Auschwitz – The Nazis and the “Final Solution”

Tuesday, January 25, 2005 by

What sort of incidental music could possibly seem appropriate for a montage of concentration camp victims, all of pre-teen age? An obvious answer would be none at all. Such images do their own talking. Anything that sought to re-state and to re-emphasise the blindingly obvious would be ludicrous, if not tasteless. No, let the faces speak for themselves: in silence.

Except here, that is – on television. That sort of experience is not what the small screen is for. That sort of experience is reserved for the still and the static: the printed page, the museum, the private photo album. Television never works when it pretends to be something it isn’t. Equally it’s only at its best when it self-consciously acknowledges and exploits every trick of its magical, seamless trade. Auschwitz – The Nazis and the “Final Solution” did just that, over and over again.

A montage of Nazi child victims that didn’t demand reverential silence has been just one of the many creditable aspects of this six-part history, which is currently charting a dignified course through the winter schedules. Here, faces of infants alternated with almost ghostly shots of railway tracks and abandoned platforms, while underneath floated a desperately simple, heart-rending melody: an elegy, played by a solo piano and cello, circling around and around the same mournful chords. The ensemble was complete. It would’ve been less commanding, more clumsy, were one of its elements missing. It also did its job: its message, and motive, were impossible to forget.

The passing of time doesn’t seem to dull or diminish these sorts of images, nor the many others taken at Auschwitz and its fellow death camps which have been recurring throughout this series. It only renders them more coarse and profane. Their angular monochrome contortions and rudimentary composition grow in distinctiveness and curiosity as representations of our own contemporary world become evermore smooth and stylised. To look at any black and white photograph is to be reminded of how fast history is disappearing; to watch this particular portfolio, with their visions of almost unbearable poignancy, is to be made to recall how history was almost brought to a screaming halt – and within the lifetime of a dwindling but still substantial portion of the population.

Many of those people contributed first-hand testimony here, in an episode focusing on 1942: a period where Jews from right across Europe including the Channel Islands began to be transported to Auschwitz. All were filmed in very ordinary looking homes, wearing ordinary looking clothes and surrounded by everyday clutter of otherwise unexceptional lives. Only the framed antique photographs, always positioned close to a favourite armchair or in the centre of a carefully tended mantelpiece, marked these rooms out as something other than ones which could pass for our own. Former SS guards, erstwhile prisoners, sometime relatives or acquaintances of concentration camp inmates – all were united in their domesticity and eerily familiar suburbia.

The contrast with the world in which they dwelt 60 years ago was so great as to be near impossible to accept. Could these be the same faces who were made to share occupation of the most miserable places on Earth – but who also survived? Yet their recorded recollections, again delivered in very calm, considered tones, pushed at the already half-opening door into understanding the personality and temperament of places like Auschwitz. Their incomprehension at what they had originally seen, of what had happened to themselves and those around them – “It was all a mystery; where had she gone? Things like this didn’t happen in England” – had the effect of helping to render some of the incomprehension of today more bearable. The programme suggested how it was possible to take inspiration from the way their stoical bewilderment transformed into blind courage, and from there into a profound conviction to keep the memory of those dark days alive. No enforced suppression of long-distant pain and horror here. These people actively relive the remembrance of the Holocaust every day. They stare at the photographs of those who weren’t so lucky to survive. To witness such personal strength, to hear from those who chose to carry such a weight, could only leave you feeling very humble indeed.

There were a couple of glimmers of respite amongst the revulsion: the story of four prisoners who staged a remarkable, half-improvised escape from the camp (and who survived the entire war), and a brief profile of Dr Albert Battel, a senior German officer who actively intervened to prevent a workforce of Jews being deported to Auschwitz and thereby saved some of their lives. Both stood out all the more for coming within a relentless unfolding chronicle of individual suffering. Isolating individual tales is perhaps the most immediate way of relating the story of the Holocaust; statistics often have to be writ large, as they were here, literally, in giant red font, for them to stick in the mind. 713,555 Jews were murdered in the death camp at Treblinka during 1942, a figure quoted in part so the narration could, with more than a trace of pathos, go on to emphasise how Auschwitz easily exceeded such a staggering amount. “They were killed worse than animals,” spat a nearby resident, a ghoulish spectator to such macabre a practice of mathematics, “worse.”

A further instance of the programme’s embrace of modern-day technology to aid appreciation of the past lay in its computer recreations of the very gas chambers and bunkers into which deportees and prisoners were herded. Frequently, the camera adopted the point of view of somebody actually being led down into a bunker, through a warren of corridors and catacombs, and invariably ending up in some vast metallic cavern. Behind us the door would then be closed and bolted, and the lights turned out. These were perhaps the most frightening moments of all. Moreover, these weren’t merely projected simulations or hypothetical animations; they were based on the very architectural plans commissioned and adopted by the Nazi regime at the time. Seldom does television affect you in such a manner as to leave you physically trembling.

In something of a self-conscious cliffhanger, the episode ended with the portentous arrival in the camp of the infamous human experimenter Dr Josef Mengele (motto: “I gave life in Auschwitz; I did not take it”), who equally infamously lived in exile in South America until his death in 1979. Given how this series has already been a masterpiece of documentary-making, you almost dare not imagine how it can go on to adequately tackle such a man as Mengele. Nor is it possible to console yourself with the thought that from hereon in things got better in the Nazi concentration camps. Even when Germany was losing the war, they only got worse and worse.

The man behind the series, Laurence Rees, led the same team who made the correspondingly impressive The Nazis – A Warning From History back in the mid-1990s, and reviewed on OTT a whole half decade ago. It’s telling that, since then, programmes about aspects of the Holocaust and the “final solution” have appeared in these pages time and again: Band of Brothers, including its dramatised account of the liberation of a camp in Western Europe; Conspiracy, recreating the precise meeting where mass extermination of Jews became official Nazi policy; the same story of Auschwitz told over 30 years ago in The World at War; When Hitler Invaded Britain, posing the fiction of how the same agenda would have been pursued in this country; and Island at War, plotting the very real consequences of how the Nazis did pursue just such an agenda in the Channel Islands.

Some would argue this reflects how television’s interest in World War II is an obsession, mining a steadily diminishing seam. Others believe a mere six TV accounts of the Holocaust are almost not nearly enough where a whole six million stories could be told.


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