Through interviews with Holocaust survivors and pristine footage of the most devastating kind, Steven Spielberg, “The Last Days” helmer James Moll and the Shoah Visual History Foundation bring to light heartbreaking memories with the utmost class and care in Cinemax’s five-part Reel Life docu series “Broken Silence.” Parents murdered, siblings burned alive, friends dragged away as just skin and bones — these are the lingering recollections of emotionally and physically scarred individuals from around the world whose tears flow freely and whose wisdom continues to be invaluable — and now their stories are forever archived. Strung together, the one-on-one Q&A nature and the horrific imagery might be too much to handle as a feature-length mainstream project, but the museum/educational/fest circuit should be a perfect home for this collection — as a whole or in parts — for years to come.
“Broken Silence” is composed of five hourlong shorts from a quintet of international directors: Hungary’s Janos Szasz (“Eyes of the Holocaust”), Argentina’s Luis Puenzo (“Some Who Lived”), Russia’s Pavel Chukhraj (“Children From the Abyss”), the Czech Republic’s Vojtech Jasny (“Hell on Earth”) and Poland’s Andrzej Wajda (“I Remember”). The helmers, some descendants of Holocaust survivors, focus on the atrocities within their particular parts of the world, with testimonials, pictures and an overall tone as they pertain to each region’s culture and history.
Backdrop of the reviewed episode, Tuesday’s “Some Who Lived,” is the Spanish Inquisition, which left a streak of anti-Semitism throughout Latin America. Having been associated with communism and existing as the whipping group of the Peronista fascists, Jews nonetheless represented the largest group of immigrants into Argentina before and during WWII, while the country provided a haven for many Nazis after the war’s end.
Puenzo, selecting from hundreds of Shoah interviews recorded in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay between 1996 and 1998, weaves that clash into his segment. He even ends with a more modern slice of Argentinean life, explaining through recent footage that while nothing has had as much effect globally as the Holocaust, Argentina has always been home to similar persecution, up until the junta militar of the mid-1970s. He ties together the co-existence of anti-Semitism and a proliferation of Jews to highlight other deadly events in Argentina, including the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992.
Front and center are just a few featured survivors, none of them more watchable than Eugenia Unger, a Polish native who lived in the Warsaw ghetto and was later taken to the Lublin concentration camp with her family. A teen when she was confined, Unger survived two death camp marches before being liberated by Soviet forces. Unger is like so many of the subjects: smart, passionate, sad and still not able to exist without thinking of human suffering every waking moment.
What stands out in all the participants, even more than their pain, is the guilt they all carry; “Why did I survive when everyone else around me did not?” is the question that unites and haunts them. The mere mention of mothers, fathers, friends or childhood leaves many of them unable to continue their discussions on camera.
“Some Who Lived” contains the added depth of emerging from a director who has confronted such material before. Puenzo directed “La Historia Oficial,” 1986’s Academy Award-winning foreign-language pic about the country’s terrible secret surrounding stolen children of political prisoners.
Films of the death camps from the Jewish Historical Institute and Central Armed Forces Museum, among other places, have a clarity and crispness unsurpassed by other such footage. Puenzo has also corralled some topnotch tech pros, notably editor Hugh Primero, to juxtapose the appropriate images with the powerful words.
Moved by the research conducted for “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg in 1993 created the Shoah Foundation, which has since interviewed more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors.