The Holocaust is easily the most horrific crime that man has ever perpetrated upon his fellow man. A genocide on the largest scale, it’s hard to comprehend or even convey the full scope of its evil. Fortunately, motion pictures have proven quite capable as a medium to appropriately hammer home the horror of these atrocities to people in faraway lands and times, in the hope that they are never again repeated. Cinema is rife with examples both narrative and documentary–SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SHOAH (1985), to name a few– but perhaps one of the most horrific displays of this genocide is also its earliest: DEATH MILLS (1945), a documentary made by renowned mainstream Hollywood director Billy Wilder.
As World War 2 came to a close and the world was beginning to find out about The Holocaust, the US Department of War was compelled to educate the German public on the monstrous actions of their former government. Towards that end, they enlisted Wilder and a co-director named Hanus Burger to create both English and German-language versions of a 20-minute short documentary. DEATH MILLS is comprised of black-and-white film footage from the concentration camps, as filmed by those came upon them while liberating Europe from the Nazi regime. Wilder and Burger fashion these selects together into a nightmarish montage of inhumanity, unflinchingly lingering on closeup shots of mangled bodies and skeletal survivors while a somber militaristic score courses underneath.
One key aspect of Wilder’s legacy has been widening the type of subjects and stories that mainstream Hollywood deems acceptable for audiences. His previous features had pushed the envelope in decidedly adult subjects like sex and crime, andDEATH MILLS continues the tradition by forcing us to look into the cold, glassy eyes of the dead. Despite the somewhat detached, newsreel-style narration, a quiet outrage seethes through the frame– a product of Wilder’s own personal connection to the Holocaust as a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis a decade before. These mountains of bodies are unrecognizable in death, but they were once people; HIS people. These were his town elders, his schoolmates… one was even his own mother. Interestingly enough, the voiceover makes no mention of Jews specifically– rather, it makes the case that The Holocaust claimed people from all walks of life. This aspect of the film is consistent with Wilder’s career-long exploration of the archetypal “everyman”, the avatar through which the audience can insert themselves into the narrative and experience an intimate emotional connection.
As the first and only documentary that Wilder directed, DEATH MILLS marks a distinct step back from the glamorous Old Hollywood aesthetic that he traded in. Granted, he may not have had a choice in the matter, seeing as he almost certainly wasn’t actually present to capture these horrific images in real time. His voice instead comes through in how the film is assembled as a portrait of mankind’s unimaginable capacity for evil– far more worse and far more real than any villain on the silver screen.
DEATH MILLS is currently available as a standard-definition stream via Youtube, and is embedded above.