You figure out that The Night of Broken Glass: The November 1938 Pogroms had been made for television around the time cheesy computer-generated flames rise out of a synagogue. Then you wonder why the movie even provides this kind of shot, and on several occasions, given that the filmmakers had access to a wealth of rare archival footage (both still and moving) of actual synagogues being burned.
The synagogues in this case belonged to German Jews, and the occasion of their burning was Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938. A Jewish lone gunman had shot a diplomat that day, and Hitler and Goebbels blamed all Jews for the crime. It was the moment they’d been waiting for, when the Holocaust as we think of it could begin in full force (as the film notes in passing, concentration camps had already been set up). German citizens took to the streets rioting and destroying property. Few people died directly because of it, but over 200,000 Jews were deported to camps. To add insult to ignominy, the Nazis footed them the bill.
I learned about these events long ago in Hebrew school, in the hours between bagel breaks, and it was worthy to watch Broken Glass and be reminded. The film relies on some archival film footage, opening with a carnival parade featuring a hanging Jew dummy, though mainly still photographs of gathering crowds that the camera zooms in or out on, á la Ken Burns. At 50 minutes, it’s a short film that opts to give a straightforward narrated account of the events of the night rather than focus on any one aspect of it. It swings for the fences at the end, as a Kristallnacht victim discusses his choice to change his last name from Oppenheim (a German river), symbolizing the German Jews’ break with Germany. The moment of metaphor-grabbing sticks out like a tri-cornered hat.
Not that the facts don’t provide valuable bits; the documentary gives a wonderful sense of how local the destruction was by noting that the Christian rioters tore down some synagogues rather than burned them because doing so would have threatened their own homes nearby. We hear Goering’s line to looters after Kristallnacht: “I’d rather you had slain 200,000 Jews and not destroyed so much property.” Broken Glass is another example of the way Holocaust films often fall into traps of black-and-white morality, some people well and others ill—cf. the recent Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, which substitutes an actual viewing of one of the most notorious Nazi propaganda films with people talking about how evil its director was. Broken Glass takes pains to avoid painting the German people as Hitler’s willing executioners, and that’s appreciated, but little effort’s made to understand what would drive a person to commit that night’s violence. We get individual moments of good and evil, yet the film rarely complicates them. The protagonist is the situation rather than any one person in it.
One of the film’s first images is a still photo of fire rising up from behind a wall. It’s tempting to say that this, too, is a metaphor for the film breaking a historical silence, but it’s really hard to believe that. It’s not that the Holocaust has been oversaturated and should no longer be covered; it’s that, in merely relating what happened, the documentary avoids providing much insight. It also doesn’t do nearly enough with propaganda archives, either using them or analyzing them. You end the film knowing more, but wanting more at the same time.
In Film Art, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson claim that film is capable of 47 times as many color hues as video is. After watching The Night of the Broken Glass, I can believe it. The colors are fat, overbright, and blotchy, with church doors that look like leftover Havarti and aqua-colored shrubs. The sound is in much better shape—a bit loud and unsophisticated, but so is the movie.
A biography of director Michael Kloft, a German who's made at least 10 Holocaust documentaries. The disc also features capsule descriptions for numerous other First Run Holocaust films; I lost count, but it's at least 20. One trailer guarantees a film is "mesmerizing"; a capsule reads, "Rejecting commentary, the filmmakers allow Goebbels to speak for himself (in the voice of Kenneth Branagh)." The pile-up of typos and silly statements continues. First Run's doing admirable work, but they need a proofreader.
A Holocaust documentary with good information and unremarkable insight.