For many years, The History Channel has been dubbed “The Hitler Channel” by wags for the seemingly endless programming devoted to Adolf Hitler and World War II.
So, when I received a copy of the DVD version of “The Third Reich” (A & E Home Entertainment) in the mail last week I wasn’t sure if I would bother to watch it.
How many times can I go down that road?, I thought to myself.
But a friend who saw the three-hour special when it debuted on The History Channel last year told me it was extraordinary so I decided to see if I could make it through another account of the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler.
“The Third Reich” is indeed a spectacular piece of work, a new take on Hitler and the impact of the Nazi regime on average Germans (who may or may not have been aware of the evil that was being done in their names).
Directors Nicole Rittenmeyer and Seth Skundrick have built the documentary around newly discovered footage, much of it home movies shot by Germans before and during the war.
The home movies are combined with recently unearthed tourist promotional films — for the 1936 Olympics and other supposed glories of the Hitler regime — that now have a ghastly ironic tone for what they were not saying about what was going on under the Nazi regime.
“The Third Reich” also includes new angles on the filming of two of the most famous Hitler-glorifying documentaries — “The Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” both directed by Leni Riefenstahl — showing us the trickery and stage-craft that helped to embellish the Nazi image.
The documentary is especially interesting on the popularity of the Hitler Youth and the insidious way the Nazis tore apart family life and traditional sexual behavior as they brainwashed kids into believing they were part of a “master race” and were duty-bound to reproduce that species as quickly as possible.
We hear tales of parents who were horrified to learn that teen girls and boys were being pushed into sex so that the girls would become pregnant with “perfect Aryan” babies. When one mother went to a Hitler Youth camp to bring her daughter home, she was told to shut up and go home or face being sent to a concentration camp.
The footage is augmented with letters and other personal documents that are read without much dramatic heightening by actors.
Rittenmeyer and Skundrick were clearly aware that these horrifying first person accounts didn’t need to be hyped.
The film is divided into two parts — “The Rise” and “The Fall” — and it deserves great credit for shedding new light on a topic that I thought had been exhausted by The History Channel.