Nazi 'home movies' are stunning

June 30, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Owing to the ubiquity of the TV news crews and their ability to pipe their images into our living rooms, we tend to think of Vietnam as the first war truly penetrated by motion picture camera. But it wasn't really the case; by the late '30s, German photographic technology was so advanced that good, 8mm spring-driven movie cameras were commercially available, which meant that at least a few Nazi soldiers went off to war with a Mauser over their shoulders and a home movie camera in their pockets.

It fell to enterprising German filmmakers Harriet Eder and Thomas Kufus to locate six veterans of the conflict, obtain the rights to the footage and knit together (with additional footage of the vets themselves confronting their own past) the astonishing "Mein Krieg," which opens today at the Charles.

The movie gets you about as close as you are going to get to a war without having to worry about shrapnel, head lice, VD and post-combat stress.

All the veterans served on the Eastern Front, and the footage has been assembled in a crudely chronological design, so that the film approximates the trajectory of the classic fictional war movie. It takes the men from training through their fears as the fighting began in 1941 through early triumphs and late catastrophes as the front collapsed in 1945. The men don't become individuals to any degree but as symbolic figures they stand for a generation. In fact, the film put this writer in mind of Guy Sajer's unforgettable memoir of war, madness and survival in that frigid zone, "The Forgotten Soldier."

The movie is full of extraordinary visions: a muddy road littered with burning tanks spreading to the horizon, a snowy fire fight, the sight of a Russian plane brought down by rifle fire, and the necessary litter of war, mainly bodies in all states of ruin and decomposition.

"Mein Krieg" rubs your nose in the reality of battle. One image is especially unforgettable: a valley full of literally thousands of Russian prisoners wandering fecklessly away from the fighting. "One doesn't care to wonder what became of them," the veteran who took the footage says.

Like any document of war, the movie is constructed around the dichotomy between illusion and reality. These plump, prosperous old boys were once lean, weathered combat soldiers in service to what they now can at least pretend was a state of evil. Still, one senses their pride in having served in what to them was a great crusade. The filmmakers let their unadorned, nattering banalities speak volumes.

The lack of moral responsibility as well as a sense of preening self-pity is everywhere evident. "Really, what could I do?" is a constant refrain. "They were ruthless with us. You had to do what you were told." Yet the images continually belie any notion of moral conundrum; they depict instead healthy young animals in high morale, enjoying the passion and drama of their lives and their sense of being part of an awesome machine.

Asked about executions of partisans and Jews, one of the vets mutters weakly, "You're not going to make me answer that, are you?" His gibbering evasion and the scared, shifty look in his eyes confirms everything you feared about the Third Reich.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Mein Krieg" ("My Private War")

Documentary

Directed by Harriet Eder and Thomas Kufus

Released by Leisure Time Features

Unrated

*** 1/2

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