Berga: Soldiers of Another War Review / Docs on the spot
Rating: **** (incredible story)
STORY: Berga is the story of 350 American Prisoners of War that became caught up as part of the Holocaust. This is something I wasn't aware of and was surprised to learn. What had happened was that during the Battle of the Bulge, thousands of American soldiers were captured. These prisoners were dispatched to Stalag IX B. It was here that the German Officers ordered the Americans to identify the Jewish soldiers. The American officer refused to comply. He also ordered that all of the soldiers take off their dog tags so that the Germans might not find the "H" stamped into the metal. This stood for Hebrew signifying the Jewish religion. (Its for dietary/burial purposes... so if you were Easter Orthodox the stamp would be OE, if you were Southern Baptist it would be BC, Agnostic ZB, and so on...). Frustrated, the German Officers proceeded to pick out 350 soldiers who "looked Jewish" for transfer to "Berga an der Elster", or simply Berga Concentration Camp. It was a subdivision of the notorious Buchenwald. It was at this camp that the soldiers were given starvation rations and forced into lethal labor. Just when you think things couldn't get worse about their story, a new twist is added. At the war's end, out of the 350 soldiers that were taken, almost 90 of them had perished. Out of the 350 soldiers that "looked jewish", only 80 of them actually were. Yet the soldiers remained unified.
Director: Charles Guggenheim was the Writer, Director and Narrator of this film. It was the last work of a his lifetime. A lifetime which contained a career spanning more than 50 years of directing documentary films and political campaigns. He was nominated for the academy award more than a dozen times and won four times. For this film, as archival footage was scarce, Guggenheim relied on utilizing some re creations. These were mainly small items like a darkened room, or a swaying latch. However in an attempt to not break with the archival photographs and film that had been included, they were placed into black and white. To further this, he put all of his interviews that he took with the survivors and placed them into black and white as well. This produces and interesting submersion that soon passes as unnoticed by the viewer as they become fully engrossed by the story.
Why then did Guggenheim make this film? Well had it not been for an infection on his foot when the rest of his detachment were shipping out for Europe, Guggenheim might have been part of those that were captured and forced through this experience.
For this documentary, story is king. Visually, beyond the displaying the images in black & white, it fits very comfortably into a standard documentary format. The pacing is good, the music and ambient effects are good, but it is the incredible story that remains outstanding.