THE UNKNOWN SOLDIERNR
One can hardly imagine a more important subject than that of the Holocaust, but, with so many documentaries about the Nazi era hitting big screens, one also has to question whether theatres are a sensible venue.
With The Unknown Soldier, filmmaker Michael Verhoeven makes that question particularly poignant, as he has unearthed some horrific archival footage showing the most unconscionable abuses and extreme crimes of the German forces—whether Army or SS. Is such footage appropriate to the big-screen environment of the cinema?
The Unknown Soldier, which refers to Munich’s honored tomb and burial site honoring some 40 million World War II dead, is anchored in the traveling exhibit at the turn of the millennium that presented material—mostly photos, it appears—depicting German soldiers during World War II.
Like so many docs of its kind, the film is a compilation of archival still and film footage (often unimaginably brutal), expert talking heads (curators, historians), exhibit patrons (believers and non-believers) and anti-exhibit demonstrators (a mix of fanatics and smug deniers).
The neo-Nazis are loud in their denunciation while others take a more sober, although negative, view of the exhibit. Their complaint is that they see it as a slander to the memory of the deceased. And then there’s a variation on the “just following orders” excuse when another man remembers that his father went to war because he had to.
But denial is pervasive, with several at the exhibits insisting that the footage and photos were staged or doctored. And another exhibit visitor is certain that those found dead at Dachau were moved to the concentration camp after having been killed in nearby air raids. Denial even stretches into the highest levels of government, as we’re reminded that statesman Konrad Adenauer said something to the effect that “so few in the Armed Forces were guilty.”
But most of the historians on camera, including Dieter Pohl, Klaus von Dohnanyi and the Washington Holocaust Museum’s Peter Black, see things the other way, as does Army vet Rudolf Mössner, who expresses regret for what he saw his fellow soldiers do and says he’s “ashamed of how German soldiers acted.” Black notes that soldiers who went against orders weren’t punished. The problem was that too few were defiant.
The film leaves the most important questions unanswered, because several just aren’t unanswerable. For instance, how many German Army soldiers or what percentage of them were complicit and/or collaborative with the SS in the massacre of so many millions of innocents (mostly Jews) killed during World War II? And how does anti-Semitism turn to genocide?
The archival footage and photos, however extreme, don’t inform on these matters, even as they depict stomach-churning images of soldiers at hangings, abusing naked women, separating forever mothers from their children or participating in mass executions like that at Babi Yar or in Minsk and Ukraine.
Traveling with his cameras beyond Germany to Belarus, Ukraine, and the U.S., Verhoeven gathers a wealth of evidence from locals who serve as citizen historians or even eyewitnesses.
But civilians weren’t the only victims: Verhoeven also documents Army mistreatment of millions of Russian POWs as the Nazis drove east. By 1942, two million had died.
Verhoeven has plenty of credibility, thanks to his 1992 Oscar-nominated The Nasty Girl, a fiction film inspired by the real-life experience of a young German woman who exposed the Nazi past of her village. In the nonfiction The Unknown Soldier, Verhoeven again takes on the themes of Nazi guilt and pervasive denial regarding what ordinary German Army recruits did, saw or excused during the war.
But the most convincing documentary on this subject uses the particular to convey a general truth. It is the recent Amateur Photographer, which played at New York’s Film Forum. The film is a true story—told through a photo diary—of a heartless and ordinary, dedicated German soldier in the East and it makes its point by focusing on just one “G.I. Josef,” happy and proud in battle as a pig in manure.