Remembering the POWs of 'Berga': Guggenheim's Final Film Celebrates His Army Unit
Berga: Soldiers of Another War is an elegy in two senses. The personal "what might have been" aspect of the story haunted and motivated Charles Guggenheim to make the documentary about his US Army unit, the 106th Division in World War II. "I can remember their faces just like yesterday," he says in his narration of the film. "They went overseas and I didn't, and some of them didn't come back. I've been thinking about it for 50 years, wondering why it didn't happen to me. That's why I had to tell this story." Ironically, what was in his system while he was getting something out of his system ensured that this highly personal biographical history would be his last. He died in October 2002 of pancreatic cancer. Seeing this elegiac film, with its muted funereal images moving the viewer along as in a procession, one cannot separate from the impression that this is a wartime Notes from the Underground, with a nod to Dostoyevsky, about the true madness of Nazism.
Guggenheim amassed a lion's share of awards during his over half-century of filmmaking. In addition to his four Academy Awards for Nine from Little Rock (1964), Robert Kennedy Remembered (1968), The Johnstown Flood (1989) and A Time for Justice (1994), the Washington, DC-based filmmaker earned the IDA Career Achievement Award in 2000, and a George Foster Peabody Award. The dozen Academy Award nominations, all in the documentary category, tied Walt Disney's record. Yet, as he stated, the outcome could have been different.
When he was in the US Army during World War II, Guggenheim missed shipping out with his unit during late 1944 because of a debilitating illness. His unit, comprising thousands of soldiers, was captured by the Nazis in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, and was sent to Stalag 9B, northwest of Frankfurt, Germany. There the soldiers encountered the true madness of Hitler's children in what were the last months of the war. An already weakened Germany was so steadfastly behind the Fuhrer and the Fatherland's racial policies that it violated the last taboo of warfare: regarding prisoners of war not as soldiers but as part of the Final Solution.
The commandant demanded that the soldiers who were Jewish step forward to be separated from the division. When no one did so, the leader of the division, Hans Kesten was commanded to make the separation. When he refused on the grounds that Americans do not believe in or recognize religious divisions, he was beaten, and those who looked Jewish or had Jewish-sounding names were dragged out and sent to Berga, a slave-labor satellite of the concentration camp at Buchenwald. An estimated 350 GIs were transported to Berga to build an underground military factory by digging tunnels into rock cliffs.
Although the narration states that less than a third of the soldiers were Jewish, one is left with a question: does that make a difference? All men in war are brothers against madness. The narration also states that some Jewish prisoners escaped separation because they threw away their dog tags, or didn't fit the Nazi profile of "Jewishness." Some of them suffered guilt for not declaring their religious affiliation, but in the face of madness, why would anyone reason with the monster? The Nazis flouted all laws of civilization.
Guggenheim, who originally found out about the secret atrocity of the Nazis when he discovered that a fellow soldier from his division had perished in the German salt mine at Berga, searched for over 124 survivors and witnesses. He also found print evidence in War Crimes Trial documents in the National Archives. Forty survivors were filmed, included a Buchenwald survivor named Daum who expressed pity for the soldiers despite that the fact that his own family perished before him.
The madness of Hilter's Germany is crystallized in the interview with Hans Kesten, whose chiseled, Rodin-like features reveal his inner strength, even in old age. Kesten proved to the Nazis that he was not a hyphenated American and that he would not betray America because he was of German descent. He illustrates an important civic lesson about the concept of being an American that is being buried in multicultural America. The Nazi commandant of the stalag where they were imprisoned punished Kesten for not being "a good German" because he frustrated the Fatherland's attempt to implement Nazi racial ideas among American troops.
Astonishingly, the Nazis must have thought that if they won the war, Americans of German descent would unite with them because they were unwilling soldiers. It is true that during the post-1933 era until 1941, German-American bunds across the United States obstructed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts against Adolph Hitler. Vocal anti-fascists were labeled as Communists or fellow travelers by right-wing forces in America, and even after it became evident after 1939 that the US would have to defeat Hitler, prominent Hollywood figures were labeled with the absurd term, "premature anti-fascist."
Guggenheim trained his three children—sons Jonathan and Davis and daughter Grace—in the film business. Grace, however, became his producing partner in 1986. Though Guggenheim died of pancreatic cancer, his working methods were not affected by his illness, according to her. The most difficult narrative problem he experienced, Grace says, was creating an effective beginning. "He had the ending, but not the beginning."
Guggenheim was in denial of his illness and only saw the doctor for diagnosis after he finished shooting the documentary. The film was already in rough cut and close to a fine edit. "He worked closely with his editors and almost edited [the films] himself," Grace points out. "During the mix, his full symptoms flared up." He died six weeks after the film was completed. Even then, he remained in denial about his cancer until four days before he died.
Grace admits that Berga employs a different style than her father's earlier documentaries. The paucity of archive film precluded the normal compilation footage concept. If the Nazis destroyed paper trails, they certainly made sure that no film was shot of their murderous activities. Guggenheim, his daughter points out, "was not an advocate of on-camera interviews," because he believed that the interviews ate up running time.
Guggenheim Productions makes primarily political and biographical documentaries on commission. Many of his films were short-form, running between half an hour and an hour. Berga is 90 minutes long, yet incorporates little archive footage and the minimum amount of recreated footage to make smooth transitions and plot points. He stretches the parameters of documentary form because the re-creations include the brutal boxcar transport, prisoners tunneling through the quartz rock, images of the Nazi guards (who were portrayed by East German locals), young versions of the American soldiers (also East German locals), corpses and the forced 150-mile slave march of the soldiers by the Nazis in an attempt to kill them before they were liberated by the advancing Allies. Grace notes that offers have been made by producers to make a feature narrative film about Berga.
One of the recreated segments is both comic and poignant. A German woman on a bicycle, revealing courageous empathy, makes repeated circling trips, dropping small parcels of food for the nearby soldiers. Guggenheim's DP, Erich Roland, shoots the actress in long shot on her bicycle on the road, and the effect is reminiscent of the films of Jacques Tati.
The talking head concept does make the film longer. Seeing the present-day survivors in obviously healthy condition, talking about starvation, dysentery and beatings diminishes the horror of the story. Shooting the men in black-and-white preserves the stark quality of the interviews. However, what the talking head narrative device reveals is the remarkable ability of human beings to heal. These survivors exist in a parallel universe: living with the memories and leading productive lives. As Milton Stolon states on camera about natural selection: "The older fellows who had families survived. The 18 [and] 19-year old boys went quickly. I knew I had a family at home. I wanted to live. I just wanted to live." Photographs taken of the men at home in uniform with their wives and children reinforce this message.
Berga: Soldiers of Another War, a co-production of Guggenheim Productions and Thirteen/WNET New York, will be shown nationally by Thirteen/WNET New York on May 28 on PBS at 8:00 p.m. It is true that Memorial Day is an ideal time for this documentary, but why wasn't it part of the American Experience series, which had a success with The Johnstown Flood, Guggenheim's third Oscar-winning documentary? Berga was five years in gestation, with full funding only in the last two years of production. Ironically, historian David McCullough, who often hosts on American Experience, was part of the finished product. His on-camera interview with Guggenheim is included on the DVD release, but will not be shown on PBS.
Kevin Lewis is a contributing editor to International Documentary and has written for DGA Magazine and Editors Guild Magazine.