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Friday, July 8, 2005 | return to: arts


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Documentary reveals brutal Nazi brain experiments

by lee bialik, j. intern

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It's as dark as could be expected from a documentary about brains preserved in jars. But what's truly startling about "Gray Matter" is the story behind these brains, taken from over 700 special-needs children murdered in a mental institution in Vienna.

"Gray Matter" follows director Joe Berlinger to Vienna where he visits the clinic in which forensic psychiatrist Dr. Heinrich Gross euthanized children for medical experiments. The experiments won him an honorary medal, an event viewed by many as an opening act to the Holocaust.

Berlinger speaks with survivors of some of Gross' nonfatal experiments, witnesses a public burial of the preserved brains and goes after Gross himself. (The doctor still holds his honorary medal and lives in Vienna with a government-sponsored pension.)

The film asks why Gross was not punished as his German counterparts were, implying Austria has failed to live up to and atone for its Nazi past.

Berlinger, director of "Brother's Keeper," "Paradise Lost" and "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," as well as the heavy metal documentary "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," explains that as a child he was so gripped by Nazi war crimes that he studied German in school.

Most of the victims pictured in the film are non-Jewish Germans. Gross' patients even included non-mentally ill children whose behavior was deemed abnormal or anti-social.

The sight of these adults speaking graphically of Gross' brutal experiments brings the victims' suffering home in a harrowing way.

"Gray Matter" slows significantly in the middle, but its overall impact is powerful, revealing the disconnect between public acknowledgment and institutional evasion of Austrian Nazism. The funeral for the preserved brains is public, but the government's complicity with human rights violations is kept quiet. And the support of wartime criminals continues.

Austrian medical historians narrate Gross' career uneasily, while government officials speak impassively.

Berlinger's film does not bring Gross to justice, but it does reveal the outrageous institutional nonchalance about Holocaust crimes.




"Gray Matter" directed by Joe Berlinger (55 min, New Video DVD). Order on www.newvideo.com.


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