The harrowing two-part, three-hour docu “Einsatzgruppen: The Death Brigades” exhaustively chronicles the lethal work of an SS band charged with exterminating Jews in Russia and the Baltic states before the establishment of the death camps. The Einsatzgruppen (literally, “intervention groups”) were responsible for the deaths of a million and a half people, piled up and shot by the hundreds in mass graves. The campaign was so horrifyingly successful that, by 1941’s end, the entire region was declared “Jew-free.” Difficult, essential viewing, the docu abounds in hitherto unseen images of the killings and offers numerous present-day interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, and even executioners.
The docu’s first section, titled “The Mass Graves,” covers the period from June to December, 1941. The mobile death squads, divided into four sections that spread over Eastern Europe — each under highly cultured, educated leadership — coordinated and oversaw the carnage, leaving most of the actual slaughter to the locals or to Soviet POWs, themselves also targeted for execution.
The mission escalated gradually. At first the Einsatzgruppen incited neighborhood pogroms, watching and filming as everyday Ukrainian and Latvian citizens beat Jews to death. This footage, long inaccessible behind the Iron Curtain, is here unspooled in all its banal savagery. With native volunteers well established, the Germans were able to delegate mass shootings, first of men and later of women and children, while the SS troops themselves patrolled perimeters and shot the occasional survivor. This account of wholesale murder, broken down in component parts and still imprinted on the memories of witnesses, appears all the more horrific for having been being repeated in town after town.
While the first part of Michael Prazan’s docu fills little-known gaps in the history of Holocaust atrocities, the second part, “Funeral Pyres,” deals with the bizarre aftermath of that first stage. In 1943, the remains of thousands of executed Polish officers were unearthed in the Katyn Forest (recently dramatized in Andrzej Wajda’s “Katyn”), the Germans blaming the Russians for the murders and vice versa. In fact, it was Stalin who ordered the killings, but high-ranking Nazis, spooked by the loud public outcry that followed the discovery, apparently rethought their disregard of historical accountability.
The Einsatzgruppen were then dispatched anew, this time to erase all traces of the earlier acts. They ordered crews of prisoners to revisit every mass grave site, exhume the bodies (removing anything of value, however grisly), burn the cadavers and grind the bones. The crews, in turn, suffered the same fate.
The docu theorizes that the almost inconceivable brutality of the Einsatzgruppen experience led directly to one aspect of the death camps: Many Einsatzgruppen officers suffered traumatic reactions that made them unfit for duty; the mechanical efficiency of gas chambers and crematoria thus salvaged “fragile” SS sensibilities.