Judge Victor Valdivia once had a night of broken glass—specifically, when he got drunk and fell on his coffee table.
The November 1938 Pogroms.
First Run Features has put out several DVD documentaries on World War II and Nazi Germany. Many of them were directed by Michael Kloft, including The Reich Underground and Firestorm, both of which were worth watching. The Night of Broken Glass is another Kloft release, and you'd expect it to be in the same thoughtful and well-crafted league as its predecessors. Sadly, The Night of Broken Glass is the worst DVD release Kloft has ever produced. It has some fascinating information and rare footage, but Kloft has completely undermined his research with a colossal mistake in presentation.
The Night of Broken Glass addresses one of the most infamous incidents in Nazi Germany's history. Over the night of November 9 to 10, 1938, Germans were encouraged by the Nazi government to terrorize and assault Jewish residents and target their businesses, homes, and synagogues throughout Germany and Austria. The riots (or pogroms, as racially motivated riots are frequently called) were ostensibly a response to the shooting of a German employee at the French Embassy by a Jewish German student, but in reality the attacks were a culmination of the disenfranchisement of Jews that the Nazi regime had been undertaking since 1933. Though Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels tried to paint the riots as the spontaneous acts of the German people, in reality they were orchestrated by government officials, who also ensured that local police would not defend Jewish victims and local firefighters would do nothing to stop (and in some cases, would even actively start) fires. When the riots were over, ninety-one Jews were dead, thousands more had been injured, and various Jewish-owned businesses had been looted, Jewish homes vandalized, and synagogues burnt and razed to the ground. After the riots (referred to in Germany as Kristallnacht, or "The Night of Broken Glass"), the Nazi government would no longer cloak its anti-Semitism in laws and regulations—it would actively use violence to arrest, torture, and execute Jews throughout its occupied territories.
As is the case with his previous DVD documentaries, Kloft has done his research impeccably. There are many previously unseen police reports and government documents that chronicle the riots in detail, almost minute-by-minute. These dispassionate accounts also make clear the government's deep involvement, even going so far as to target for future scrutiny individual non-Jewish citizens who attempted to stop the violence or criticize the government. There are also rare photographs and film excerpts of synagogues on fire, houses burning as firemen stand around watching, and even of Jewish families being forcibly evicted from their homes by policemen. There are interviews with survivors of that night recalling the terror and shock they felt at what they witnessed, including one who was then a teenage boy and who was forced to hold his bar mitzvah in his basement by candlelight lest he and his family be arrested or brutalized.
This is a wealth of fascinating information. Unfortunately, Kloft makes a huge error in presenting it. Though The Night of Broken Glass only clocks in at 49 minutes, Kloft employs two narrators—a man and a woman—for it. To say this is immensely distracting is an understatement. For the first 10 to 15 minutes, you'll be so confused by the conflicting voices that you'll be unable to focus on the actual information they're reciting. It's even worse as the documentary progresses and the narrators actually begin to complete each other's sentences, a cutesy trick that's more appropriate for a morning radio show than a serious retelling of one of the darkest chapters in human history. This decision severely undermines The Night of Broken Glass's effectiveness, since the two narrators prevent the documentary from adequately conveying the terror and fear of that night. There's a reason documentaries (except ones presented as oral histories) use only one narrator: it's easier for viewers to focus on one voice rather than several, especially if the subject is unfamiliar to them.
As for the DVD itself, it's acceptable. The anamorphic transfer and stereo mix both adequately present the mixture of archival and more recent footage, though they're hardly earth-shattering. First Run does deserve credit, though, for making the transfer anamorphic, which is more than can be said for other historical DVD companies (i.e. History Channel). The only extras are a text bio and filmography for Kloft.
It's a shame, then, that Kloft has so badly botched the presentation with his misguided ideas. Kristallnacht is an important part of the history of Nazi Germany and he has uncovered some remarkable details, but this DVD is so difficult to watch that you'll be hard-pressed to make it all the way through. Even the most avid history buffs will find The Night of Broken Glass a big letdown, despite Kloft's typically thorough research, and will be tempted to eject the disc and find a good written account of this story instead.
Guilty of presenting an interesting subject poorly.
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