A few years back, the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive) announced it was donating tens of thousands of photos to Wikimedia Deutschland. The result has been a treasure trove for anybody interested in German history. I’m grateful for the donation, and here are just a few of the great postwar images we all get to see because of the Bundesarchiv’s generosity.
Most of us have seen film footage of the concentration camps. Just the mention of them conjures up in our minds the piles of corpses, or the ovens. In the immediate postwar years, those images were new for most people, and even more shocking than they are for us now. Army film crews recorded thousands of hours of footage in an attempt to capture the scope of what happened.
The Allies guessed surprisingly early how important it was to present proof of the atrocities in the form of film. The Germans were to see what they had allowed under the Nazi regime, and the world at large was to see the unthinkable acts committed in the shadows of an already dark war.
Earlier this year, HBO broadcast Night Will Fall, a look at what happened to the “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” a dry name for a horrific compilation of footage of Bergen Belsen, Auschwitz and Dachau. Alfred Hitchcock supervised the production, but his big name wasn’t enough to keep the project afloat. The British government canceled, and the footage was stored at the Imperial War Museum until it was unearthed in the 1980s, then digitized and restored in 2010.
Why was the original project canceled? “Night Will Fall” director André Singer told the LA Times that postwar priorities shifted quickly; the British saw the need for Germany to get back on its feet (no doubt in the face of the Soviet threat). Reminders of the camps wouldn’t help. Authorities also worried the footage of the camps would create more sympathy for the Jews wanting to go to Palestine, a difficult political topic before the founding of Israel.
Some of Hitchcock’s footage was recycled for Billy Wilder and Hanus Burger’s short, finished documentary Death Mills, which was shown in the US and British Zones of Germany in 1946. Pregnant women were warned not to go see it.
Ten years after the end of the war, Alain Resnais directed what I consider one of the most moving films about the camps, Night and Fog. I saw it in high school and have never forgotten it.
We’d like to think propaganda is the brainwashing a non-democratic country does to its people, or false information it tries to shove on the world. We don’t do that kind of thing.
But propaganda is just media that delivers a political message. Everybody does it. After World War 2, the Americans and British used films to inform the public about the conditions in defeated Germany. They show fascinating period footage. The commentary may be even more interesting.
Check out an episode of “This is America” on Germany 1947. US soldiers teach Germans baseball and English, they play golf to pass the time. “Occupation Girls” live in mansions with German servants. But be warned, the commentator says: The Germans are waiting for a new Führer. They nurse old hates. Two years after the war, the United States urges its people back home to stay vigilant.
And here’s a film from the British Pathé Pictorial Looks at Berlin 1947. There’s a subtle glee in the descriptions of German destruction that probably went down well in post-Blitz England. The commentator can’t resist an ominous warning here too: Will a new war-monger rise from the rubble?
Both films take jabs at the Soviets in Germany. The American film is more obvious about it. The Allies are laying the groundwork in their films for a new, Cold War enemy, while reminding viewers that the old Reich may still be a threat.
Shame doesn’t make good TV. Shock either. Yet those are the basic emotions in the new miniseries about postwar Germany that aired on the German public TV channel ZDF last night.
Almost seventy years after the war ended, I thought maybe – just maybe — German TV could produce a good story showing its history in a way that entertains and informs.
But they forgot the entertainment part.
It’s 1945 on the border between Thuringen and Bavaria. The Allies move into the fictional village of Tannbach and the estate of its local nobility. Since it’s a border village, it’s going to be cut in half along with Germany. Part of the town in the American Zone, part in the Russian. This really happened here and there. So much for the interesting part of the background.
This is just my opinion, but stories should be about people. Not about background, not about types. Individuals should struggle for whatever they want or need against whatever the historical backdrop happens to be. We the viewers get sucked into a story when we’re just as surprised and moved by events as the characters in the story.
For that, we have to be surprised and moved. And this is where “Tannbach” failed.
Back to all that shock and shame. It’s true — these emotions sat deep in the Germans at the end of the war. Many people walked around with stony faces staring into the distance in silence. But does that make good TV? No. Is it good drama? No.
Scriptwriters and producers of historical drama have to strike a balance between what was most likely to happen in a given period, and what the audience would find compelling. The two don’t always go together. If done badly, there’s an emotional gulf between the events on screen and the viewers.
An example is the dramatic early scene when the countess sacrifices herself to save the males of the village. It was the best scene in the film’s first part, but it still didn’t move me. I was too puzzled by the reaction — or lack of — of the characters. Something like 50 people in a courtyard know the Americans are right around the corner, yet they let themselves be cowed by 3 or 4 SS guys with guns. Okay, this happens.
But the SS officer is apparently a local boy. People know him. Not one person stands up and says, “Come on, Hans (or whatever his name was), don’t be an ass. It’s over.” I watched the scene as it played out and simply didn’t believe it. At that moment of collapse, not one character expressed a second of the frustration probably built up over the Nazi years. They had to guard their tongues for a long time no matter what they believed. In a moment of high tension, one character could have stepped out of line. Maybe gotten shot for it, but still. I waited for a character to say something human. It didn’t happen. People were too busy standing around looking shocked.
Besides, someone who stepped out of line would’ve been — shock (!) — an individual. And that’s what the film didn’t have. There were lots of types. The wily Nazi who slimes with the Americans. The old lady who strokes her Hitler portrait before she prays over the rosary. The Nazi count who deserted his Volkssturm unit and says all of 10 sentences over the whole film. The Hitler Youth kid who refuses to serve the Americans in a pub. The refugee woman who gives out two young men as her sons to save them.
Any of these people have the potential of making good characters, and fail to do it. Mostly because they’re aimless. The film jumps from one person to another without anything to glue the story together. For me, the setting isn’t enough. Nobody wants anything in particular. They don’t need anything but to endure. They don’t struggle. They lay down like puppies with their paws in the air. Did this really happen? Probably. Does it make good film? No.
So I wasn’t moved. Surprise would’ve been nice, but the film didn’t give me that either. Take the first scene of the Russians moving into the village. A unit searches a farmhouse and finds an old man, a woman and her cute little boy in short pants. What happens?
You guessed it. They’re all shot. Did this happen in real life? Probably, in many places. Does it make good film? Sometimes. But by the end of the film when this scene took place, I was desperate to find something I didn’t see coming a mile away. Anything. The Soviet officer could’ve had a lackey soil the family Hitler portrait, sit the adults at the table and force them at gunpoint to eat the portrait. The cute little boy in short pants watches in horror as his family chokes on their god. He wouldn’t understand it, but he’d never forget it. The viewers either. Nothing even remotely memorable happened except for maybe the countess’s execution in the film’s first 20 minutes.
It’s disappointing when history is served up so bland. It’s another reason for people to ignore it. And possibly forget.
I’m about to go on vacation, but wanted to post a quick link I’ve horded in my bookmarks and haven’t shared yet. The German Bundesarchiv has a wonderful digital media site. Part of this archive shows news footage and other films from the 1940s (and other eras, of course). I’ve spent a lot of time watching Welt in Film, for instance, news feature clips on all sorts of topics in Germany and the world in the postwar era. Everything is in German, but even if you don’t know the language, the footage is wonderful for immersing yourself in the era.