The images were not new to me, rows upon rows of twisted, bloated corpses, their mouths opened in obscene, deathly horror, teeth removed, eyes gouged, piled up like so many sticks of cord wood, thousands of burials in mass graves, the crematoria, huge mountains of ash from the violated bodies, those who were alive were emaciated, nearly dead, all of it I have seen before and yet I watched it yet again and once again I could not turn away from the tortuous images in the latest Netflix documentary about the concentration camps of World War II.
The documentary was filmed for the U.S. Defense Department by famed Hollywood director George Stevens as part of the “Five Came Back” series that examines World War II through the lenses of a series of equally, famous Hollywood directors. The latest was filmed from March 1, 1945 through May 8, 1945, at 14 death camps, after they were liberated by the Allies, and included Dachau in Bavaria, Germany; Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp, Nordhausen, Germany; Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Weimar, Germany; Mauthausen Concentration Camp, Austria; Arnstadt Concentration Camp, Thuringia, Germany; Belsen Concentration Camp, Lower Saxony, Germany; Leipzig Concentration Camp, Germany; Penig Concentration Camp, Saxony, Germany; Ohrdruf Labor Camp, Thuringia, Germany; Hadamar Concentration Camp, Hesse, Germany; Meppene Concentration Camp, Germany; Münster Concentration Camp, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany; Breendonk Concentration Camp, Belgium; and Hanover Concentration Camp, Lower Saxony, Germany.
Sights of the mass starvation, cruelty and bestiality disgust me and terrorize me and still haunt me and I have unresolved and confused personal issues as I continue to consume the shows and read the books about the Holocaust because I have to remind myself that anything can and probably will happen again and that Jews have been hated and murdered for 2,000 years so why would you think that has changed or will ever change?
And I see today’s parallels to those grim years when Hitler was consolidating his power as the German people became enthralled with his plans for Lebensraum, the policy of expanding the German homeland into neighboring Poland and beyond, not unlike the accepted, U.S. policy of manifest destiny that expanded the country’s borders at the cost of the lives of thousands of native Americans and later the policy of imperialism. And I see the inevitable parallels between the worship of Hitler and the adoration and unbridled and fanatic worship for Donald Trump and the spread of anti-Semitism and white supremacy groups. The German people were obsessed with anything that Hitler said or did, similar to the way that Trump is viewed by many.
How can anyone make sense of the huge contradictions in Germany under Hitler. The Germans, the Nazis, were not monsters or barbarians, they didn’t arrive on the earth from some faraway planet, they were people, just like we are people. Before the war, their society was not barbaric, in fact it was a modern society with great cities, sophisticated technology, high art. And yet, somehow, I feel that I share in the guilt because I am a member of the same human race as the Nazis. Could I act in a similarly barbaric manner if I was told it was for the common good? I fear my answer is that I would respond in the same way that all good soldiers, all patriots, answer the call.
What would I have done if I had been suddenly torn away from my home, shoehorned like livestock into a train and brought to one of the camps where I was herded off and screamed at by soldiers with whips and guns and dogs and the old men were ordered to one side and the younger ones to the other side, where their fates would be sealed. Would I have simply screamed and fallen to my knees in terror or would I have followed orders, absolutely unaware and unbelieving of what was to come? Could I watch my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, attacked and bloodied and then vanished forever? Would I march in lockstep to the gas chamber, in belief that we were only going to shower? How could I not simply explode in terror, hatred and grief? And I see myself there, with my life about the end and I can only cry knowing that there is absolutely no escape, no way out and that I am about to be squashed to death like a bug.
How could the German men and the women continue living while knowing of the savagery being perpetrated? How could they go to their daily jobs, have dinner with their families, talk about the latest sports events? How could they smile? The Holocaust was not very long ago and I remain in absolute confusion over how people can behave in such an inhuman way and why.
And watching the documentaries, reading the books, I get a sort of vicarious revenge as a witness and I can look at the images and scream that the guilty murderers did not escape and that they and their deeds have become part of history for all time.
This film is the official documentary report compiled from more than 80,000 feet of film shot by Allied military photographers in the German concentration camps immediately after liberation. The director, Stevens, was so traumatized by what he saw that upon returning home, he could not continue as a director. Eventually, he did return to directing but ever again directed in his prior style as a comedic director and worked only on serious movies for the rest of his career.
“Five Came Back” explores the experiences of five U.S. film directors — John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and Stevens — and their frontline work during the Second World War.