“This is not the story of how Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany. This is the story of how and why the German people gave it to him,” intones the narrator at the beginning of the provocative new two-DVD set The Third Reich – The Rise And Fall. Although the incredible tale of Hitler and The Third Reich has been has been examined countless times, I have never seen a documentary quite like this one before.
The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall is made up almost exclusively from home movies. Most of these are German in origin, filmed by ordinary citizens witnessing extraordinary events. Some of the later material was filmed by Russians as they were advancing on Berlin. All of it vividly captures the times, from a very unique perspective.
We begin with Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. As one of the title cards reads: “The 1919 treaty that ended the first world war had 440 clauses. 414 were devoted to punishing Germany.” The cities of the war-torn nation became incredibly decadent, while a corporal in Munich began causing trouble with the officials. The rise of Hitler had begun.
Another intriguing element the filmmakers utilize is the use of the private diaries and journals. These are used as voice-overs to convey a very different perspective of Hitler than was voiced publicly. In the words of author Sebastian Haffner: “Hitler himself is still rather a handicap for the movement that has gathered around him. Besides, for ordinary Germans, his personal appearance is thoroughly repellent. The epileptic behavior, the wild gesticulations and foaming at the mouth – the alternately shifting and staring eyes. Most of those who have begun to acclaim Hitler would probably avoid asking him for a light if they met him in the street.”
This private revulsion, coupled with a belief in democracy pointed the way for Hitler to assume power just by taking it. He was installed as Chancellor on February 10, 1933.
Watching these events unfold through the eyes of average German residents is interesting to say the least. As the SS begins to systematically wipe out all traces of rebellion, along with “undesirables” such as Jews, homosexuals, the handicapped, and scores of others – we see first hand how the Nazis were able to control the country, right from the beginning.
The inevitable invasions of other countries follows, along with the hideous “Kristallnacht” and building of concentration camps. It is amazing how much the turning of a blind eye towards such horrors can facilitate them.
What is striking is just how “normal” things seem (in suburbia at least) even late in the war. There are a number of home movies of families out picnicking for example, with Allied bombers flying overhead towards the cities.
The most shocking footage comes at the end, again via home movies. The scenes of a bombed-out Berlin are incredible. I am assuming that much of the smuggled Russian film is from the very end, when the camps were being liberated. No matter how many times one may have seen scenes of the starving, often naked prisoners – the images remain as shocking and sickening as ever.
The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall was originally broadcast on The History Channel as two 120-minute programs. Most of it is shot in black and white, although there are some color segments. There are some extremely graphic sections, especially those of the camps at the end of The Fall.
After having watched a great number of documentaries about World War II and the Nazis in general, I have to say that The Third Reich - The Rise And Fall is one with a very unique slant on those terrifying years. This set is highly recommended.