Judge Clark Douglas has a great deal of respect for those who chose to listen to their conscience in Nazi Germany.
The story of men and women with the courage to uphold essential human values.
What a devastating documentary this is. Director Hava Kohav Beller spent roughly nine years gathering footage, doing interviews, and piecing together facts in order to make The Restless Conscience, which was finally released in the spring of 1992. The end result of Beller's work is a very important documentary that weaves together many stories to create a single, overwhelming, emotionally draining tapestry. The documentary tells the story of the numerous attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler and overthrow the German government between 1933 and 1945. Of course, all of these attempts failed. Why wasn't someone able to find success? Why were so many attempts thwarted? What mistakes were made that prevented the assassination of one of the world's most evil and dangerous men?
Beller does not put much attention on the plots and strategies taking place in other countries, but focuses almost exclusively on the plans of citizens, soldiers, and others within Germany itself. Beller managed to secure interviews with seemingly everyone of note who was still alive during the time she was preparing her documentary. If the person (or one of the persons) involved in a particular assassination attempt was no longer living (in many cases, because they had been executed by the German government), she interviews a spouse, a best friend, or someone else with intimate knowledge of the person being discussed. This adds a deeply personal feeling to the documentary that it benefits from immensely. Most documentaries of this sort tend to rely rather heavily on historians and noted writers, but this one gives a voice exclusively to those who were actually there.
Their stories all begin in a similar manner. Doubts about the direction of Germany build slowly but surely, and at some point, a decision must be made. No one interviewed here knew from the very beginning that Hitler was evil and that Germany would become an evil nation. Some of them had disliked Hitler from the beginning, but even these would never have thought of betraying their own government early on. For some, the decision to act came suddenly and without warning. For instance, we hear the gut-wrenching first-hand account of a German officer who did a sharp about-face when he finally figured out exactly what was going on in German concentration camps. "It's a moment in which the bottom of everything falls out," he says bitterly. On the other hand, some were slowly but surely traveling to an inevitable destination. German minister and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer despised Hitler from the outset, and eventually determined that he could not feel close to Christ if he refused to take action against the murderous dictator.
Beller collected a great deal of footage for his documentary, but she uses it very sparingly. The doc primarily relies on the words of his interview subjects, all of whom are compelling enough to serve as the subjects of feature-length documentaries by themselves. When Beller does actually show us footage from the era, it has a tremendous impact, just because she does not give us enough of it to become numb to it. After sitting and listening to these people for an extended period of time, the once-familiar sight of Hitler traveling through adoring and fearful crowds suddenly seems fresh and chilling. The strongest moments in the documentary are those in which Beller offers portions of the Nazi show trials. These are intense scenes, in which various members of the resistance are subjected to the cruel jeering of a foaming-at-the-mouth prosecutor.
The documentary is deceptively simple in its construction: the interviews, the footage, and occasional narration from John Dildine. Such effective simplicity is a purely creative decision, the logical end result of years of hard work and research. There is never a moment in the documentary that feels dull, redundant, or unnecessary. Every clip, every story, every image…they are all completely necessary. Beller carefully builds several story strands at once, allowing the viewer to temporarily find encouragement in the increasing success and idealism during the planning stages. When they all come toppling down like a row of dramatic dominoes, the viewer is left remarkably deflated and defeated. The documentary would be unbearable were it not for the knowledge of Hitler's ultimate demise.
The transfer here is not particularly impressive, though I don't suppose it needs to be. The interview segments are off in pretty much every way, with flecks, scratches, plentiful grain and odd-looking flesh tones. Of course the stock footage looks rugged most of the time. Even so, the poor video quality does not significantly damage the dramatic effectiveness of the documentary. The audio is acceptable, though it suffers from a good deal of hiss throughout. The extras on the disc are text-only: an interview with the director, a brief piece about the film, some comments from students, and some highlighted snippets from assorted newspaper reviews.
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