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Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Third Reich DVD Review

Lately, I’ve been reviewing a lot of World War II films including: The World at War (see my review here) and Victory at Sea (here) and my recent review of Apocalypse: World War II that you can read here, but this two disc documentary varies from all of those because the focus on the war is from the German people’s viewpoint.  And that doesn’t necessarily mean from the Nazi point of view either, since many Germans were opposed to Hitler and his policies.   This documentary covers a lot of the how and why the German people allowed Hitler to seize power and eventually lead them to ruin.



Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

This film took a very unusual approach to it’s subject by not following the usual practices of covering multiple points of view and by including interviews with experts and witnesses.  The film only focuses on how the war and its aftermath seemed to the Germans and there’s no expert interviews at all.  The only witnesses that play a part in this film are from the letters that were written at the time by Germans and read by actors.  There’s not really a lot of battle footage included which is also a staple for other documentaries, since The Third Reich focuses on the home-front and what life was like there.
With no experts or firsthand accounts, the film relies upon a mix of German military and civilian letters from a variety of people from different walks of life including novelists, journalists, Nazi party members, school teachers, military men, prisoners, and ordinary civilians who saw their way of life change before their eyes.  Counterbalancing these account were the comments made by American journalists Ernest Pope and Meyer LevinI found the observations made by both the German and the American journalists the most informative and interesting, although hearing all of the different views from such a wide swath of people provided a very comprehensive picture of life in Germany.  These letters, combined with newsreels and propaganda films really help non-Germans understand how a society could allow a sociopath like Hitler achieve as much of his destructive impulses allowed.  Many factors played into preparing the Germans into be willing to accept the Nazis including their historical conditioning to follow orders.
First they followed their Emperor William I and then William II whose reign ended after the German Revolution followed the events of World War I and led to the formation of the Weimar Republic.  Germany’s disastrous loss in World War I, resulted in being severely punished by the terms of their surrender under the terms agreed upon in the Treaty of Versailles.  Not only did Germany have to pay reparations to the victors to the tune of 132 billion Marks (then $31.4 billion, £6,600 million) in 1921, which is roughly equivalent to US$ 385 billion in 2011, a sum that many economists at the time deemed to be overly excessive, (Germany made its final $94 million payment on October 4, 2010!).  On top of all that, Germany also had to turn over a lot of their natural resources such as steel, coal, intellectual property (e.g. the trademark for Aspirin), and agricultural products as well.   Combined with the loss of their land (territory both theirs and others that they had taken), the final result of the Treaty was a shattered nation left with an insane amount of debt, anger, desperation, and humiliation which makes a deadly combination as the world would find out later.
The resulting after-effects left from both World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, left Germany in a precarious position.  The Weimar Republic faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation due to the reparations wreaking havoc on their economy, political extremists on the left and the right, and the continued hostility from the victors of the war.  Thanks to these terrible conditions, the German people looked for a savior to restore normalcy and restore their pride and their country.  In what ended up as a battle for the German peoples’ soul, two sides tried to wrest control of the nation from the Weimar Republic- the communists and the Nazis.  By 1933 however, that battle was decided in the favor of the Nazis as Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany.  He quickly disbanded any semblance of a government for the people and eliminated any rival factions or individuals that opposed him.
Most people assume that all of Germany was behind Hitler but as this film and history proves, not all Germans were enamored with him.  Before seizing power as Chancellor, Hitler lost the previous election with only 35% of the electorate votes.  Before that, Hitler had tried to stage a coup only to fail and go to prison.  There was a definite pattern of resistance to Hitler and his policies that kept him from power for a long time until his appointment as Chancellor changed everything.  His persecution of the Jews now had governmental backing and loyal German Jews had their livelihoods taken from them at first and later their lives as well.  Many Germans were unhappy with many of their friends being forced to flee but who were at this point of time, too cowed to do anything about it.  The Nazis would just as happily execute or send any dissidents to the same concentration camps as the Jews.
