Real Talkies

Real Talkies

Every cut is a lie. It’s never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth. –Wolf Koenig.

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July 17, 2011 , , , , , , , , , ,


A 3-part German documentary about “The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965” often described as one of the best German films on the Holocaust, is a commentary on Germany’s  attempts to come to terms with its past. Using mainly archival footage, visuals of empty trial rooms juxtaposed with sickening audio transcripts of camp survivors, SS veterans and other witnesses; the film lays bare the secrets of the notorious death camp.

The film was initially produced in 1993 by a German public television station for the 30th anniversary of the start of the trial. The film tracks the 20-month trial and recreates it almost chronologically. The 180 minute emotionally draining documentary is very hard to watch and process. I had to watch it over 12 days in anguish pausing several times in horror  at the rawness of the film and other times in disbelief at the arrogant words/behavior of the SS veterans on trial. Please read the excerpt below from a review on written in 2007.

Within the courtroom, the voices of former inmates re-create the unimaginable day-to-day reality of the death camp for Frankfurt crowds drawn by the headlines. The filmmakers examine the proceedings from the vantage point of what came before (dipping into 1918 archival clips to trace the formation of the SS, for instance, or freely sampling testimony at the Nuremberg trials) and what came after (later interviews with prosecutors and activists disclose some behind-the-scenes political maneuverings). The documentary attempts to contextualize both the Holocaust and the 1960s trial for a ’90s German audience.

But it is the chilling succession of facts and documentation in the arid judicial proceedings — broken by the naked pain of disembodied voices with no faces, under images of too-familiar artifacts of manufactured death — that gives the docu its weight.

Bickel and Wagner are quite sparing in their use of the audio tapes, wisely doling them out for maximum effect over the three-hour running time. Thus, the flat, outrageous statement of the camp’s second-in-command that he knew and saw nothing of the deaths at Auschwitz is followed by the emotional reaction of a survivor explaining how he knew everything by his second day there — he had only to read the message in blood on the wall. Source:

For those who are interested in further exploration, the transcript of the entire 430 hours of tapes of audio interviews is available on DVD from the Fritz Bauer Institute. This haunting and soul wrenching documentary is a painful reminder of ethnic cleansing.  Lives lost cannot be changed and the memories of these experience remain etched for ever in the minds of the survivors but such trials and tribunals are cathartic and healing as in some strange way.

I wonder if Osama Bin Laden and their associates were tried and convicted for their crimes instead of being killed, would it have been perceived and processed very differently by the Americans and the Muslim world?

In the wake of Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s killing fields will the Tamils ever see such a trial in Sri Lanka or else where to hold accountable those who committed horrific war crimes against the minority ethnic tamils? Will such a trial be cathartic and help heal the large rift between the Tamils and Sinhalese and promote reconciliation?


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