Documentary films can range from thrilling to merely interesting to downright tedious. Necessarily, they are concerned with truth rather than dramatic effect. But the best ones are both absorbing and educational. They also serve as beginnings of future discussions.
There are three particularly strong military documentaries about Germany, Poland and their relationship with each other during World War II. As with many great films of this ilk, some are not without controversy.
Triumph of the Will
Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece is significant not only because of its horrifying message but also because of the filmmaker’s jaw-dropping, astonishing cinematography, which used what were considered avant-garde techniques at the time:
● Aerial photography
● Superimposed, simultaneously filmed images
● Distorted perceptions resulting from long-focus lenses
The Nazis had almost a million soldiers standing in formation in the Messe-Stadion in Nürnberg, and she captured all the action of the rallies in her cameras. One sees no cranes, no scaffolding and no camera operators in any frame of the film. To this day, film buffs are at a loss when it comes to how she did it with 80-year-old equipment and techniques.
Riefenstahl herself has been at the core of the controversy. She always steadfastly claimed to have been ignorant of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and future plans for Germany, but many scholars and historians don’t agree. While it is true that there are no outright anti-Semitic phrases in the film, her interview with Julius Streicher during the filming yielded the line, “… a people that does not protect its racial purity will perish.” Streicher was hanged after the Nürnberg trials.
This French documentary from Claude Lanzmann has been so controversial throughout its existence that such film critics as Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel and Pauline Kael have changed their opinions multiple times about its nearly 9.5 hours of footage. Lanzmann’s officially sought to portray Treblinka and Auschwitz through interviews with both survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust. He spoke with witnesses, too, and pulls no punches: Many of the interviews are tooth-jarring in their intensity.
The controversy comes from what appears to be Lanzmann’s hidden agenda. Through shrewd questioning, he alludes to his belief that the Poles themselves were somehow responsible for being nearly annihilated by the Nazis. He asks one witness, who lived in the town of Treblinka, if Poles who weren’t Jewish were afraid of the Jews because of what the Nazis were doing. The witness says, “Let me put it this way. When you cut your finger, does it hurt me?” Polish Holocaust survivors objected to the way Lanzmann went about making his film. They were particularly aghast at how he seemingly ignored the people in Poland who rescued Jews or fought the Nazis. He even admitted later that his specific intent was to indict the Poles as anti-Semitic co-conspirators, which probably explains his complete lack of portrayal of the massacres and other deaths of non-Jewish Poles. Lanzmann also leaves out Russian atrocities against the Polish people, such as the Katyn and Minsk massacres.
White Eagle in Borrowed Skies
Gerald Kochan’s documentary “White Eagle in Borrowed Skies” portrays the history of the Polish Air Force during World War II. When Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, Poland fell in less than a month. Poland’s obsolete planes and outnumbered fliers were no match for the German onslaught. Two weeks into the invasion, Russia broke through Poland’s eastern defenses, and, after the Polish surrender on September 27, 1939, Germany and Russia divided Poland along the Bug River. As pointed out in the film, despite the hopeless odds, the Luftwaffe lost more aircraft in the Polish campaign than against the combined French and British Air Forces in the French campaign.
Realizing that Poland’s defense was hopeless, the Polish High Command told its Air Force personnel to continue the fight in exile. Poland itself was powerless to stop the invasion or the resulting slaughter over the next six years. But if the pilots could successfully find themselves bases in countries abroad to reconstitute, allies for which they could fight, Poland might have the last laugh.
They fought the Luftwaffe over Britain, North Africa, and Russia and one ace even tangled with Japanese Zekes and Georges in the Far East. They accounted for 203 aerial victories over German fighters during the Battle of Britain and thus were instrumental in the eventual victory of the Allies.