(Worth seeing)

Directed by Harriet Eder and Thomas Kufus.

There have been many World War II films, but to my knowledge My Private War (whose German title, Mein Krieg, translates more literally as “My War”) is the first based on footage shot by the soldiers themselves. Showing at Chicago Filmmakers this Friday and Saturday, the work is at once compelling and repellent, bitterly ironic and deeply disturbing.

The filmmakers, Harriet Eder and Thomas Kufus, found six soldiers in the German Wehrmacht who fought on the eastern front and took home movies to record “where one had been,” as one of them blithely puts it. The amateur footage is intercut with present-day interviews with each of the six discussing his “war movies.” The soldiers narrate their own footage, and we are encouraged to see the war through their eyes, which is troubling because most of them seem to be unreconstructed Nazis. Only one refers to “German crimes” committed during the war, and that occurs near the film’s conclusion. Another calls the Russians “animals.” One soldier even declares that his conscience is “clear as crystal.”

Eder and Kufus appear to have extracted and reedited the soldiers’ footage so it’s impossible to know which cuts are theirs and which are the soldiers’ (or the result of the soldiers’ later editing). The filmmakers have their hearts in the right place. They ask a few questions and use ironic juxtapositions, but such subtleties cannot compete with the mass of unexamined footage accompanied by postmortem justifications.

Most home movies present images as objects belonging to the filmmaker. Junior looks into daddy’s camera, and daddy has in some sense “captured” him. A central function of image making has been to serve as a substitute for owning the object depicted, going back perhaps as far as cave drawings of animals to be hunted. Home movies typically present their subjects head-on; people often look straight into the camera, sometimes gesturing to offer their personas to the image-making process. Early in My Private War, members of the Hitler Youth loll in front of a camera held by one of their own. “Here we are going into Warsaw,” narrates another soldier, identifying the bombed-out buildings as having been “destroyed in ’39,” without mentioning who destroyed them. The soldier who wanted a record of “where one had been” was filmed bathing nude in the Black Sea, a banal image that could have come from anyone’s home movie. His motivation was the same as the average amateur moviemaker: since one can’t bring the beach home, one “captures” it on film. But the fact that the Wehrmacht literally captured the Black Sea, with much loss of Russian life, remains unacknowledged.

The viewer of almost any film empathizes with the material on the screen. When a soldier speaks of a Russian plane hovering overhead, it’s hard not to sympathize with the poor foot soldiers trapped in their foxholes–“We hadn’t even been able to go to the john”–or to feel some relief when one sees a plane shot down. Even the awful image of the pilot’s charred remains is leavened by comments on the threat he posed to the soldiers’ lives. Later when one of the soldiers switches to a telephoto lens for a closer view of another burning Russian plane, his desire to display his group’s accomplishments for the camera recalls numerous moments in many home movies.

What’s missing, of course, is the larger context of the war. One soldier introduces images of Russians burying their own dead, asserting that the Russians did it voluntarily, without orders from German guards. But how did the Russians die? The soldier only says that the Germans couldn’t bury the dead because they “had other things to do.”

While many individual images are left similarly unexplained, the filmmakers provide some commentary in their arrangement of scenes. Early on one soldier praises his camera, which worked “even in the extreme cold of Moscow . . . right to the end of the war. . . . The spring mechanism was excellent.” Later another soldier compares the Wehrmacht to a kind of machine from which there was “no escape,” while we watch a series of soldiers walking by an officer, each saluting smartly. The film reveals with understated irony that near the war’s end the camera was still working while the Wehrmacht beat a hasty retreat, making “one of the worst withdrawals I ever saw,” according to one soldier. “Technically speaking, a mess.” Another praises the quality of colors captured in his old Kodachrome footage–“the colors have kept very well; it came out great”–and then we see the first home-movie image in color, a shot of a Nazi flag.

Eder and Kufus make clear that Russian civilians, many Jews among them, were murdered by the Germans, but most of the footage requires greater explanation than the soldiers provide. We see Germans with rifles herding civilians who had been found in underground bunkers. The soldier who filmed this sequence first says he later heard shots, then admits he’d seen them shot. When asked if he participated, he balks–“Spare me this answer”–in a way that suggests he probably did. When later footage shows more Russians being rounded up, we understand their fate with a certainty that was lacking before. To make the point brutally clear, there follows an image of Jews who had been killed by hanging. We see no pictures documenting how non-Jews were killed. Perhaps our good German soldiers had no qualms about displaying images of murdered Jews, but were worried about providing evidence of the execution of non-Jews.

The most effective evocation of Nazi ideology comes late in the film. A soldier introduces a series of images by saying, “I wanted to document the determined face of the German soldier before battle.” (An interviewer asks, “Were you determined?” to which the soldier replies, “You bet I was.”) Each shot is carefully composed; each subject is presented as a uniquely heroic individual; each face carries its own expression. But before this sequence, a group of shots taken from a moving vehicle showed huge lines of Russian prisoners, identified as some of 90,000 who had been captured. These are filmed from a distance; the camera seems to identify itself with the movement of the vehicle across space rather than with the prisoners as individuals. It’s the home-movie equivalent of one soldier’s earlier statement about Russians: “I was always afraid of them. . . . Also because they are so close to nature . . . whereas we are unable because of our culture to experience everything like an animal.” Discussing what became of the 90,000, the soldier who filmed them says, “I don’t know, and we better don’t know.” But by this time in the film, we do know.

Images of passing roads and landscapes taken from moving vehicles place the viewer in the position of the invaders. Sweeping across the land, it’s hard not to get caught up in the movement. Perhaps this is why the film closes with the two most unrepentant soldiers–the one whose conscience is “clear as crystal,” and another who seems to recall the war with fond nostalgia. Were it not for the war, the latter muses, “I would not have seen Russia, Hungary, Romania, the Crimea. . . . The only thing I regret is that I was only in the East. The West would have been interesting too.” When asked, “Even during wartime?” he replies, “Seeing is seeing. You learn to disregard what’s unimportant.”

While the exchange provides further evidence of the biases in the soldiers’ footage, indicating why images of bathing in the Black Sea or of German soldiers before battle are more vivid than those of civilians awaiting their murder, it’s an inadequate antidote to much of the imagery. The shots of the bather have a primal, subconscious appeal that tends to defy any attempt to account for it with reason. The great film on Nazi genocide, Claude Lanzman’s Shoah, has no images from the actual period. I’m not saying that My Private War shouldn’t have been made, but its makers should have provided a fuller context for their images. Simply sticking to the facts surrounding individual events is not enough; even 90,000 prisoners is far from the whole story. By the time the last German was expelled from Soviet soil, about 20 million citizens of the USSR had been killed. In a world filled with ignorance about recent history, a world in which even Holocaust deniers have their say, clever juxtapositions will not do the work of the most basic facts, which need to be repeated again and again and again.