Best known for his epic, loose trilogy of films Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King (1972), Karl May (1974), and his seven-hour magnum opus Hitler, A Film from Germany (1977), director, screenwriter, and influential film theorist Hans-Jurgen Syberberg is considered a maverick of German cinema. Though unpopular with many German critics, he is internationally renowned (particularly in France where he has become a cult figure) as an iconoclastic genius to whom cinema is seen as the "total work of art, the 'Gesamtkunstwerk' of modern times." Heavily influenced by the plays of Bertolt Brecht and the heroic operas of Richard Wagner, the films of Syberberg tend to explore the very limits of German taboo; they challenge the intellect and delve deeply into the past at the literal and metaphysical levels to explain the often incomprehensible developments of the present.
He was raised by his father, a wealthy industrialist who became a farmer. He did not get to know his mother, who left when he was six months old, until he was eight years old. Though a conservative, Syberberg's father hated the Nazis and passionately supported England. After the war, Syberberg and his father found themselves in East Germany. Eventually the two left the farm and moved to Rostock where his father became a photographer and Syberberg was introduced to art and culture. His fascination with Brecht's work and Wagner's music began in his early teens. At age 16, he met Brecht and with the playwright's permission filmed him rehearsing his plays with an 8 mm camera: Twenty years later, Brecht would find this footage and use it to create Nach Meinem Letzten Umzug/After My Last Move (1970), a priceless chronicle of Brecht's methodology. At age 17, Syberberg fled to West Germany where he studied German literature and art at a university in Munich. Following his graduation in 1962, Syberberg began working with Bavarian television where in a three-year period he made almost 200 short documentaries and current-affairs segments. Beginning in 1965, he also made five feature-length biographical documentaries for television. His large body of work from this period earned Syberberg considerable acclaim and many awards.
In 1968, he made his feature-film debut with Scarabea, a surrealistic, shocking, and violent reworking of an allegory by Tolstoy. His next film, San Domingo, was also a literary adaptation and provided a strong warning against the potential for modern youth culture to become anarchic and chaotic. It was this film that caused him to fall into disfavor with German critics. The critical reception to the film led Syberberg to turn away from modern issues and begin looking into the past. Having grown up during Hitler's rule, the filmmaker had a lifelong fixation on the dictator and the reasons why so many Germans willingly followed his mad vision. The first entry in Syberberg's so-called "German trilogy" was Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King. Filmed in 11 days for only 300,000 marks and executed on a soundstage in a theatrical style very reminiscent of Brecht's, it was the story of Bavaria's mad king, a pacifistic, homosexual idealist and mystic who passionately hated the thought of modernizing his region and instead embraced anachronistic fantasies and Wagner-ian myths. The peasants adored Ludwig, much as many modern Germans came to adore Hitler. Karl May was the next film in Syberberg's cycle. Ostensibly a loose biography of the influential schoolmaster-cum-author's life, Syberberg strongly connects May to Ludwig. May was also a pacifist and with his books (including the enduring Winnetou series of revisionist American Westerns) embraced a primitivism similar to Ludwig's. May's work had a tremendous effect on young Hitler who later recommended that his generals read May's novels for inspiration and courage. His final entry, Our Hitler (aka Hitler, A Film from Germany), is the most complex. Divided into 22 chapters and four segments, it is a macabre carnival of surrealist imagery, ghosts, puppets, and different views of Hitler and is deliberately devoid of emotional manipulation; Syberberg characterized it as a "work of mourning." Many esteemed critics consider this film among the world's masterpieces. Syberberg's subsequent work has remained consistent with the themes of his trilogy. His 1982 version of Wagner's Parsifal also earned considerable acclaim.