up my screenplay, with audio links to Speer's comments; not that I think it a particularly good script, but without any conceit on my part I do believe that it has a certain historical value. Part of this value lies in my naivete: I was no expert on the Third Reich, and unlike Alan Bullock, Trevor Roper and - later - Geta Sereny - more or less took Speer at his word, as written up in his autobiography. Hence many of my questions may sound distinctly ignorant, but listening to them now, I think my very naivete caught Speer off guard, particularly once we were on a first name basis. Speer had several sons, all of whom had grown up while Speer was in Spandau. The youngest was only a year older than me, but none were close to him, nor showed any interest in his story. I, on the other hand, was greedy for every detail, constantly trying to put myself in his shoes, and thus a real friendship slowly developed between us. Long after the project had been abandoned, I continued to visit Speer in Heidelberg. He even used to bring me a cuppa tea in the morning. " "I shook the hand that shook the hand of........
I also believe these recordings have an importance beyond mere cinematic curiosity on a second, more precise account. I happened to be with Speer when he suddenly found himself charged by Erich Golhagen as having not only known about the Polish extermination camps, but having been present at Himmler's notorious speech at Posaen in 1942 when the chinless Reichsfuhrer-SS spelt out the fate of the jews to the German gauleiters, with Speer apparently among them. Was he or wasn't he? He frankly couldn't remember, and it would be many months before Speer's official diary could be accessed from the Bundesarchiv. This "did-Speer-know-or-didn't he?" issue overshadowed everything, and later formed the heart of Gita Sereny's excellent 1996 study, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. I believe the answer - and the proof to that answer -slowly emerges in these conversations with Speer, taken in conjunction with the story and fate of this project, that came dangerously close to fruition - with Donald Pleasance as Hitler.
My final excuse for publicising these tapes is that I think the whole project is a vivid example of the dangers in dramatising recent history. Emerson once famously commented, "I never really knew a man I didn't like." Or, more generously, "To know all is to forgive all," and this was our fundamental problem. How to portray Speer and Hitler without popularising them, however starkly portrayed? Carol Reed's verdict summed up the dilemma: "What a pity they win the war."
These initial clips have been posted in order to bid for the best system by which they can be cleaned up. They were originally recorded in stereo on BASF ferrite cassette tape. The conditions were by no means ideal, and for much of the time Speer was off mic as he tended to lean back in his chair. On listening to them over 35 years later, I am struck by the uncomfortably gemutlich atmosphere - you can even hear the tea being poured. I shudder that one or two of the things I said might convey me as a closet Nazi . Nothing could be further from the truth. But I also agree with Speer's observation, "We seldom recognise the devil's hand when it's resting on our shoulder...."
If you have any comments, please feel free to email me at email@example.com
Last updated: March 8th, 2005
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