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To hear the review
Inside The Third Reich, a four-disc box set of documentaries about Nazi Germany, comes out April 21st from First Run Features. It’s a fascinating look at four different facets of World War II, all stuff I didn’t already know. And I am a big World War II history buff. The four discs are as follows:
Television Under the Swastika (10/10):
“Good Cheer And Willpower”
An absolutely riveting documentary about the world’s first television network, one created by the Germans and the Nazi party in the 30s, years before television became a staple in American households. This German TV was on the air for nine years, and featured an amazingly wide range of programs. For the purposes of this documentary, some of those programs are shown, although very few examples have survived all the years until today. Fitness programs, childrens’ gymnastics shows, variety shows with singing and dancing and piano playing, and the 1936 Olympics were all covered on this station.
Although it seems, initially, like a pretty innocuous television network, closer examination reveals the sinister propaganda behind much of the programming. Watching the shows is a lot like watching a college-training TV station, in that there is a large amount of inept camera work and some terrible interviews. After all, it was a brand-new medium. Some of Hitler’s rallies are covered, with shaky cameras that could capture only one shot at a time. The fact that the rallies and parades were shot with one, long, take actually reveals some things that would otherwise have remained hidden.
A lot of the Nazi propaganda behind the programming, such as cooking shows, is fairly subtle. Then again, in some cases it is absolutely overt. But it is always there. Some of the scenes – like one of a bumbling, stupid Nazi official being interviewed – are actually quite funny, although it’s almost painful to laugh at something like that, knowing the historic context. One of the most amazing unearthed shows is called “Good Cheer And Willpower”, where a bunch of war amputees with one leg run an obstacle course to show soldiers in the field that losing a limb isn’t such a bad thing – I mean, look how happy these guys are! Again, it’s almost funny. But mostly, this documentary is chilling. Terrific stuff.
“At 2:25 a.m., a new term, until then unknown, was entered in the records of the German Civil Air Defense Department: Firestorm”
Firestorm refers to the British practice, toward the end of World War II, of firebombing. They would drop flares during their night time raids on German cities, partly to light the way for their bombers and partly to set the cities ablaze. The film examines this tactic, and asks whether it crossed the line. Many of these firebombing raids came after the British had already basically defeated the Germans, and they seemed to be more retaliatory than necessary. Especially since the bombing campaigns claimed the lives of civilians, more so than soldiers.
35,000 people killed in one attack on Hamburg. Tragic, disturbing pictures of dead people, children and babies, many of whom would later be buried in paper sacks. People rendered homeless, historic buildings destroyed, all by incendiary bombs. After the Battle of Britain, the English targeted civilians with their bombing raids. While most concede that at first, this was a legitimate war tactic, it soon became questionable. The best argument for the actions of the British comes from one man who says “these [German civilians] knew why they died. In Auschwitz and the gas chambers, they didn’t.” The film is a very interesting one, and seems to come down against the British. Although, it does end with the line “a consequence of 12 years of the Nazi regime”.
The Reich Underground (8/10):
A two-part documentary about the massive network of underground tunnels the Nazis built under German cities during the second world war, mostly toward the end when they needed to protect their factories from bombing raids. The movie deals with the slave labourers who were forced to work in these areas, digging out the tunnels in inhuman and brutal conditions. One man in the film estimates the life expectancy for any slave working in the tunnels at 40 days. The film details the brutality of the SS, the production of the V2 rockets that were supposed to win the war for Hitler, and also talks about the “Dam Busters” squad which dropped “tallboy” bombs into some of the deepest, most impenetrable building sites. It also shows stock footage of chemical weapons being tested by the Nazis on a monkey and a cat. That is disturbing to watch, knowing they were hoping to use those weapons on human beings. It’s too long, with two parts, but it’s very interesting.
The Goebbels Experiment (10/10):
“National Socialism is a religion. All we lack is a religious genius.”
Joseph Goebbels was the Nazi party’s Minister of Propaganda, the man responsible for turning the German people to the side of the Nazis. He kept extensive diaries, and it’s those diaries that make up The Goebbels Experiment, the best documentary in the box set. The story is told entirely in the words of Goebbels, as read from his diaries by Kenneth Branagh. It’s a fascinating look into the brain of a brilliant but evil man.
Goebbels was at turns paranoid, petulant, bitter, loyal, petty, treacherous, and euphoric, depending on his mood and what was happening around him. He complained bitterly about people at one time, then praised them effusively at another. (In particular Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe.) The one thing that remains constant in Goebbels’ writings is that he was a very insecure man. He thinks Himmler hates him. Then he thinks Goering is out to sabotage him. Then he thinks Hitler doesn’t appreciate his advice enough. Then he believes that he is under surveillance by the SS (chances are that one was absolutely true).
“Jews don’t respond to generosity or to a spirit of magnanimity. You have to show them what you are prepared to do.”
The documentary features many speeches by both Goering and Hitler. It’s easy to forget, in hindsight, that “propaganda” wasn’t always a bad word. That when these speeches were being made, no one saw the horrors that were to come. And there is no denying that both men had a powerful ability to whip a crowd into a frenzy. The diaries dissect both his speeches and Hitler’s. Goebbels critiques them, usually heaping praise on his own speeches as well as those of the Fuhrer. He has an affair with a mistress, then blames her for being angry. Goebbels is not a man who is capable of seeing his own faults.
There isn’t much in the film about the beginning of the war. Perhaps Goebbels was too busy at that time to write very much. And since the whole movie is told in his words, only the subtitles in certain locations exist to fill in the gaps. The one time Goebbels seems to be even a little self-aware is when he discusses, with a grudging respect, the writings of Winston Churchill, and contemplates stealing his phrase “blood toil, tears and sweat” for himself and German propaganda. This is far and away the most fascinating documentary in the set, and this film alone makes it worthwhile.
One more thing – since the movie didn’t cover this, I thought I would make mention. Goebbels, at one point, writes of the elation he felt when Max Schmelling, a powerful German heavyweight fighter, knocked out Joe Louis, an inferior black man, in a heavyweight title fight in the United States. He heard about the great Schmelling victory on the radio, and he is thrilled. Well, I am a boxing buff as well as a World War II buff. And I was pretty sure that Schmelling never knocked out Joe Louis. In fact, I was absolutely positive. I don’t know whether this was because German radio was editing the fight to make it seem as though Schmelling was the victor, or whether Goebbels lied into his diary.
Either way, I looked it up to be sure. I was right – Louis fought Schmelling twice. Once in June of 1936, a knockout in the twelfth round, and once in June of 1938, a first-round KO. Both fights were won by Louis.