Judge Mike Pinsky has no flippant blurb to offer for what might be the scariest film you see this year. And it is all true.
"If you're given the opportunity to do this work, then you get to know the victims, you begin to think differently."—Robert Wais, pathology technician
Some people cannot face their complicity in a horrible crime. Sometimes, even an entire culture tries to close its eyes and shake off responsibility. Case in point: Vienna is the home of Spiegelgrund Clinic. Spiegelgrund Clinic is the home of a frightening room. Until recently, it housed the brains of hundreds of children—children murdered by a Nazi doctor who still lives comfortably on a government pension.
The name "Spiegelgrund" might roughly translate as "the bottom of a mirror." What is at the bottom of the mirror? Nietzsche (who never lived to see how the Nazis misused him and found their own twisted souls reflected in his writings) might say that the bottom of the mirror, the bottom of the abyss, reflects the abyss of your own heart. So what do Austrians see when they stare at Spiegelgrund, the clinic where as many as 800 children were dissected for scientific study by the appropriately named Dr. Heinrich Gross?
Apparently, they see what they want to see.
Joe Berlinger seems to specialize in documentaries about slightly deluded, self-destructive individuals and their strange relationships. In Brother's Keeper and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, these examinations were kept to a small scale, the crimes local. But in Gray Matter (actually shot while on hiatus from the Metallica documentary), Berlinger pits a society against itself. The law seems baffled about how to proceed; the public seems only able to impotently mourn without recognizing its own guilt.
Stories about children in danger can often veer toward the sentimental, playing off of our emotional attachments rather than focusing on facts. But it is difficult to approach a subject like Dr. Gross without feeling anger. After all, here is a man who, along with his also largely-unpunished staff, gathered hundreds of mentally-handicapped children—and in some cases merely juvenile delinquents whose anti-social behavior was categorized as a "medical condition"—and ran brutal experiments, finally killing them and storing their brains in jars for further research. Worse, once the war ended, Gross was permitted to continue his research for years, publishing papers and winning grants. And now he lives in seclusion, all criminal proceedings suspended due to his increasingly precarious health.
Do you feel your teeth grinding in frustration? Imagine Joe Berlinger, who flew to Austria to deploy his camera and shaky command of German in order to investigate and even perhaps catch Gross on film long enough to find some closure to this terrible story. How could a documentarian, placed in this situation, avoid editorializing, much less running riot through a city that still pretends these things never really happened?
To Berlinger's credit, he keeps his temper in check, striking the appropriate balance between his personal disgust and the facts of the case. Sometimes, he allows others to express the questions we know are on his mind. Early in the film, we visit Spiegelgrund for the first time, but the tour guide insists on skipping the clinic itself and taking the group to an adjoining church. A concerned historian traveling with Berlinger calls the move "sidetracking:" Austria's effort to acknowledge the issue as little as possible without actual confrontation. At the film crew's insistence, the tour guide finally takes us into the notorious "brain room," a grisly pantry that immediately drives the point home: this is a horror we must face if we are ever to understand it.
In the past few weeks, I have been catching up on the more popular American horror movies of the past year. But nothing—I repeat, nothing—will frighten you like Gray Matter. Not only will the images of these children, the clinical evidence of their dissection, make you shiver, but the continued denial of responsibility will make you feel paralyzed with ethical despair by the time the credits roll.
Part of the horror in Gray Matter stems not just from the chilling manner in which Gross simply and efficiently objectified these children, dissected and taxonomized them, and reduced them to jars and slides. Austria itself has also placed its Nazi past in a box, filing it away. Just as the Nazis categorized antisocial behavior as an aberration, the Austrians have labeled Nazis as just another aberration to be thought of as separate and separable. The Nazis were over there, they think. We are over here. They are the Other, not amongst us.
But the presence of Dr. Gross and those like him, still lurking in their middle class homes, belie this simple social equation. After the war, Gross proved helpful enough in providing scientific testimony at trials of other Nazis that he was allowed to return to work. He received grant money and was given access to the brain room to continue his research. He received a medal of honor and government pension. And the Austrians continue to speak of themselves as the victims of Hitler rather than acknowledge their enthusiastic support during the Anschluss.
And here is where Berlinger implies much more than his film directly says: where else has this happened before? How much has science profited from unethical research? How much has society profited by tacitly allowing men like Heinrich Gross to continue their bloody work? Plug your own favorite ethical battleground into these questions. Berlinger wisely stays out of these debates here.
Indeed, Gray Matter appears, at least superficially, almost like somebody's vacation movies, clocking in at only an hour. Shot on video in full frame, with Berlinger popping in and out of shots, the film has a raw immediacy that suggests a story unfolding before us, with new evidence always coming to light. Unable to draw Gross out of his seclusion, Berlinger tries to interrogate the current hospital staffers and records the testimony of survivors who remember their "treatments" vividly. Berlinger acknowledges in his commentary that he approached the subject without financial support or much cooperation from his subjects. His fascination with the Holocaust (although this is admittedly only peripherally a Holocaust story) and desire to challenge himself were what really propelled this project. No one else seemed willing to do the legwork for a full investigation. Only Berlinger and his crew were willing to act on their outrage and gather the evidence. Not that this evidence seems to matter. Only time itself seems capable of punishing Dr. Gross; the authorities are merely impotent.
Gray Matter is a powerful, if disturbing, examination of an ethical crime that continues to haunt a nation still unable, or perhaps just unwilling, to bear its weight. Joe Berlinger followed his instincts and drew out a story that is well worth telling, although you may find yourself challenged by the questions it raises.
Perhaps the most frightening line in the film comes toward the end, when a medical researcher shows Berlinger some of the three-dozen scientific papers Dr. Gross published using the data gathered from these murdered children. "He didn't always work alone," the technician says offhandedly, "but collaborated with other people."
Yes, anybody who still pretends that this sort of evil can never happen where they live…
This court demands that a special prosecutor investigate the actions of Dr. Gross and the negligence of the nation of Austria. Joe Berlinger is released with the blessing of the court.
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