If every fictionalized tear-jerking Holocaust melodrama threatens to debase the legacy of genocide victims worldwide, then each documentary about the Shoah does valuable service by widening our understanding of historical atrocity. Provided, that is, that the doc in question doesn’t trade analysis and sober remembrance for easy sentiment. Steven Meyer’s Buried Prayers, a filmed excavation (both literal and figurative) of the Majdanek death camp near Lublin, Poland, treads a middle ground between illumination and cheap waterworks.
Chronicling the dual trips to Poland of a group of survivors, returning for the first time to the site of their near death, and a team of archeologists on a mission to dig up the buried treasure secreted beneath a field by victims when they realized their impending fate, Meyer’s film aims to give equal voice to the living and the dead. (Actually, despite one of the filmmakers’ on-screen insistence that the project is more concerned with the latter group, greater amounts of screen time are dedicated to the survivors.) So while those who made it out of Majdanek alive reflect on their horrific experiences, the archaeological team makes surreptitious surveys of the field to be excavated and finally wins official approval to dig. As experts outline the unique circumstances that led to victims burying their belongings (the lack of efficiency at Majdanek which allowed the prisoners time to wait in the open fields before entering the gas chambers, the desire on their part to prevent the Nazis from stealing their property and the longing to leave a record for posterity), the film succeeds in illuminating a hitherto little-known aspect of the Holocaust that is as fascinating as it is emotionally wrenching.
But the rest of the excavation sequences are little more than slow-paced procedural, and while the testimony of a survivor is always to be valued, the words of the Majdanek escapees don’t add a great deal to our understanding of the Holocaust. Yes, it’s hard not to feel moved when one woman breaks down, in an overwhelming burst of survivor’s guilt, while visiting a gas chamber. But, hey, Schindler’s List had powerful moments too, and like Spielberg’s film and its countless progeny, Buried Prayers too often turns genuine hurt into tear-jerking feel-bad moments, particularly when accompanied by bathetic strings on the soundtrack. Because of the unimpeachable moral authority of Meyer’s film’s subjects, these moments can’t be so easily dismissed, but it’s to the director’s discredit that what started out as a film designed to illuminate falls so easily into accepted patterns of atrocity filmmaking, whether of the fictional or documentary variety.