First Run Features // 2003 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // June 26th, 2008
The devastating bombing of Nazi Germany.
Ever since the Civil War, when Gen. William T. Sherman destroyed the Confederacy by deploying the full force of his army against its civilians, the idea of total war has been hugely controversial. Total war, of course, is usually defined as a military campaign against an enemy's civilian population and infrastructure, as a way of demoralizing and destabilizing it. It's a tactic that has been frequently debated, especially after one of the most controversial instances of total war in world history: the firebombing of German cities during WWII.
Firestorm, another outstanding documentary directed by Michael Kloft (The Reich Underground), explains the background and history behind these attacks in exhaustive and clear detail, including how and why they were unique to Germany. As the film explains, though the Nazis' record for atrocities against civilians is well-established, almost all of those were committed by the Wehrmacht (Army) and SS. The Luftwaffe (Air Force) really played only a supporting role to ground troops. This was less because of the Nazis' well-known ethical squeamishness and more to do with technology. None of the Luftwaffe's planes simply served as good long-range bombers, so while Hitler and Hermann Goering would have loved to launch bombing raids to flatten enemy cities, they simply lacked the ability to do so. In fact, until Germany occupied France in 1940, German planes were poorly equipped even to fly from inside Germany and cross the English Channel to strike anywhere in Britain apart from the southernmost cities. After the fall of France, however, German planes began launching attacks from the northern coast that were capable of striking the heart of London. These raids caused a considerable amount of death and destruction, but given the lack of Nazi long-range bomber technology, had little military or tactical value. They were more designed to terrorize and intimidate.
Churchill's response, however, was far more devastating. He ordered a relentless campaign on German cities. Unlike the Nazis however, the British did have a long-range tactical bomber, the Lancaster. Moreover, though the raids were ostensibly targeting military bases and munitions factories, they were invariably launched at night, even though pilots lacked the ability at the time to see targets in darkness. As a result, these raids seemed to be designed to inflict damage far greater than what was officially stated. Firestorm makes this abundantly clear with interviews with British pilots who recall that they were instructed to simply carpet-bomb whenever they reached their targeted cities. The British even invented a term to describe this process: "dehousing". Dehousing became more prevalent after 1941, when the U.S. joined the Allies and brought their B-29 Flying Fortress Bombers, behemoths capable of larger payloads than even the biggest British planes. To illustrate this, Firestorm includes interviews with American pilots and bombardiers, as well as rare color footage of The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, an Army promotional film shot by director William Wyler (Ben-Hur) aboard one of the most famous of these bombers.
Though Firestormis informative, it isn't quite as detailed as it should be in actually explaining the nature of a firestorm. Ironically, the liner notes on the DVD case are more thorough than the film itself. The term "firestorm" was actually coined during these raids to describe the previously unseen phenomenon that occurred when the Allies carpet-bombed cities with massive amounts of explosives coupled with incendiary devices (essentially magnesium flares that burn at extremely high temperatures). As the cities burn, temperatures climb until they reach a temperature of about 1,500° F and at that point the heat creates a vacuum that begins to suck anything around into itself, feeding the flames and pushing the temperature even higher. At those temperatures, asphalt burns and the 150 MPH winds created are powerful enough to suck in even a full-grown man. Firestorm does have some horrifying interviews with German survivors who describe, in sometimes gruesome detail, watching just how murderous these storms could be. As the war progressed and Allied bombing raids increased in frequency and intensity, these firestorms only became more prevalent. The film also argues that by the last year of the war these raids had less to do with military objectives and more with punitive ones, since by 1945 there were simply no real military or industrial targets left that hadn't been destroyed and yet the Allies only kept up their attacks. These attacks would reach their apogee in April of '45 when the Allies pounded the cities of Dresden and Swinemünde for several days straight. These raids were purely vindictive, as neither city had any military value and both were, in fact, housing thousands of refugees from other cities. The bombing was so severe that the exact number of casualties has, to this day, never been known; even the Nazis were unable to come up with any kind of estimate, though the number was surely in the tens of thousands.
It's worth noting, however, that Firestorm doesn't sidestep the thorny question of whether German civilians were really completely innocent victims, given their complicity in enabling and supporting the Holocaust. An interview with Jewish actor Michael Degen, who was a child during the war, illustrates this vividly, as he states bluntly that those civilians got a much more honorable death than the ones who were executed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The film also addresses the issue of whether these attacks helped end the war by demoralizing the German population and depleting supplies to their armed forces. The film concludes that it's hard to argue either way, as the population's morale remained high even after several attacks, but the loss of factories did have some effect on military readiness.
Firestorm isn't afraid to ask some hard questions. Were the Allies launching purely vengeful raids to punish the Nazis, or are the raids defensible as they helped bring a quicker end to the war? Did German civilians on some level deserve to be brutally punished? There are no easy answers, but then there really aren't meant to be. The question of targeting civilians to achieve military objectives has a greater resonance now than ever, and Firestorm, a thoughtful and informative film, is one of the best attempts to explain the dilemma of total war. It's recommended for anyone who wants to try to understand it.
Made for German TV in 2003, Firestorm is a mixture of interview and archive footage, and the video and audio transfer is satisfactory. The extras include "Amateur Film Footage of Berlin" (7:52), a silent color 8mm film shot by an American engineer who helped rebuild the city after the war. The shots of bombed-out buildings and rubble are astonishing, though the lack of sound may make this hard to watch for some. Also included is a text bio of Kloft.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Amateur Film Footage of Berlin in Ruins
* Filmmaker Biography