September 6, 2007

The Unknown Soldier

Meditation on the actions of Germany's WWII army an entrancing look at the power of civil identity

By Eric Kohn

If the sins of father are transferable to future generations, then Germany has a serious familial problem. That’s the driving tenet of The Unknown Soldier, Michael Verhoeven’s provocative documentary centered on the ethical, social and psychological wrangles forced out of the country’s subconscious between 1999 and 2004, when the controversial tour of the Wehrmach Exhibition confronted citizens with evidence that genocidal behavior during the Holocaust spread throughout the German army, rather than being restricted to the universally denounced inner realm of the SS. Could there be a worse source of generational guilt than facing the possibility that grandpa was a Nazi?

America was ashamed about Abu Ghraib, condemning a handful of unscrupulous soldiers with the judicial equivalent of a hand slap (“Bad apples! Bad!”), but the Wehrmacht Exhibition implied that much of the German population in the armed forces during the war played a part in the attempted genocide. Verhoeven’s documentary falters when it turns onto the worn-out route of studying the national mentality that lead to justifying mass murder -- as the usual parade of academics and analysts parade across the screen with their various theories about fear tactics and the so on, the narrative goes on autopilot. But discussion centered solely on the exhibit, particularly those in the documentary’s early scenes, offers an entrancing look at the power of civil identity during a media hailstorm.

Outside the museum, skinheads congregate and decry an attack on all German-kind. At least one historian agrees, worrying that the publicity surrounding the exhibit’s revelations might lead to the belief that Germans are predisposed to senseless violence. For the most part, Verhoeven (no relation to contemporary B-movie maverick Paul) and his production team stay behind the camera, observing the protests and letting them play out with verité fortitude -- a technique not unlike the one Chris Marker employed to capture French political protests in The Case of the Grinning Cat. Occasionally, however, Verhoeven pops into the frame, inserting the slightest provocation to keep the story in motion. He doesn’t mince words. Approaching a skinhead, the director asks, “Why is this exhibit so shitty?” Which is to say, why would it make anyone uncomfortable?

Why, indeed. The answer comes through loud and unsettlingly clear throughout The Unknown Soldier, which is populated with nightmarish archival footage of mass execution and senseless hangings culled, in several cases, directly from family albums. Verhoeven’s film won’t be shown at anyone’s reunion.

German guilt is not unfamiliar thematic turf in Verhoeven’s oeuvre. His 1990 feature The Nasty Girl (which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar) followed the plight of a journalist seeking to expose an older generation in her hometown for secretly allowing the deportation of its Jewish residents during World War II. The movie grows claustrophobic when the protagonist stays true to her ambition and ends up alienating her former allies. The Nasty Girl is the ultimate tragedy: it discovers a problem and can’t figure out a solution. The Unknown Soldier comes closer only to the second part of that equation.

Less a radical exposé than a collage of meditations on events long known, The Unknown Soldier’s most successful discourse stems from its title. Shrines to anonymous fallen soldiers are commonplace in Germany and elsewhere, their symbolism creating, as one interviewee points out, “a new kind of dead.” Indiscriminately honoring the deceased German fighters suggests that personal (if not national) culpability has grown irrelevant, and that certain sins are forgotten, if not forgiven. In the wake of such a selective notion of history is the ominous threat of its repetition.

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