by Allan Fish
(UK 2005 285m) DVD1/2
Aka. Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution
Arbeit Macht Frei
p Laurence Rees d Martina Balazova, Dominic Sutherland, Detief Siebert w Laurence Rees ph various ed Alan Lygo m “Sarabande” by Georg F.Handel, W.A.Mozart (excerpts from “Requiem”), Arvo Pärt (“Spiegel im Spiegel”), Franz Schubert (“Piano Trio in E Flat”), etc. narrated by Samuel West
In 1947, actual Auschwitz inmate Wanda Jakubowska returned to the actual camp of Auschwitz now so much a euphemism for the entire Holocaust, to film her masterpiece The Last Stage. The dust had hardly settled when she produced her unsettling insight into life in the camp. Yet perhaps it would be more accurate to say a camp, not the camp. The camp, the one spoken of still in such hushed tones of shock and abhorrence, was barely featured. Her film was more about the Polish political prisoners working as slave labour. Chimneys and crematoriums were kept in the background, though the sight in the distance of the unforgettable image of the main tower under which the trains brought their cargo of death signposted you really were at the real location. Documentaries came and went on the subject, from Nuit et Brouillard to Shoah, but many years passed before a detailed look at the atrocities in the camp and its place in infamy would come forth.
When it was first announced in 2004, Laurence Rees’ undertaking, commissioned for showing to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, promised to be something special. Rees had already done a superb job with his earlier look into the rise and fall of Der Dreite Reich in The Nazis: A Warning from History. From the opening narration of Samuel West, the scene is set; “this is the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world. 1.1 million people died here, more than the total of British and American losses in the whole of the Second World War.” Over the course of the next five hours and six episodes, Rees and his team trace the story of the camp, from its beginnings in disused old Polish army barracks to its period as a mere labour camp for political prisoners – with the infamous three word slogan over the gate adopted from Dachau – to its heart of the Nazi death machine. We are shown re-enactments of key moments in the Nazi rise and fall, real life footage and stills of the time and place, and CGI imagery to show, for the first time, the extent of the horrors in which killing factories were produced run with a combination of soulless efficiency and inherent corruption. Some argued that the re-enactments were unnecessary, but they were authentic and perfectly captured the rhythms of the narrative, especially accompanied by the mournful choice of music, not only the immortal Handel and Schubert pieces first marked out for their funereal qualities by Stanley Kubrick for Barry Lyndon, but arguably even more so the truly heart-rending and aching solemnity of Arvo Pärt’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’. If one had to have a complaint it would rather be the unnecessary overdubbing of the foreign interviewees – when the re-enactments were subtitled, why not the interviews? – yet it’s a minor quibble. It even showcases the plight of other undesirables, from the mentally ill to the infirm and from the gypsies to homosexuals, and even the use of inmates as whores in a brothel to favoured inmates, facts overlooked by too many commentators. Many of the interviewees still cling to their hateful beliefs and show no remorse, though the coming forward of Oskar Gröning and his final statement puts the whole enterprise in its rightful context. It’s about setting the record straight, about ensuring such a cataclysm and freefall into the abyss must not happen again. No more “processions of spectres“. No more hatred fuelled by fabricated anti-Semitic – indeed racial full stop – delusions. No more “death at night, death in the morning, death in the afternoon“. The legacy of Auschwitz and the rest of the camps will be with us for all time, and it’s perhaps fitting that it should remain so, for only by preserving the horrors of what happened by the Sola river can we hope to understand how any form of duty can come before conscience. A bona fide masterwork of small screen factual programming and compulsory viewing for anyone and everyone.