Appellate Judge Dave Ryan has to spend some serious time in his happy place after viewing four documentaries on Nazi war crimes. There's only so much atrocity a guy can take.
First Run Features brings us a boxed collection of four documentary films, each of which examines a relatively narrow aspect of the history of Nazi Germany.
In early 1933, the once-fringe National Socialist Party completed an extraordinary campaign of political maneuvering, race-baiting, and outright violence that culminated in the naming of party head Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Within months, Hitler had completely consolidated his power, overthrown the last remnants of the Weimar Republic, and set the world on an irreversible course to global war and the deaths of tens of millions of people. Ever since, historians, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, and many others have asked the obvious question: how did this all happen? How and why did a civilized and proud nation, a bastion of culture, religion, and science for decades, suddenly place its fate in the hands of a racist, megalomaniacal dictator bent on world domination? There are no easy answers to this question—hence, the existence of The History Channel. One thing is for certain, though: there is no shortage of documentary filmmakers willing to tackle the question.
Hitler and the Nazis packages together four films that address some very specific aspects of the Nazi story. And there's the rub—although these documentaries are generally well-made and interesting, they're so specialized in subject matter that casual history fans may be overwhelmed. For true students of World War Two history, though, these films are solid additions to their collections.
• The Eye of Vichy (L'Oeil de Vichy)
In 1940, after the fall of Paris, many key French governmental officials fled the country before the advancing Wehrmacht could capture them, including future Free French leader Charles de Gaulle. However, there still was a French government, and France had not been completely occupied. The remnants of La Republique turned to Marshal Phillipe Petain, the unquestioned number one hero of the First World War, to lead them. Calling Petain "beloved by the people" would be an understatement—he was worshipped. Unfortunately, he led his country into collaboration with the Nazis, ruling with an increasingly iron fist out of the small central French village of Vichy.
The Eye of Vichy explores this period of collaboration, which lasted from 1940 until the Allied invasion of Normandy and subsequent liberation of France in 1944. It does so exclusively through official newsreels and propaganda of the Vichy administration. This is a fascinating tactic—as time progresses, we see how the Nazi overlords steadily indoctrinated the French people with textbook Nazi ideology. But it's subtle, and devious…most of the time. Sometimes, it's brutally direct. It's chilling to see a newsreel that talks, in very matter-of-fact, almost friendly terms, of how 100 villagers will be shot unless the town turns in a Resistance fighter who murdered three Nazi officers. Equally powerful are scenes from "The Eternal Jew," a "movie" demonstrating how Jews are actually "vermin." As the war progresses—and begins to go poorly for Germany—French workers are de facto forced into moving to Germany to work in war factories. But of course that isn't what the newsreels tell you…
Chabrol assembles this material with a dramatist's eye for narrative. This is the raw reality of the Vichy period; and that reality tells its own story without the need for extensive explanation. Occasionally, Chabrol will have the narrator (Brian Cox, Manhunter, for the dubbed English version here) put things into historical context, or explain the real story behind some manufactured "news," but for the most part he lets history speak for itself. The result is a film that fairly zips through its 110 minutes, playing like a tragic drama instead of a documentary.
On the other hand, if you aren't familiar with the specific history of Vichy France, or of the general progress of the war, you aren't going to learn it here. Obviously, the falsehoods perpetuated by the Vichy propagandists will have no impact on a viewer if that person doesn't know what really happened. Hence, although it's a very high quality piece, The Eye of Vichy isn't for neophytes.
• The Architecture of Doom (Undergångens
Although I've read books that discuss the aesthetics of Nazi philosophy, I've never before seen a documentary that addressed it. It's an important area of research for historians—part of Hitler's dream was to "beautify" the German Volk. This film blends an analysis of Hitler's artistic influences (Neoclassical works, primarily) and the Nazi approach to art and architecture with an overall history of the Nazi period. The connections become clear as we progress through time. If you want to beautify the race, who do you get rid of first? Why, the handicapped, retarded, and sick, of course. From there, it's a quick step to "undesirables" such as homosexuals, gypsies, and their ilk, and the real problem for the Nazis—Jews. We see Jewish art and artists branded "degenerate," with this artistic degeneracy necessarily tied into physical and genetic degeneracy.
This film is exhaustive in executing its mission—which is its main flaw. Most good documentaries play like stories. (For example, see above.) This film feels like reference material. Here's all this stuff, it says—do with it what you will. I admire Cohen for tackling a unique sub-topic in the Nazi history realm, and doing it with exemplary scholarship. But it's a very dry two hour film; and yet again, it's not a film for neophytes.
• In the Shadow of the Reich: Nazi Medicine
This film is a relentless assault of inhumanity. Beginning with the origins and philosophy of the eugenics movement, it shows us that some of the "Nazi" evils were, in fact, common in the world before the war (e.g. forced sterilization of the retarded and deformed). I'd describe the rest of content—in fact, it's arguably my duty to do so—but I simply don't want to. Three words: children being tortured.
Thankfully, Michalczyk knows that short bursts of such imagery are enough to make one's point. Anything more would begin to re-violate the basic human dignity of those pictured—at least in my opinion—and would be unbearable to watch in any event. This is one of those films that you just don't want to watch, but which you really should watch.
• The Cross and the Star
It deals with, nominally, the efforts (or lack thereof) by Christians to prevent the Holocaust. In fact, it wanders over several topics—the roots of anti-Semitism in Christian doctrine and scholarship, the Holocaust in general, how faith survives in the face of unspeakable horror, and the heroic efforts of ordinary people of all faiths to combat Nazi atrocities, among others. To boot, it kicks off with an incredibly polemic tone, apparently blaming anti-Semitism on Christian theology. Admittedly there's something in that (see the controversy spawned by The Passion of the Christ for an example), but there are other societal and economic roots of anti-Semitism as well, some of which may be more important than the religious aspect.
This overload of information, some of which is fairly disconnected, gives the film a "throw it all against the wall and see what sticks" feel. There's a lot of good information in here, but it could have been presented better, and the film's only 55 minutes long to begin with. They really need to make up their mind about Pope Pius XII, too. First he's an evil Nazi co-conspirator, then he's heroically helping Jews escape the Nazis. So—which one was it?
All is saved, though, by the presence of Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Here's all you need to know about Rabbi Kushner: if he says only two sentences in your documentary, they'll be the most thoughtful and memorable two sentences in the whole shebang.
Disc Three also contains a short film by Michalczyk, "A Window Into the Camps," which is just B-roll footage of several concentration camps shot for Nazi Medicine, with text commentary about the camps and their history. It's a small touch, but an appreciated one. All discs have a short collection of historical stills called "Inside the Third Reich." They appear to be hand-tinted black and white photographs, and there aren't very many of them.
All in all, this is a solid but highly specialized collection. It's a quality view for real students of history who are interested in exploring very specific facets of the Nazi era. For everyone else, though, there are probably better starting places for an exploration of the 20th Century's darkest hours.
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