By Brad Cook
PopMatters | 3 May 2011
Sure, you’ve heard plenty about Nazi Germany during your life, and, yes, The History Channel has turned World War II into its own little documentary cottage industry, but The Third Reich does a nice job of giving us ordinary Germans’ perspectives on the war. If World War II was fought today, YouTube would be overflowing with clips, but there was still enough material filmed by civilians and soldiers back then to carry a three-hour documentary.
The Third Reich is split into two parts, “The Rise” and “The Fall”, each of which is about 90 minutes and occupies one disc. It begins not long after the end of World War I, as Hitler and the fledgling Nazi Party capitalized on German civilians’ frustration to seize power. “The Rise” does a nice job of showing us how many Germans were initially disgusted with the Nazis and in particular with Hitler, who had all the charisma of a damp kitchen rag as far as most of them were concerned. The Nazis understood the power of propaganda from the very beginning, however, and they were able to weasel their way into power—and install Hitler as Chancellor in the process—by convincing voters that they were the least of the various possible evils.
This documentary wastes no time showing us some man-on-the-street footage shot by people who could afford film cameras back then; we’re also presented with thoughts from various Germans, both journalists and ordinary civilians, read by voice-over actors. Once the Nazis seized power, it became trickier to shoot footage, because many people feared being seen with a camera and having their names turned over to the Gestapo, but a few brave souls did so, anyway. One man not only filmed during an evening air raid, but also took to the streets and captured stark footage of the aftermath, in spite of the likelihood that he would have ended up in a concentration camp had he been caught.
We’re also treated to film shot by a soldier who fought in Russia. Some of it, however, is unsettling, because it mixes wartime footage with clips of atrocities carried out against innocent civilians. Late in “The Fall”, we also see footage from Dachau, including shots of Germans being forced to walk through the camp and see what was happening within walking distance of their homes. It’s hard to watch them rush through the camp, eyes averted, and not feel some anger, especially after spending much of “The Rise” seeing happy Germans going about their business and taking time out for vacations while their young ones gave Heil Hitler salutes and wore swastikas.
The raw footage found in The Third Reich, whether it shows mundane everyday life or Nazi rallies, is what separates this documentary from others you may have seen. Some of this footage has been banned in Germany, although I don’t recall specific clips being singled out. Propaganda films and newsreel clips are thrown into the mix, but they’re the kinds of things that German civilians were exposed to on an everyday basis, so they add to that “regular person on the street” feel.
The narration is good, although it’s a bit over the top, especially when it lapses into phrases like “If you were living in Germany at this time…” Statements like that are redundant, since the footage gets the point across quite well. In addition, the silent clips are dressed up with ambient noises; I wish they had been left the way they were, since we don’t really know what sounds may or may not have been heard while the footage was shot.
Ultimately, though, this is a documentary worth viewing, even if you’re sick of the “All Nazis All The Time” vibe that The History Channel often puts across. The Third Reich will give you a new perspective on World War II. In fact, it should be shown in history classes too, so students can understand the forces that were at work back then, and how they shaped what many thought would be a promising new beginning for Germany, only to see what they thought was utopia turn into hell.
There are no extras in this release.