We can't change the crimes of the past, but Judge Joel Pearce says we can seek to understand them better through the power of DVD.
"It became this capsule to represent all of the hatreds that the Nazis had." -Laurence Rees
We are quickly running out of first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, which is one of the most critical historical events in the past century. This was already apparent 25 years ago when Shoah was being filmed, but there are only a few survivors still alive to offer a personal reminder of what happens when racism is allowed to fill a nation and become part of government policy. This BBC documentary may contain some of the last interview footage of these survivors, and treats that opportunity with the proper level of respect.
At a massive 300 minutes, its no surprise that Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State covers a lot more ground than the title claims. The concentration camp at Auschwitz has become a symbol of the Holocaust: a brilliantly and horribly designed killing machine that processed millions of innocent people. This documentary uses that symbol as a starting point to look at the whole Holocaust, exploring its origins, development and eventual decline. It uses new interviews, recreations, archival footage and document translation to create a compelling and disturbing exploration of this dark moment of History.
Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State is a great primer for people who want to know more about the Holocaust but don't know where to start. It's unrelentingly methodical, covering a multitude of topics over the course of the six episodes. It is the result of three years of research, and every part of it is handled with clarity, sincerity and integrity. The creators are always careful to mention where the data came from, and they show the viewer maps and diagrams so that the entire documentary doesn't feel like a flurry of names and dates. Producer Laurence Rees has made the wise decision to use a wide range of techniques to tell the story: interviews, recreations, stock footage, narration…it keeps things from getting dull in this long, grim examination.
There are interviews with Jews that survived the camps, as well as with some of the guards and other people involved in Auschwitz. Although 60 years have passed since the end of the war, they recount their stories simply and vividly. The archival footage has been cleaned up well, and powerful clips have been included. These clips drive home the reality of the stories that are told, a constant reminder that they are verifiable and accurate. CGI recreations of the camps and other buildings are precise enough to be both instructive and chilling. No stone has been left unturned in the development of the project; the reasons for the events aren't ignored in order to make it a more powerful emotional experience. The guards at the camp are not turned into monsters, but are viewed as people who had been educated from a young age to believe they were doing the right thing for their country.
Unfortunately, Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State is less valuable for people who have studied the Holocaust in the past. The interview footage has been dubbed over, rather than subtitled, which obscures the voices of the people telling their own stories. The recreations are far less powerful than the other parts of the production. While I understand that these recreations are the best we can do to show some of the things that happened behind the closed doors of the Nazi commanders, the performances aren't very compelling. They have that television feel, which softens the impact of the archival footage and interviews.
Beyond these annoyances, the documentary covers familiar ground. While this is great for people who haven't studied the Holocaust, people who have will only find a little bit of new information. There is some repetition as well, so the 300-minute running time feels too long on occasion. This production is fine, but it has all been done even better elsewhere. The interviews don't have half the power of Shoah, which spent ten years collecting interviews with people all over the world. The recreations have been handled better in Schindler's List and other films about the Holocaust. It lacks the intensity and punch of Night and Fog. Towards the end, the series discusses some of the political maneuvers that had a great impact on Auschwitz, which is more valuable for those who have studied the Holocaust in the past.
The DVD is as well produced as the series itself. The widescreen video transfer is razor sharp, especially during the interviews and recreations. The restored footage has been cropped to fit the 1.78:1 ratio, but it has been restored properly, and looks great for its age. The sound transfer is also excellent. It's a stereo track, but the music and dialogue are all that matter here. It's easy to understand what's being said.
There are a couple special features on the second disc. The interview with Laurence Rees is a measured attempt to explain what he wanted to accomplish with Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State and explain his own interpretation of the Holocaust. Follow-up discussions with Linda Ellerbee, which aired after each episode, pull in a variety of historians and authors, and they offer another layer of interpretation and verification for the content included in the documentary. Ellerbee is a great interviewer, and I was consistently impressed by the clarity and insight offered by the guests.
My minor complaints aside, Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State is one of the most thorough and well-produced television documentaries that I have seen. If you are looking for a documentary that uses the latest possible information to construct a complete picture of what happened during the Holocaust, you can't do any better than this. It was carefully researched, brilliantly put together and covers a shocking amount of ground over the six episodes. Even if you have studied the Holocaust extensively, it has much to offer. The interviews on the second disc are a great contemporary discussion of this important event.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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