The Unknown Soldier

2006, Movie, NR, 97 mins


Best known for his provocative fiction feature THE NASTY GIRL (1990), German director Michael Verhoeven returns to his country's Nazi past with this searing documentary about the aftershocks of a controversial museum exhibition that rattled the conscience of a nation.

On February 24, 1997, a touring photography exhibition entitled "War of Extermination: Crimes of German Armed Forces 1941-44" opened after four years of contentious debate. The heart of the installation was a series of mounted photographs, many drawn from the private collections of ordinary Germans, showing soldiers of the Wehrmacht — the German Armed Forces — participating in hangings, shootings and beatings of primarily civilian Jews on the Eastern Front. The sensational exhibit offered evidence that, far from simply leading the murderous Einsatzgruppen east, the Wehrmacht worked hand-in-hand with the dreaded SS death squads, which exterminated over one million Jews. It also broke a long-standing taboo against making a connection in the public mind between the actions of millions of ordinary soldiers and SS atrocities in places like Auschwitz. A week after the exhibit opened, neofascists, including the ultra-right-wing NPD, protested in Munich's St.-Jakobs-Platz. But not every critic was a neo-Nazi. Some historians, like Bogdan Musial, felt the exhibit often ignored context and that sequences of photos presented as "picture stories" were misleadingly manipulated. Emotions and debate ran so high that Hamburg's Institute of Social Research was finally forced to declare a moratorium on the exhibit so that all the material could be verified. A team of historians compiled a report that listed inaccuracies and mistakes (though they found no intentional manipulation) and on November 28, 2001, a second exhibit opened at the Works of Art museum in Berlin, minus many of the private photos. Despite the changes, many protestors were no closer to accepting the terrible fact that their parents and grandparents bore any responsibility for one of history's great crimes.

In a nation that purports to look history full in face, this collection of photographs cut deep; there's a difference between dealing honestly with a country's collective past and acknowledging individual responsibility. According to the exhibition's organizer, Hannes Heer, whom Verhoeven interviews extensively, the photographic evidence belied an alternative, verbal historiography that often runs in German families, one that acknowledges the Holocaust but asserts that grandpa was not a criminal. Verhoeven's important film asks us to expand our thinking about the Holocaust beyond Auschwitz and the gas chambers (according to historian Dirk Rupnow, 40 percent of those murdered died at the hands of individuals). It's not always clear that the memories conjured by those interviewed directly involve the Wehrmacht — and in this respect Verhoeven's film potentially lays itself open to the same criticisms leveled at the first exhibit — but the cumulative evidence that genocide could not have occurred without the cooperation of the German army is overwhelming. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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