Hitler's Holocuast (Part 3)
Channel 4, November 4, 19.00
It had to come eventually and it did - despite the fact that in some newspapers the latest episode of this slow-burning but still uneven series was billed as an investigation of death camp insurrections and riots, was the Big One - the Auschwitz episode.
This was always an Everest of a project - which is maybe why Nazi-era histories so proliferate on TV, that execs, companies, directors and producers like to be seen to be able to tackle the unscalable, or seem to be doing so - but Auschwitz of course is the ne plus ultra of the evil. One is almost tempted to ask 'why bother?' This might sound callous, but when one remembers Laurence Rees and Ian Kershaw's Auschwitz from just last year, the evil, to borrow Hannah Arendt's phrase, is in danger of becoming banal again. True, the show's progression from didactic history lesson to essay in personalised and particularised horror, continued impressively. Here we find a starving prisoner fed a piece of bread from behind to stem his screams while his assailant anally raped him; whose cap was stolen by the attacker (equating a sentence of summary death at morning roll-call); and who then stole another's cap, condemning an unknown colleague to death. Here, a SS guard who reacted to being denied Christmas leave by shooting an unknown number of random prisoners. Here, the methodical sieving of ash, bones and other remains from the crematoria's ovens. One Polish Jewess who survived had odd, downward-pointing crows' feet, like the track of unstaunchable tears.
Klaus Doldinger's score, which I have excoriated previously, was now low in the mix, and the more effective for it; archive footage was well-chosen, and some clandestine images leaked in also, stills and otherwise (the official films are the ones showing Jews as irredeemably wretched, ugly, even the youngest faces living in a timelapse state of pallid age - and all simply as shawled, pathetic caricatures). In one still of women about to enter a gas chamber, they already seem as blurred as the ghosts they are about to become.
One assumes that, pace various listings editors, the lesser-known stories of the desperate, hopeless riots at Sobibor, Treblinka and, mostly famously, the Warsaw ghetto, will follow next week. It will be a relief; in the end, the railway tracks, the frosty poplars, the crimson sunset on the snowfields, began to look very familiar. Too familiar for a story that should shock over and over again, methinks. We have yet to meet any unrepentant SS men, pluff-cheeked with complacency and schnapps; any kapos, the Jewish enforcers; yet to see any death camp in the sunshine. These do not fit the template, the visual and narrative vernaculars of such programmes, and yet they are among the creepiest additions to only the very best programmes and films on this all-but-unfilmable enormity. Hitler's Holocaust still has a wealth of verbal testimony, and it should be grateful for it. But let us remember that we are discussing TV, not radio, and let's hope the producers remember that for the remainder of what could yet be a notably important series.