The film is a two-part, three-hour comprehensive investigation into the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi paramilitary death squads, which fanned out across German-occupied territories in Eastern Europe, the Baltic states and Soviet Russia during the Second World War.
Jewish Independent - March 2, 2012
Harrowing experience - by Basya Laye
The film uses previously unseen footage and photographs of mass exterminations that were unearthed in recent years. Some of the unflinchingly brutal archival footage was shot in color, giving Einsatzgruppen an eerie and unexpected immediacy.
Interspersed with survivor testimony, witness accounts and interviews with perpetrators (at times conducted with a hidden camera), the film features appropriately sober English narration, as well as interviews with international scholars to provide context about the political and social underpinnings of the death squads and their accomplices. Many of the witnesses are interviewed before verdant fields, the now-quiet sites where each observed, smelled or heard the mass murders of their Jewish neighbors taking place. An original score by Samuel Hirsch provides a fitting backdrop, eliciting a creeping sense of doom in its simple refrain.
The Einsatzgruppen and the eager auxiliaries they recruited from the occupied territories were responsible for the deaths of one and a half million Jews, Roma, communists, partisans, the disabled and Soviet prisoners of war, and were the first organized attempt at exterminating European Jewry on a large scale. Their work set the stage for the development and implementation of the concentration- and death-camp strategy that was to become the Final Solution.
The film explores the Nazis’ carefully executed strategy of employing the four Einsatzgruppen, “a huge tentacular organization,” each of which was split into 10 units, that, at the outset, targeted political “enemies” of Germany. Heinrich Himmler disseminated instructions to the Einsatzgruppen, which were instructed to carry out operations simultaneously so that Jews and other victims had no warning and no chance to organize or escape.
Part 1, The Mass Graves, covers the year 1941, during the time of Operation Barbarossa, the German army’s push eastward in their march to Moscow, which began in June. The German invasion shattered the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that had been signed in 1939 and signaled the larger Nazi expansionist agenda. Shadowing the German army were the Einsatzgruppen, mobile death squads whose job it was to clear the area of Jews and other “political enemies.” They loosely defined “enemy” as Jewish men (of army age), communists, partisans and other “threats,” but, after a matter of weeks, progressed to include anyone who stood in the way of cleansing Europe of its Jews. One month into operations, by July/August 1941, Jewish women, children and the elderly had already become fair game, and mass exterminations of entire communities began in earnest. By December 1941, just six months into the campaign, the entire region had been declared “Judenfrei,” free of Jews.
While the rank and file who carried out the murders were made up of lower-class, largely uneducated men, the film describes the makeup of the top echelons: men who were mainly from the upper, educated class, they were career officers, “men of letters.” Three of the four Einsatzgruppen commanders had doctorates and one, the film recounts, insisted on being referred to as Dr. Dr., even as he was tried at Nuremberg, proud as he was of having not one but two PhDs. Among the officers of the four Einsatzgruppen task forces were legal scholars, economists, linguists, writers and philosophers, all of similar ages (born between 1900-1915) and recruited between 1933-37, apparently to better establish cohesion. Their characteristics were not coincidence: “They were eloquent enough to convince men that weren’t born killers to kill women and children,” an historian recounts.
Part of their effectiveness was their strategy of provoking locals into violence, be it policemen, farmers, militia, nationalists or villagers, who had revenge on their minds and a long history of antisemitism. The leadership had no trouble getting locals to sign up, the film reiterates, and the local population, looking to curry favor with their German occupiers, eagerly did the shooting, the beating and the torture, while the Einsatzgruppen organized, supervised – photographed and filmed – their atrocities.
Once the killers were used to their tasks, the Einsatzgruppen “switch[ed] from a total-war, us-or-them rhetoric to a utopian one: ‘They must be killed to fulfil our dream,’” explains an historian.
Eventually, the messiness and complications of exterminating so many people took its toll on the murderers, leading to widespread inefficiencies in enacting the policy. There also was widespread sadism, psychosis, depression and alcoholism that began to infect the perpetrators. It had, for all intents and purposes, become a “bureaucratic nightmare.”
Part 2, Funeral Pyres, covers 1942-45, but focuses on Operation 1005. As the Germans realized they would not likely be able to keep the eastern territories nor win the war, they decided to clean up, disposing of the evidence of their crimes. They turned to using slave labor, often Jewish, who would return to each mass grave, digging up and burning bodies, grinding bones and scattering ashes. Each round of laborers would be shot dead and then disposed of by the next round of laborer-witnesses.
As well, this period marked the intensification of ghetto liquidation, where 90 percent of ghetto Jews were exterminated in additional mass shootings. The pace of killing further intensified once Eastern Europe’s death camps became fully operational and Western Europe’s Jews were transported to their final destination.
While watching Einsatzgruppen, I struggled with whether or not people should see this film. As someone who has read a great deal about the Holocaust, visited death and concentration camps and the sites of mass graves in Eastern Europe, heard from many survivors and viewed countless documentaries about the Holocaust, Einsatzgruppen provided a stark reminder that, unfortunately, there is still much to learn and even more to understand about this great crime. However gruesome and brutal we know the Holocaust to be, this film reminds us that it was even more horrific and catastrophic. In the film, a Ukrainian witness to a mass extermination of Jews says, “If I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t believe it happened.”
As we try to look forward into the Jewish people’s future, it behooves us to face the realities and psychological scars of our collective past. I would hope that viewing a film like Einsatzgruppen fuels us to contemplate how to cultivate the place that compassion and kindness must take in a world that, at times, seems full of inconceivable cruelty.