The composer Dmitri Shostakovich used to dedicate his works to the victims of fascism and war because, as he noted, it wasn’t possible in his lifetime to write an individually dedicated piece for each of the dead. And while it may seem like there are endless documentaries, films and specials pertaining to the Holocaust, it’s only because it’s simply far too vast a story to ever be told in its entirety, and it’s a story that demands constant telling and continued reappraisal. All the same, the scope of material produced regarding the Holocaust is insurmountable, and frankly, some documentaries on the subject are better than others. Engineering Evil, premiering on History tomorrow, Nov. 15, at 9pm ET, is one of the more worthwhile of the Holocaust documentaries that I’ve seen in recent years, as it takes a slightly different approach than is usually seen, and manages to grasp some of the magnitude of those events and hand it back to you with a fresh horror that even jaded viewers will find resonates.
One of the reasons the Holocaust is so preposterous to deny is that the Nazis notoriously kept records of virtually everything that went into its planning, construction and execution, from the “resettlement” lists of those transported to the East, to the blueprints, permits and contracts involved in creating the death camps. The artifacts left behind from the Holocaust are frightening in their matter-of-factness, and Engineering Evil puts them front and center in a study of how a civilized and intellectually advanced society like Germany could pioneer inverting the concept of mass production for the mass destruction of human beings.
Among the chilling artifacts examined are blueprints for a crematorium — featuring the approval signature of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler; items unearthed from mass graves, including jewelry of the dead and the bullets that destroyed them; a notorious anti-Semitic children’s book and a likewise-themed board game and much more. Using photographs of the era, many of which only have come to light in recent years, Engineering Evil examines sites of incalculable misery, like the disembarking “ramp” at Auschwitz or the gas chambers of Sobibor and matches them graphically with what the sites look like today, discomfortingly connecting the present with the past.
Possibly most alarming in Engineering Evil are the number of color films from the camps and ghettos, in which bodies are sometimes seen lying on sidewalks as pedestrians casually walk by, sometimes in frighteningly organized piles, and sometimes as far as the camera can see. Color footage of the victims of the massacre at the ravine of Babi Yar in the Ukraine, where, estimates say as many as 150,000 were shot to death by the Nazis, is a lot to take in, and, as is often said, once seen can’t be unseen. (An educational outreach for students in grades 6-12 is part of History’s support for this, so parents of those on the younger end of that spectrum, and sensitive viewers as a whole should be aware of the imagery this project contains.)
All the same, for anyone interested in Holocaust studies and bringing this ever more-distant topic into the present, Engineering Evil is a powerful film that breaks down the ruthlessly efficient machinery of slaughter and the social mechanisms that enabled its construction, examining them and, with witness testimony and expert analysis, addresses the ever-present, ever-necessary questions of guilt and complicity that continue to confront us today, even as newer genocides unfold in other corners of our world.
Shostakovich – Symphony No.13 “Babi Yar”
Photo: Courtesy of History