The Unknown Soldier

"Good"

The Unknown Soldier Review


In Michael Verhoeven's impassioned documentary The Unknown Soldier, the terrible inhumanity and detestable efficiency of the German genocide industry during World War II is laid bare before the viewer in all its horror. At one moment in the film, Verhoeven's camera rests upon a plaque upon which a quote by Elie Weisel is visible: "For the dead AND the living who must bear witness." And Verhoeven's film, while bearing witness to repressed German view of history, also warns of cultural complacently in the dangerous present.

The film documents the Wehrmacht Exhibition, an exhibit that made its way around German cities from 1999 to 2004 and hit the German societal nerve like a spinal tap, generating massive protests and riots wherever the exhibit played. The Wehrmacht Exhibition's incendiary display featured previously unseen war footage and repressed photographs of German-perpetrated atrocities conducted against civilian populations during World War II. And the controversial aspects of the show cut like a twisted knife. Before this exhibition, the prevailing common German viewpoint of the horrors inflicted upon the innocent victims and scapegoats of the war was that the violence was conducted by the Gestapo and the S.S. But what the exhibition revealed for the first time to the German population was the revelation that it was, in fact, the regular German army soldiers who were the ones who willingly and happily participated in the slaughter.

The style of Verhoeven's film interweaves unmediated film clips and photographs from the exhibition with footage of protesters at the exhibit and a succession of talking heads interviews with historians and experts in the comfort of their studies and libraries, who comment upon the veracity of the exhibition, either applauding the exhibit and backing up the startling media displayed or others who bitterly deride the exhibition as a complete fabrication. But it is not too difficult to determine which side Verhoeven is on.

The Unknown Soldier cuts a wide swath. Quickly mobbing away from the exhibit itself, the film takes the viewer on a savage journey of horror, ticking off time in the German charnel houses, the Eastern front in Russia, Ukrainian prisons, massive starvations of Jews and Bolshevik POWs, Russian anti-Semitism in the face of Russia's own genocide, the Minsk and Warsaw ghetto exterminations, Dubno, Kiev, and Babi Yar. The atrocity footage continues to amass and amass, so much so that when a few photographs of Hitler finally turn up, his own image seems superfluous.

As the viewer wades through these accumulated terrors, Verhoeven poses vital questions: What were the average Germans capable of? How does anti-Semitism develop into genocide? Where does the concept of "following orders" end? And can it happen here?

All significant and compelling questions, but much too much weight for a 97-minute film to bear. Verhoeven is fervent about what he is showing, but his fervency almost does the film in, particularly when it comes to his interviews with the experts. Continually cutting away from the footage of the exhibit to enlist a comfortable comment from an historian, it is the editorial equivalent of turning away from an unbearable truth about humanity that Verhoeven is trying to highlight. And, as we all presumably know, the mark of an artist is the ability to never turn away.

The most compelling sections of the film have nothing to do with the experts and commentators. Verhoeven is at his best when intercutting the horrific archival footage of Babi Yar, Warsaw, Dubno, Ukraine, and Minsk with the same locations in the banality of present day.

In the most haunting shot of the film, survivors of the Minsk ghetto exterminations stand in the mundane, contemporary city of Minsk next to a marker indicating where the Minsk ghetto had began. It is a cloudy, dark, rainy day, and the two somber survivors dispassionately relate their terrible experiences in surviving the mass executions in the Minsk ghetto, holding their umbrella overhead, straight and still in the downpour.

Aka Der Unbekannte Soldat.

Reign of terror.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 181 mins

In Theaters: Friday 23rd December 1955

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

IMDB: 7.8 / 10

Cast & Crew

Starring: Risto Tuorila as Koskela, Pirkka-Pekka Petelius as Hietanen, Kari Väänänen as Lammio, Paavo Liski as Rokka, Mika Mäkelä as Rahikainen, Pertti Koivula as Lahtinen, Tero Niva as Vanhala, Pekka Ketonen as Kariluoto, Ossi-Ensio Korvuo as Määttä, Pauli Poranen as Lehto, Hannu Kivioja as Riitaoja, Matti Nurminen as Sarastie

Also starring:

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