Even PBS seems a little sheepish on the “Why another Holocaust documentary?” front, based on the discussions conducted by Linda Ellerbee that bookend this six-hour project being presented on three successive Wednesdays. Yet this thoroughly detailed account, mixing meticulous re-creations with historical footage, provides a step-by-step approach to the planning and execution of “the final solution.” As such, it’s a compelling addition to the historical record and will doubtless be a boon to students — the kind who welcome any kind of film in lieu of a lecture — for years to come.
Most memorable, undoubtedly, are the chilling interviews with surviving concentration camp guards who exhibit scant remorse about their role in exterminating Jews. As one professor points out, extensive Nazi propaganda blaming post-WWI ills on Jews “facilitated killing with a clear conscience.”
Soberly narrated by Linda Hunt, part one of writer-producer Laurence Rees’ narrative explores how the Germans, through hideous trial and error, sought more efficient ways to eliminate their prisoners, eventually settling on the mass gassing carried out at the camps.
Notably, much of the action is illustrated through subtitled re-creations predicated on historical documents — an increasingly popular practice (witness Discovery’s upcoming quasi-docu “Pompeii: The Last Day,” another BBC production) that nevertheless blurs the lines between documentary and dramatization.
In the production notes, Rees acknowledges the queasiness some harbor regarding this approach, which despite a painstaking commitment to accuracy creates a different viewing experience than the customary grainy footage and black-and-white photos.
That said, the broadcast’s principle weakness involves the brief conversations hosted by Ellerbee, who has perhaps spent too much time interviewing children on Nickelodeon. Overly simplistic, they shed scant light on what we’ve already seen. And somewhat self-defeatingly, Sarah Lawrence College professor Melvin Jules Bukiet observes (for viewing purposes anyway) about the Holocaust, “It has nothing to teach us — it’s that terrible” — running counter to the maxim about understanding history to avoid its repetition.
Granted, the scope of what transpired is difficult to convey –perhaps one reason why fictional accounts often possess far more power in terms of humanizing the story. In that respect, a movie such as HBO’s “Conspiracy,” which chronicled the businesslike fashion in which the Nazis constructed their scheme, is at the very least a perfect companion to “Auschwitz.”
As for why another documentary on this subject: Considering that eyewitnesses to what transpired are dying every day, no one need apologize for continuing to seek new avenues to tell the story.