Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner’s ambitious three-hour docu, based on 430 hours of audiotapes from the 1963-65 trial of 22 Auschwitz SS officers, was originally made for German TV in 1993. Though it contains little hitherto unknown information, the contrast between meticulous Nazi record-keeping and the anguished voices of survivors recounting their ordeal resurrects the horror anew. Furthermore, docu reps a fascinating reflection on Germany’s ongoing attempts to come to terms with its past. First Run Features release, which opened Jan. 12 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema, should establish a frontrunner slot on public or cable TV.
In marked contrast to the recent French docu “Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes,” the testimony here comes in purely audio form, the visual content depending entirely on choices made by the filmmakers. Pic is divided into three parts (originally aired separately): the investigation, the trial and the verdict. Though Bickel and Wagner use these divisions to loosely structure the mass of material, they rarely seem constrained by the timeline.
Within the courtroom, the voices of former inmates re-create the unimaginable day-to-day reality of the death camp for Frankfurt crowds drawn by the headlines. The filmmakers not only illustrate the testimony with footage and photographs, but also examine the proceedings from the vantage point of what came before (dipping into 1918 archival clips to trace the formation of the SS, for instance, or freely sampling testimony at the Nuremberg trials) and what came after (later interviews with prosecutors and activists disclose some behind-the-scenes political maneuverings). Pic attempts to contextualize both the Holocaust and the 1960s trial for a ’90s German audience.
But it is the chilling succession of facts and documentation in the arid judicial proceedings — broken by the naked pain of disembodied voices with no faces, under images of too-familiar artifacts of manufactured death — that gives the docu its weight.
Bickel and Wagner are quite sparing in their use of the audio tapes, wisely doling them out for maximum effect over the three-hour running time. Thus, the flat, outrageous statement of the camp’s second-in-command that he knew and saw nothing of the deaths at Auschwitz is followed by the emotional reaction of a survivor explaining how he knew everything by his second day there — he had only to read the message in blood on the wall.