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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Death Mills (1945)



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Ignore my star rating. It accurately reflects the historical significance of this film, as well as the power of these images, but Death Mills transcends categorization and criticism. Director Billy Wilder, with the United States Department of War funding him, took a camera crew out to film footage of the newly liberated camps right at the close of the war. The film is the first Holocaust documentary and as such is one thing that a modern Holocaust documentary cannot be: the immediate sights and perspectives of the time, uncolored by hindsight. The images are graphic and terrifying; the film cannot be said to be a pleasant viewing experience, but it is nevertheless an important one.

Amongst the footage of wreckage and bodies and facilities for efficient mass murder are interrogations of the camp personnel and interviews with German civilians. In some ways, these interviews are more frightening than the actual images of death and destruction.

Wilder was himself a European Jew. He fled to Hollywood in the mid-30s and established himself as a great director with such masterpieces as Double Indemnity and, later, Sunset Boulevard. He worked primarily in popular genres, mostly noir and screwball comedy, seldom directly addressing the Holocaust or World War II. When he did, as in Stalag 17, it was still about entertainment rather than about activism or education. Death Mills is unique amongst these titles. It's his only work that observes, without artistic filter, the horrors humanity is capable of. Yet even his comedies have a cynical streak, as if they don't quite believe their own happy endings. After this, how could they?