A lot of Germans looked the other way at what the Nazis were doing because as terrible as their most of their actions were, they had restored economic prosperity  and ended mass unemployment through massive military spending and also through the the assets stolen from conquered nations and Jewish citizens.   Since the Nazis had absolute power, they didn’t need to bargain with unions or deal with any crippling strikes from workers.  With thee country’s fortunes  on the upswing, the people who had been literally starving and had no job no longer suffered.  Even the people who still weren’t happy with the Nazis had to deal with the constant bombardment of brainwashing messages orchestrated by Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who spread Hitler’s message through propaganda films, mass rallies, and radio addresses which resulted in swaying many by what many historians call the “Hitler Myth,” which posited that Hitler was infallible.  This brainwashing continued for years and one of the heartbreaking aspects of this movie is the footage of the “Hitler Youth,” groups where young children were assimilated into the Nazi culture which they willingly believed in.  Every man, woman, or child serving in any form of the military had to swear an oath to serve and sacrifice themselves not for Germany, but Hitler himself.   This unprecedented idolization of one man blinded many to Hitler’s true nature of a genocidal megalomaniac.
Knowing all of this background really helps understanding this documentary and historical events.  The documentary is split into two discs with one covering the rise of the Third Reich and the second the fall of it.  While it does a good job showing what life was like for these people, I would have liked to have heard more on why the average person felt about Hitler at the beginning and why few stood up to him.  A lot of this you just have to fill in on your own, since information like that or the fall of France is fairly glossed over.  This film isn’t interested in really covering the war itself, as it just wants to see how those events affected the German people.  I also didn’t like the decision to try to give the film an edgy look through the quick MTV style editing during some parts or the flickering titles that resembled a bad horror movie’s look.  While it may make this more enticing for younger people, I think that source material such as this deserves more respect and that those young people that may watch this can just learn to focus on something longer than five minutes without any pandering to them.
This documentary is very effective and the use of the home movies from some of the German narrators adds a lot of empathy as we see them in happier times and how the war affects them.  It was also surprising to see the incongruity of Germans enjoying parties, cruises, picnics, etc. while the war was going on in the beginning.  The were happy as long as the war didn’t affect their lifestyles which of course it did in the end where we see some of these same people dazedly wandering the bombed out city of Berlin.   Despite the evil that their ruling party inflicted on the world, it’s hard to not feel bad for the children or the estimated two million German women that were raped mainly by the occupying Russian soldiers but also by some American and British troops as well although they mostly traded goods for sex.  Approximately ten to twelve percent of the women died of injuries, were murdered or committed suicide.  The Germans that survived the war faced hunger and a lack of lodging since most of the cities had been destroyed.  In fact, the post-war reconstruction wouldn’t finish until the 1980s.  Ultimately, the people of Germany had to pay for Hitler’s crimes even those that weren’t complicit in it.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Both discs offer a professional looking picture with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  Due to the varying source material, there isn’t a cohesive quality level due to the wide variety of film stock used and age of the footage.  Black levels are decent and there’s some good detail in some shots while others look hazy.  The newsreel footage fares better than most and usually looks a lot sharper too.  This documentary is mostly in black and white, but it is interspersed with color footage from home movies too.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The Third Reich is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo and it’s acceptable.  Dialogue is clear, the narration of the letters is easily understood and subtitles are provided for the non-English dialogue in the film.  My biggest complaint as far as audio goes, is the decision to use manipulative music and dialogue to overly emphasize scenes.  Despite the wrong music being used for this, the music sounds good and is also well balanced with the rest of the film.

Special Features (0 out of 5 stars) 

There are no extras on this set.

Final Thoughts (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This film adds a manipulative layer on top of material that didn’t need it and between the ominous music, the jump-cuts, and the way the shaky titles look like they’ve been taken from a low rent horror movie, I lowered my rating by one.  It’s a shame since this documentary was powerful enough that it didn’t need the extra sensationalism added to it.  Despite my misgivings with that aspect of this film, I still recommend it since it offers a viewpoint and footage from ordinary Germans which represents a focus that’s been missing from recent World War II documentaries.
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