The Holocaust is so immense that it can’t be grasped in its entirety, but only in its component parts, moment by moment, story by story.
So observes Michael Berenbaum of the American Jewish University at the beginning of “Engineering Evil,” a film that seeks to identify the mechanism and bureaucratic underpinning of the Final Solution.
The History Channel will broadcast the two-hour documentary on Nov. 15, starting at 9 p.m.
The vaunted German efficiency and punctilious devotion to detail are duly noted and illustrated. As one commentator notes, “Talent, energy, imagination, qualities which we generally admire” were lavished on the master plan to exterminate six million Jews.
There are no startling revelations in “Engineering Evil”—not a particularly rousing title—but the film tries to put the mass of details into some kind of order, by grouping them into various sub-categories.
First is “Definition,” of who is a Jew, according to Nazi lore, and why he is a threat to the Aryan Reich. “Expropriation” is illustrated by a board game with the player who can deport the most Jews crowned as the winner.
Subsequent chapter headings are “Concentration,” the formation of camps and ghettos, “Deportation,” with trains running endlessly, and finally, “Death Camps,” the end of the line.
Erik Nelson, the film’s director and producer, insert various camera tricks into the narrative. Sometimes they work, as when he contrasts the 44 railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz with the 21 tracks sufficient to serve New York’s Penn Station.
At other times, the tricks jar, as when the ghosts of SS officers suddenly materialize, or when post-war visitors to campsites walk backwards out of the picture.
It will come as no surprise that when the SS men and camp guards finished their shifts brutalizing or killing prisoners, they acted pretty much like any folks after a hard day’s work, joining in sing-alongs, visiting book fairs and taking trips to the countryside.
“Engineering Evil” holds few revelations to even a casual student of the Holocaust, but it brings home one useful lesson. The vast enterprise of the Final Solution was not carried out by robotic men and women, just following orders.
It took initiative, ingenuity and dedicated effort to exterminate millions of human beings.