Wilder: Death Mills (1945) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Wilder: Death Mills (1945)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Death Mills is the only short film and the only documentary by director Billy Wilder. It's 22 minutes long and has a narrator lecturing to the audience over images of the horrors that Allied soldiers found in the concentration camps of liberated Germany. It describes what happened to those 20 million dead, and shows us the infinite number of horrors placed upon both them and the shell shocked survivors.

It is not a pretty movie, nor is it an easy film to stomach. It would take a monster to make it through this movie unscathed, and I know I personally had to look away at several points in anger and pity. It's unflinching and raw, which is more than understandable. Wilder had lost his mother, stepfather and grandmother in Auschwitz (or so he believed he had when the film was made), and had personally fled Germany a decade before this film's production because he was a Jew. There's no doubt that that influenced how this movie was made, and the anger behind it is one that the narrator can barely contain.

The techniques Wilder uses here are interesting in regards to how he's trying to make the viewer think about what they're seeing. While a lot of movies about the Holocaust linger on horrifying piles of bodies, Wilder instead levies his camera at the survivors and the German people. The bodies and dismemberment are often only seen in quick cuts, just long enough for the viewer to register what they're seeing, and cutting away just as the audience is able to grasp it.

It allows the Holocaust to never to become vicarious or thrilling, but jarring and disgusting. It also helps illustrate just how many people died, since every few seconds we see a new atrocity, allowing the horror to dawn over and over and over again.

There's two important things that are emphasized in this film that most contemporary accounts of the Holocaust like to leave out which I found rather interesting. While today it's simply considered the act of a group of genocidal madmen, the movie points out that they had more motivation than that-- the concentration camps were money makers for the Nazis. They sold spectacles, shoes, hair, heirlooms, wedding rings, and any other property the dead had on them. They used the ashes from the gas chambers to sell to farmers for fertilizer. Even the short's title, Death Mills, is evocative of the business aspect here, as the Germans believed that the poor and minorities were worth more as the sum of their commercially viable physical components than as living, breathing humans.

That leads into the second point, the fingers pointing directly at the culpability of the German people for allowing this to happen. The short's climax is in an especially accusatory series where we follow entire German villages rounded up and forced to walk and see the atrocities for themselves. Considering that the film was originally produced for German audiences, that makes the framing of it rather interesting. The movie doesn't shy away from this, taking no excuses and focusing on happy Germans with a virulent sneer.

It's a guilt trip, no doubt about that, but a warning and a plea at the same time. And damn is it sad.

I remember when I was in junior high and my family took the vacation to Europe.  When we were in Germany my dad (a history teacher) had us go to Dachau, and I remember him telling me before going in that it wasn't pleasant, but that everyone should have to go to get a better grasp of the horrors that were done there.

I went about 50 years after the end of the war and the freeing of the survivors but an aura of sadness still hung over the surrounding area.  The ghosts were still very much around at that time and I believe always will be.

I started with this recollection because I felt the same ghosts while watching this documentary short.  If a person doesn't feel an uncontrollable sadness and anger at the world seeing what these poor innocent people went through, there is something wrong with them.  I had seen a lot of the visuals before but I still had to look away and wipe a tear out of my eye when the film showed some of the small children because it hits very close to home.

I agree with the anger being on the screen but I commend how he kept his personal feelings out of the movie.  Like you stated, just because he was Jewish he had to flee his home country and those in his family that were not as lucky to get out were all brutally killed.  The fact that he was able to walk these same steps months after the atrocities and not make a film simply out and out yelling at Germany and shaking them violently for what they did is amazing.

Yet, what he does is even more meaningful because he shows everyone the facts. There are no opinions in the film, no commentary just 20 minutes of brutal, hard truth.  Germany killed millions of innocent people, they tortured these folk, they profited off their death and they did this all under the noses of the willingly blind German citizens.

This movie does not yell at them but it also does not let them off the hook for what happened.  It reminds me of being young and in trouble, the worst wasn't when mom and dad yelled, it was when they said they were "disappointed".  This is Wilder not lecturing but telling the German citizens he is disappointed.  If I was in Wilder's shoes, I don't think I would have (or could have) done the film like he did, but this is just another example of why Wilder is so revered 60 years after he started.

Wrapping up, this movie is powerful and should be seen by people when learning of the Holocaust, but, honestly, I hope I never have to see it again.  It's 20 minutes of horrible visuals and facts made worse by the fact it is non-fiction.  Danny, let's move on to a happier subject next week in alcoholism with the award winning film The Lost Weekend.

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Next Week: The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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