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The Years of Extermination:
Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945
by Saul Friedlander
"The Unknown Soldier" (aka, "Der Unbekannte Soldat")
In documenting a traveling museum exhibition exposing war crimes against its Jewish citizens by the Nazis during World War II, a spectrum of current attitudes toward the crimes of a generation and to the realities of Germany's army's complicity is exposed as well. A desire to avoid the disturbance of collective memories is prevalent. Skinheads throw up spread palms to block the lens. "Why, after 50 years," one man complains, "do we have this exhibition?" In other words, leave our mental adjustments alone. Don't inflame our well-being with facts about what happened within the span of surviving participant's lives.
Indeed, German director Michael Verhoeven ("The Nasty Girl"), whom we know less well than his father Paul Verhoeven ("Basic Instinct," "Black Book"), sets his camera on many a complaining survivor on both sides of the issue, detecting plenty of residual Nazi feelings to this day. But they are more than balanced by representatives of the intelligentsia, many of them historians, with quite another perspective and understanding of the purposes of the exhibition's intentions to keep the history alive for a generation that would prefer not to acknowledge their forebear's ready participation in the war crimes that were part of their Holocaust.
Verhoeven's documentary style can best be described as rambling. It's a back and forth pattern of talking heads, shots of the memorial to Germany's "Unknown Soldier" and learned dissertations on its meaning, archival footage, and handheld camerawork recording outrage and understanding by German citizens of all ages. These subjects within the milling crowds have, apparently, either just emerged from the exhibition organized by Hannes Heer showing irrefutable evidence of Nazi brutality in text and photography, or are those who refuse to see it.
Though the resulting documentary is in need of a more organized development of its themes, the implications are made. The observer just has to do a little more work to put it all together into a cohesive whole and to appreciate its goal of keeping the atrocities of an age before the citizenry of its origins. Fifty years (actually more like 66) is an instant of historical time, not a past epoch to bury in purposely lost relevancy to the realities of today. What the Third Reich did in the early 1940s is a warning against the fearful possibilities of a repetition in an unknowable future. The spouting of the inspirations of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" by one woman is grim warning of the extremes of human conduct.
The exhibition of historical evidence tells those who lived through the war and those who didn't that denial is futile, forcing their own history and some comprehension of it down the throats of those who would rewrite it. To such people, Verhoeven is saying, "Don't try it; we have the facts and the evidence."
~~ Jules Brenner