From 1999 to 2004, the Wehrmacht Exhibition was shown in 11 major cities in Germany, showcasing a multitude of documents, photographs, and video footage meant to illustrate the full extent of the atrocities committed during WWII, from those demanded by the Fuhrer himself to the daily activities of the foot soldier. Whereas common knowledge had long dictated that only a select few, high-ranking officers were responsible for the massacre of the Jewish population under the reign of the Nazis, here were images showing seemingly common men gleefully humiliating and torturing the subjugated population, while letters written home from the battlefield often relished such murderous activities. Michael Verhoeven’s film The Unknown Soldier documents the controversy that arose from this undertaking, from the citizens who protested the purported desecration of their fathers’ memories to the neo-Nazis who assembled to support the memory of Hitler’s reign.
Structurally, the film itself is a pristine example of levelheaded journalism (this, amusingly, doesn’t stop one onlooker from cursing out the cameraman for being a part of the corrupt press). Verhoeven allows his subjects, who range from historians to protestors to veterans of the war, to speak for themselves, and while this approach is initially frustrating given the director’s total lack of input on such morally challenging material, his cool distance ultimately allows his subject to paint a clear picture of the countries social and moral conflicts, not unlike a mass dialogue in which the truth ultimately emerges between the lines. Though a number of right-wing extremists suggest that the bulk of the material in the exhibition was either staged or forged, the anger aroused among more reasonable citizens suggests a country still coming to terms with the sins of its own past.
Nonetheless, the gray shades of history are refreshingly showcased here, from the acknowledgement that a soldier who refused orders was likely to be executed himself, to the stressed point that many Germans did in fact put their lives on the line to stop such inhuman atrocities (one man, writing home to his wife, confesses that he prays for Germany to lose the war). Like an orchestra of our collective unconscious, the film grapples with the influence of history and the indebtedness of survivors to the sins of the past, while the footsteps of Hitler’s army are ever marching on. The repeated use of this image serves as a microcosmic example of the film’s ultimate, haunting message: that the defeat of a great evil in the past does not protect us from its reoccurrence in the future, that even those of us with the best of moral intentions can ultimately contribute to the greatest of wrongs.