Judge William Lee likes to hum show trial tunes.
"To be German is to be loyal to the Führer in this lifetime and
beyond. All else is treason to Germany."
If you've seen the Bryan Singer-directed movie Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise, you'll know some of the background details: On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler by planting a bomb at a meeting at the Wolf's Lair. A group of conspirators implemented a plot to seize control of Berlin. After Hitler's survival was confirmed, the coup was quickly put down and the ringleaders arrested and executed. The subsequent show trials of the co-conspirators were filmed by hidden camera so Joseph Goebbels could use the footage in a propaganda film. When the film generated sympathy for the conspirators it was ordered destroyed. In The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich, alternatively titled as Top Secret: the Story of the July 20th Uprising Against Hitler, director Jochen Bauer samples footage of the trials from a surviving print and combines that with other historical material to paint a more full portrait of the German resistance movement during the Second World War.
The documentary contains a wealth of information that might have rocked common knowledge about Nazi Germany when it was originally released in 1979. By today's standards, the presentation is a little dry—not unlike a dusty educational film you might view in history class in high school. Still, the authenticity of the footage and the larger scope of the story makes this film a nice companion piece to Valkyrie.
A lot of the chilling power of The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich lies in the footage of Roland Freisler presiding over a special court that dealt with enemies of the state. During the two years that Freisler headed the courtroom, he handed out more than 2,000 death sentences. Disheveled defendants—former politicians, military officers, and respected members of society—endure the judge's humiliating rants while their legal council sits 15 feet away. There is no doubt that the verdicts are already decided. The Nazis seem to be cleaning house as people with even minor knowledge about the July 20 plot answer accusations of treason. Army officers who were caught in the middle of the chaos are deemed conspirators as well, even if they didn't directly side with the plotters.
As various defendants are brought before the court, the film takes the opportunity to jump back in time to fill in the histories of a few key people. This strategy provides a bigger picture of the German resistance and details some of the other assassination attempts over the years. The emerging theme is that of widespread opposition to Hitler, especially among the military ranks. "Military obedience ends when sense, conscience and responsibility forbid the execution of an order," said General Ludwig Beck, one of the leaders on July 20. Though not directly involved with the assassination plot, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was also implicated and instructed by the Führer to commit suicide despite his highly-decorated career serving Germany.
Aside from the big names from history and those I recognized from the dramatized telling of these events, I found it difficult to keep track of the various defendants who are paraded before Freisler's court. On the soundtrack we mostly hear the judge's shouting so each weary-looking defendant is the same as the last. Simple captions to identify the individuals would have been useful. Another shortcoming is that the actual sound recordings of the trials are not subtitled in English so we must rely on the narrator to provide selective translation.
As might be expected with a documentary comprised of recovered archival footage, the picture here is generally poor. You can make out what is happening on the old pieces of film but the images are often faded, the highlights blown-out and various degrees of physical damage are visible throughout. Even though you can't get around the considerable wear to the image, this certainly isn't the sort of program were it's crucial to have a pristine picture to understand the content. That this footage is preserved and made available is a considerable service to history.
The adequate mono audio serves the film just fine. The original sound recordings are relegated to the background but you can hear the German dialogue spoken in the courtroom. The English voice-over narration has a stronger presence on the soundtrack. It is understandable but you can hear a small amount of distortion.
The material has historical significance, but The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich is not a riveting viewing experience. Its telling is a bit dry and it isn't easy to distinguish between the major players and the unfortunate pawns. This documentary is certainly worth a viewing for its authentic glimpse of the twisted judiciary spectacle of Nazi Germany. Viewers seeking further insight into the historical record of the failed assassination of Hitler will find good information here to supplement Hollywood's depiction of events.
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