Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 99, 2011)
Can a documentary pack a thorough history of Nazi Germany into 174 minutes? No, but a 2010 History Channel documentary gives it a shot.
Reich indeed attempts to trace the rise and fall of the Nazis. It starts with the roots of unrest in post-World War I Germany and shows how Adolf Hitler gained a following and came to power. The program then depicts their work within 1930s Germany as well as their attempts at expansion later in the decade and the development of World War II.
While Reich covers expected territory, it does so in an unusual manner. Rather than opt for the usual mix of talking heads, reenactments and archival elements, Reich goes exclusively with film shot in the eras depicted. We see nothing other than material recorded from the 1920s to 1940s.
Reich also lacks the standard roster of experts. Instead, it uses actors to utter the words of historical witnesses. In this category, we hear from authors Sebastian Haffner, Peter Fritzsche, Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen and Erich Ebermayer, society journalist Bella Fromm, Nazi Party members Otto Bangert and Franz Buchner, school teacher Louise Solmitz, Brunswick resident Elizabeth Gebensleben, Berlin Jew Dr. Landau, literature professor Victor Klemperer, Reich Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, cigar factory worker “Emma”, Hitler Youth member Jost Hermand, American journalist Ernest Pope, Halberstad resident Else Klamroth, Berlin writer Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, 12th Infantry officer HG Klamroth, filmmaker Julien Bryan, German tank gunner Karl Fuchs, Hamburg resident Mathilde Wolff-Monkenberg, Osnabruck resident Dierk Sievert, Stuttgart resident Gretta Dolker-Rehder, Company Commander Lt. Reinhart, German infantry Willy Peter Reese, German officers Helmuth Groscurth and Karl Kretschner, Cologne resident Peter Fischer, 13-year-old Hamburg resident Hilke Clark, German soldier Heinrich Fromke, Berlin resident Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel, Laubach resident Friedrich Kellner, American journalist Meyer Levin, Dachau prisoner Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, and Berlin journalist Marta Hiller. We also hear from a mix of unnamed parties.
In addition to the absence of the standard commentators, Reich goes for an unusual focus. While it covers politics and the war, it prefers the viewpoint of the average citizen. This means that we don’t learn about political maneuvers, specific battles or the like.
Instead, we inspect the Nazi era from the ground level, which is both a pro and a con. On the positive side, this gives us a different perspective. God knows that this story has been beaten to death in its more conventional telling – and probably in less conventional ways as well. Still, the reliance on more “ordinary citizens” to relate the events and the absence of historians gives it a feel that separates it from most of its brethren.
As does the exclusive use of archival footage. While we always see material of this sort, we don’t often find it featured to the exclusion of all else. This helps give the program a more immediate feel.
To a degree, at least, as the “con” side of the coin ensures that Reich doesn’t totally satisfy. The main problem comes from editing and music. I’d like the archival footage and “you are there” comments to contribute a sense of realism, but the show is cut and scored in such a way to take us out of that realm. We rarely spend more than a couple of seconds with any particular shot, as the program moves at a rapid pace. Some of that’s necessary due to the scope – after all, it covers more than 20 years – but I still feel it shortchanges the footage. We get so much potentially valuable film but barely are allowed to see any of it.
The score hurts the film more, for it usually takes on such an ominous tone that it would better fit a horror movie. Yeah, the Nazi story can be viewed that way, but the darkness of the music just doesn’t work; it tries too hard to dictate our emotions.
And it never stops. I don’t think one second of the program comes without score; the music turns into a relentless partner. That would be a mistake even if I liked the score more, but since I find the music off-putting at best, its inescapable nature creates serious problems.
I still think Third Reich is a worthwhile project and something that will merit attention from those with an interest in this segment of history. Nonetheless, it disappoints me because of its execution; it’s too busy to give us an involving depiction of its events.