National Geographic special on Nazi crimes not so special

Though nearly seven decades have passed, the Holocaust remains the pivotal event in recent world history. The lessons of that cataclysmic crime can never be taught enough.

Unless those lessons are taught poorly.

A new National Geographic special, “Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust,” attempts to recount in 45 minutes the history of the Einsatzgruppen. Beginning in 1941, these Nazi marauders fanned out across Eastern Europe, wiping out entire Jewish communities, one person, and one bullet at a time.

More than 1.5 million Jews died at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, but the Nazis decreed that wasn’t enough, and thus the more efficient death camp concept was born.

While images of slaughter and ruin in the documentary certainly sear the viewer, due to inept storytelling, “Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust” fails as a documentary.

Starting with the title.

 

An Einsatzgruppen soldier guns down a mother and child in Ukraine, 1942.

There was nothing hidden about the Einsatzgruppen. Their actions have been well documented since the end of the war. Yad Vashem has an entire room dedicated to their crimes.

 

Like similar documentaries, this one brings in historians to unpack events. Michael Berenbaum and Peter Black of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum offer historical context, yet one can feel the filmmaker’s unseen hand tugging on them to lay the emotion on thick.

It’s as if the filmmakers don’t trust their audience to comprehend the monstrosity of it all.

In scene after scene, the filmmakers hammer home that the Einsatzgruppen killed Jews one at a time (and in case you still don’t get it, close-up shots of bullet casings remind you).

The emotion runs to ghoulish extremes with the testimony of Zvi Michaeli, a survivor of a 1941 Einsatzgruppen massacre in Latvia. Michaeli tells his story with such breathless agony, it looks as if he might pass out from horror right there on camera. This sequence comes dangerously close to exploitation.

The film then bounces from one gruesome tale to the next, including a fascinating analysis of a two-minute film fragment depicting a mass shooting, a bit about the Nuremberg trials and a look at the work of Patrick Debois, a French priest researching the killing fields of Eastern Europe.

The part about Debois proves to be the most riveting sequence in the film, and deserves a documentary all its own. Debois’ research, as described in his book “Holocaust By Bullets,” truly did uncover a hidden Holocaust.

The film does a few things right, especially in terms of the cinematic techniques used to augment that grainy film fragment. Coupled with insight from historians, the viewer comes to understand much about the banality of evil.

Similarly, morphing old photos of long-lost shtetls and showing those same locales today, absent their former Jewish residents, emphasizes, as only cinema can, a vanished world.

But it’s not enough for “Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust” to have its intended impact on viewers. No one could fault the filmmakers for wanting to expose the Einsatzgruppen for the monsters that they were. But ginning up the emotion is not necessary when simple storytelling will do.

“Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust” airs 10 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2 on the National Geographic Channel.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.