A movie directed by James Moll
Part of the German effort in coming to terms with the atrocities of the Second World War has been the opening up of concentration camps for all to see. The most notorious of these is Auschwitz, a location that saw unspeakable horrors unfold as the war … see full wiki
Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen and by far the best one I’ve seen on the Holocaust.
Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State is a 6 part BBC documentary that aired in 2005 and is now available on 2 DVDs. The episodes trace the Auschwitz from its beginning in 1941 to the “killing factory” it eventually became. I consider myself to be a lay expert on the Holocaust given the amount of material I have studied over the last 20 years, but even considering that, I learned quite a bit from this piece.
First and foremost, Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State is completely devoid of sentimentality. By using former prisoners (Jewish, Polish political prisoners, Russian POWs) along with members of the SS willing to talk, the documentary produces a very careful objectivity. There is no attempt at balance—that would probably be sickening at the very least—but it is obvious that the producers do all they can to make this as objective as possible. The discussions with the inmates were not prurient as has been the case in many other documentaries and the interviewees all came across as strong and erect and not as victims. There are only two moments when two of those being interviewed start to cry, but the camera cuts away rather than wallow in what can only amount to pity. Pity, which is a corrosive emotion, is also entirely missing.
The documentary uses a very artful mix of dramatic reenactments to help highlight some of the most important decision moments. All of these reenactments are done in German with subtitles which helps add an air of authenticity that makes the voyeuristic aspect that much more compelling and, honestly, creepy. Because it focuses on deciding moments and the people who were involved, you get a much better understanding of the whole camp process than you typically get. The process was cold and heuristic and the tone the documentary takes helps illustrate this.
One of the most compelling things about Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State is the use of virtual reality 3D illustrations and animations. Treblinka and Sobibor are completely destroyed—the only thing that remains are some architectural drawings and the oral record of the very few survivors. Parts of Auschwitz remain, but the most horrific portions of the camp (gas chambers and crematoria) have been burned or blown up. So the documentary uses virtual reality to recreate the look of these places. The animation turns the viewer into a sole visitor of a very clean and orderly environment for which we all know the use. The power of these images lingers like a bad taste.
In its objectivity, it is subtle. The producers create a mature forum for explaining what is nearly always told by screed. A couple of the people being interviewed, German, Pole, Jew, are confronted with the fact that they were directly involved in killing someone. If for no other reason, this is why this documentary should be tops on the list of someone wanting to study or try to understand the death factory of Auschwitz. I will refrain from trying to explain it.
Finally, the choice of Linda Hunt for the narrator was a very good one. Her calm, inviting voice helped digestion of the harder portions.
The review is over and anyone not wanting more details should stop reading here. I want to make a note about a tableau that appeared near the end of the final episode.
In the 1980’s Mr. Blatt, a Pole whose home had been given to someone else when he and his family were deported to Auschwitz returns to his home. He points to a chair and says he remembers his father sitting in it. The ‘owner’ of the house claims to have bought the chair. Mr. Blatt turns it over and shows the ‘owner’ the names on the chair. At this point, the ‘owner’ concludes that Mr. Blatt has returned to get money that his family had stashed away and offered, magnanimously, to split the booty 50/50. There, of course, was nothing of the kind in the house.
A few years later, Blatt returns. The house is in ruins. He asked the neighbors and they explained that the ‘owner’ had become obsessed with the notion of treasure and destroyed the house looking for it. He tore up the whole thing and just walked away when he realized he couldn’t afford to put it back in order.
The documentary points to this as a sign of continuing anti-Semitism. It certainly is. But it is also two other things. For the fan of very dark comedy, you cannot help but laugh the special laugh of those of us with that sense of humor. He deserved what he got. The ‘owner’ got the house by plunder and his avarice knew no bounds, so he destroyed this place looking for even more stuff that didn’t belong to him—in Vonnegut’s words, so it goes.
But it is also a broader metaphor. Germany destroyed Europe in much the same way. In an effort to take things that didn’t belong to them, they pumped up the already tired notion of greedy Jews to the point where they believed it themselves. They quite literally plundered their home to shreds in the process of taking from Jews, then basically anyone else, whatever they could wring from them: work or wealth or both. The world saw Germany somewhat rebuilt after the First World War, then a few years later (after having to help destroy the house), they saw the ruin that a special form of greed can create. Mr. Blatt’s story is something I believe will stay with me for a very long time.
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