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The subject of this documentary is the opening of the Wehrmachtaustellung (Wehrmacht Exhibition) in 1995, the now famous collection of photographs and documents that provided graphic evidence of German atrocities throughout the Second World War. What distinguished the exhibition from past scholarship on the 3rd Reich, was its depiction of the German Army, or Wehrmacht, as one of the main perpetrators of .the Holocaust - essentially no different from the SS, SD, or other Nazi organizations commonly associated with the brutality and mass murder of Hitler's regime. Although a full rehash of the Wehrmacht Exhibit isn't appropriate here, in short, the controversy that persists to this day is whether the photographs show individual acts of barbarism committed by German troops or, as the Exhibit maintains, irrefutable evidence of the German Army's complicity in Nazi crimes. In other words, are these photos proof that ordinary, rank-and-file German soldiers willingly, even enthusiastically, participated in mass murder? Or are these merely isolated cases that should not (or cannot) be distorted to represent the behavior of the over eleven million men who passed through the army's ranks?
Now to the documentary:
Scope: The film purports to provide an objective, balanced account of the Wehrmacht Exhibition, in particular the controversies over the exhibition itself, the public attention it aroused throughout Germany, and the circumstances of its premature closing due to inaccuracies among its photographs. In addition, the documentary attempts to further investigate the complicity of the Wehrmacht in Hitler's crimes and refute the notion that German Army had been a mere spectator, or pawn, during the Holocaust. To accomplish this, commentary from leading scholars, former Wehrmacht members, and Holocaust survivors would provide critique and broach a discussion on the merits and shortcomings of the exhibition.
Focus: From the outset, the film veers off topic from the original opening of exhibition and a discussion German atrocities and digresses to crimes committed by the SS, the first use of gas vans at concentration camps, and Auschwitz. Roughly 1/3 of the film consists of tangents on the mass murder of the Jews and the 3rd Reich's genocidal policies in the USSR and Eastern Europe. This desultory format is annoying at best - one has a hard time keeping track of the producer's arguments as the interviews and footage appear cobbled together with little forethought. Moreover, no new material is introduced about Wehrmacht atrocities during WWII.
Objectivity: This is by far the biggest disappointment. My hope was to see an unbiased, objective analysis of the Wehrmacht Exhibition and the subject of German war crimes under Hitler. I was looking forward to hearing feedback from historians and scholars advocating different viewpoints and walk away with new insights or at least a better understanding of the controversies this exhibit evoked. Instead, it was immediately clear which side the documentary took: while there was indeed a panel of respected history professors, authors, and politicians present throughout the film, without exception they were either directly affiliated with the exhibition itself or proponents of its overall message (I gave 2 stars because many of their arguments were compelling). Yet for counterarguments and critique against the exhibition, the film relies exclusively on soundbytes and interviews from right-wing (neo-nazi) politicians, angry, shouting skinheads, and a handful of disgruntled veterans. One gets the impression that those who disagree with the exhibition's thesis are either poorly educated or neo-fascist hooligans. Of the 10 or so professors and professional historians that appeared, not a single one offered any substantive critique, rather they lauded the exhibit or diminished those who disagreed with their views. The controversy and questions over Wehrmacht involvement in war crimes continue to this day. There are numerous journal articles and books written that by distinguished historians in Germany and the U.S. in criticism of the exhibition, and new research continues to emerge. As such, I expected a degree of critical dialogue and some back-and-forth debates. Very disappointing.
Conclusion: Ultimately - a letdown. One-sided, entirely subjective portrayal of the exhibit and the Wehrmacht itself, "The Unknown Soldier" doesn't offer any fresh insights or new arguments. Unfortunately, it's the only English language documentary on this topic to date.