During WWII, a ton of major Hollywood directors were called into service in order to create films documenting the war effort. If you check out the filmographies of the major directors of the era you’ll see titles jump out like George Cukor‘s Resistance and Ohm’s Law (za?), Josef von Sternberg‘s The Town (nothing says Americana like von Sternberg), and famously John Ford‘s Sex Hygiene (an engrossing…and graphic educational film about the horrors of STDs).
Frank Sinatra talking about “Nazi werewolves” is a recipe for success.
As you can see, the tone of these films is all over the place, some are instructional, some entertaining, some documentative, and some overtly propagandistic.
This documentary is one of the more highly regarded WWII documentaries produced, helped in large part by the fact that Wyler himself was flying the missions documented in the film. One gets a sense of the palpable danger Wyler and the men he’s documenting faced. We see the Memphis Belle fly on bombing missions of the German countryside and engage in dogfights with German planes. We see men injured and we see the damage done. The film closes with sobering and haunting narration thanking these men for the destruction they are unleashing upon Germany, destruction like this:
There’s something about association of destruction and heroism that I find troubling. I realize that essentially war lauds those who kill the most men, but usually that aspect is downplayed or ignored in favor of some aspect of bravery, courage, or selflessness. So the film closing with a note of gratitude regarding the astonishing destruction being inflicted upon Germany, stands out as a hell of a jolt.
Much different in tone from Memphis Belle, this film is documentary footage of the concentration camps, filmed after the defeat of Germany. The intent of the film rather than to serve as propaganda, was to document as accurately as possible the atrocities of the camps, and in fact the film was shown at the Nuremberg Trials, offering damning evidence of Nazi war crimes.
As such the film isn’t constructed with any concern for cinematic or entertainment value (not that holocaust footage should be entertaining, but something like Alain Resnais‘ Night and Fog is obviously structured to enhance the audience experience and is replete with cinematic technique). It makes for an interesting film, though pretty boring…it sounds ghastly to say such a thing, but the footage simply exists as footage. It’s purpose is to serve as evidence and nothing more.
There’s a couple of interesting things I did notice though. The first few minutes of the film are spent reading the affidavits of several witnesses, including George Stevens and John Ford, who swear that the footage is authentic and has not been altered in anyway other than the editing of 80,000 feet of film into about 6,000. Now I’m not sure if this was a standard legal practice, or if it was done to reinforce to any doubters that yes, this did actually happen.
Secondly there are multiple instances in the footage, of German officers, soldiers, and civilians being forced to view the piles of dead bodies and the charred remains of those long since disposed of.
A good friend of mine, the wonderfully talented comic book artist, Riley Rossmo, author of everyone’s favorite Sasquatch detective comic, Proof, and Seven Sons, a marvelous adaptation of the famed Chinese folktale of 7 Chinese Brothers, espouses a belief in what he calls “the power of shame”. It’s a doctrine that dictates that sometimes the best form of instruction and correction is to shame people by showing them how there actions are affecting others. Essentially make the person feel so bad that they won’t do it again. This can be as simple as bending over really slowly and with great difficulty to pick up someone else’s garbage, essentially forcing the litterbug to confront the error of their ways.
I realize that “the power of shame” in the context of the holocaust is perhaps a little trivial, but essentially I believe that’s what is going on in this documentary. Forcing to people to face the results of their actions is the best way to ensure contrition, awareness, understanding, and remorse. To ignore or gloss over the truth, only breeds misinformation and lies, while ensuring that justice cannot be served.