Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Nazis On The Box Part 2

One of the most unsettling lines I've heard on TV this year came from Esther Bruning, the startlingly youthful-looking survivor of Poland's Jewish ghettoes and death camps, in the second part of C4's remarkably under-publicised Hitler's Holocaust. To paraphrase seems mildly obscene, but here goes; 'we realised that people were being killed en masse. Well, we never suspected a thing." Those herded out of these vile enclaves 'for the East' were packed onto trains that came back with indecent despatch. When put to work sorting their clothes - for the use of German settlers - Jews saw name-tags in cardigans and shirts and coats. People wondered; 'were they given new clothes?' But they "never suspected a thing."

From a village blacksmith in Baden-Wurttemberg, a hairdresser in the Rhineland or a sawmill foreman in Thuringia, such an admission of ignorance, would trigger all kinds of mental trip-wires; 'yeah, I bet'. But Bruning wasn't an Aryan hundreds of miles from the killing fields; she was a Jew, one of countless innocent people who had been subjected to more and more abject and humiliating - and deadly - depradations by the Wehrmacht and SS in Nazi Germany's conquest of the proto-Lebensraum of Poland and points east. That she and her people never suspected that this charnel house was not a prelude to annihilation was almost unbearably depressing. It both lit up and cast a sombre shadow over Part 2 of C4's Hitler's Holocaust, and formed part of a show improved beyond all recognition from its paint-by-numbers, straight-to-Five prologue.

The historical clumsiness, lack of depth and resort to stock visual cliché that so hobbled episode one was replaced by a roll-call of eyewitnesses, rheumy of eye now, true, but at least alive - to testify, as per Lanzmann's Shoah, or Ophuls' The Sorrow and The Pity, as to just what had gone on. Yes, there were clichés - Klaus Doldinger's Hindemith-lite music still grated, there was the expectable footage of trains - and a tragically magnificent Kriegslok Pacific steam loco of the Reichsbahn puffing along an obviously preserved line, vans in tow. But the juxtaposition of this grimly beautiful machine with accounts of the industrialisation of horror would secure any discerning viewer's attention; and jerky footage of mass executions, limepits, and the remorseless recitations of unimaginable horrors uttered as one might recount a slightly bizarre dream over a bowl of Rice Krispies, overcame any early doubts from last week.

My review of part one chides a failure of Hitler's Holocaust to properly engage with the human scale on both a macrocosmal and microcosmal level. Here, all is put right; that gazetteer of extermination, Chelmno, Sobibor, Majdanek and Treblinka were all namechecked by those who'd been there or near. The snowy-haired talking heads spoke of summary execution and starvation as Maconie and Morley might talk of Spacehoppers and Choppers. Visuals were kept spare and lean. Lighting wasn't unduly sombre. Instead it hinted towards a Crimewatch testimony - but, crucially, not too much. A crime against humanity isn't, after all, the same as a spate of purse-snatches in Lowestoft.

The often-unadvertised collaboration of Poles in the slaughter is bravely broached, although the brief of the programme excludes other systematically-targeted Nazi victims - gypsies, gays et al. Furthermore, the early assertion that by August 1941 Soviet forces were holding up the Wehrmacht advance - two months after the invasion of the USSR - is so wide of the mark that it raises real doubts in the historically-minded viewer.

Next week it's Auschwitz; one is unsure how to anticipate this. Despite one survivor's (not inaccurate) suggestion that Treblinka was deadlier than Oswiecim's village showers ('at Auschwitz, at least people were given a chance, sometimes put to work!'), the latter camp has assumed an unfortunately iconic status. Will Hitler's Holocaust reinforce this, use it as a producer would for the climactic key to a made-for-TV dramatic narrative? One hopes not: the footage of almost boneless Jewish remains dumped in mass graves in Poland even before the formulation of the Endlösung over coffee at Wannsee in 1942 is a valuable contribution to TV's Holocaust memory - that the murder wasn't all about Zyklon B, cattle trucks and watchtowers. The m.o. was simple; if it could be killed, it was, no matter how. The camps were simply the most efficient means. The harsher and altogether unfussier nature of this sequel to episode one emphasised this hideous teleology with aplomb and good taste.

There were, of course, cinematic moments, as there have to be in something as cinematically epic and incredible as the attempted murder of an entire people; a survivor recounts being separated from his mother and little sister, with him joining a queue of forced labourers and them queueing, as innocent as the Bible's Bethlehem first-born, for the gas chamber. The tiny girl was 'clutching her favourite doll'. Whether or not this image, like a still from Sophie's Choice, is false memory on the witness's behalf need not concern us; as in love, in death and in loss it is the clichés that make us cry, or react, in spite of ourselves. If this unfortunate man did not really see this happen, one can be sure that many others did. Hitler's Holocaust is beginning to make the murder's human angle properly human - even if only to enable us to at least partially grasp the basic unthinkability of the whole ghastly business.

Redemption has been central to German thought since Goethe's Faust. By giving voice to those at war's raw end, Hitler's Holocaust is halfway to redemption. Whether it can take on Auschwitz (after all, poetry tried and failed) remains to be seen.

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