In 10 Words or Less
Searching for justice for the youngest victims of Nazi eugenics
Joe Berlinger's career has been built on defending children (the Paradise Lost films serve as stalwart defenders of The West Memphis Three), so for his to create a documentary about children murdered for no reason is not a huge leap. That the children were murdered decades ago, in another country, is why Gray Matter stands out on Berlinger's filmography. It is the first film he has directed that's mainly in a foreign language, and the first he's done outside of America.
Upon discovering that the preserved brains of disabled and retarded children killed as a part of the Nazis' eugenics program were finally being interred, and that Heinrich Gross, the man responsible, is free and living in Vienna, Berlinger went to work. Capable of speaking German, he is able to get people to talk, but he finds the levels of protection around the doctor to still be strong many years after the Nazis' left power. Worse discoveries await though as Berlinger digs deeper.
Berlinger serves as a kind of on-screen host, following a trend among documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore and Judith Helfand. The result of having a living breathing subject to follow on this quest for truth is substantial, a fact established when he finds himself in a unique position that allows him freedom afforded to practically no one with a probing camera. It's the stunning amount of information that Berlinger gains access to, information that would help convict a man like Gross in a true court of law, something Gross doesn't seem to have faced, according to several people interviewed here.
With the help of European journalists and activists, Berlinger paints a picture of Gross as a man who was helped along by Nazi sympathizers, despite conditions that weren't exactly helpful to Berlinger as a filmmaker. Despite evidence against him, in his own hand, and decisions of guilt handed down in court, people clam up quick when asked about Gross, otherwise they face real repercussions, a sad truth shown in the treatment of one man who spoke on camera.
At just under an hour, the film moves quickly, telling several stories from the eugenics experiments, including those of people who survived. Berlinger tells three main stories at once, including Berlinger's hunt for Gross, the burial of the children's brains and Gross' own horrifying history. Though the film is presented mostly in German, with English subtitles, the stories of those who suffered at Gross' hands lose none of their power because they must be read.
A word of warning to the weak-stomached, this film contains some disturbing imagery, including a photo that is just awful. They are in no way included for shock value, but they will shock, something that needed to be done much earlier to the silent supporters among the people of Austria.
Docurama presents Gray Matter as a one-disc release, packaged in the usual black keepcase. The disc starts with a trailer for The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, but it can be skipped with the menu key. The full-frame main menu is done in the standard Docurama style, with some slight opening animation, and a generic gray design. Options include play, scene selections and extras. There are only six scene selections, which each have a still preview and a title. There are no audio options, subtitles (except for those burnt into the film) or closed captioning.
Shot on video, the full-frame film looks a bit dark and tan during interior interviews, while external scenes look much more natural. The level of detail in the transfer is decent and for the most part the image is consistently sharp. There's no evidence of problems with dirt or damage. The video encoding averages approximately 4Mbps, which limits the quality of the video.
The audio, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, is mixed like any documentary, though the music can be quite powerful at times. Dialogue is crisp and undistorted throughout.
Surprisingly, considering Berlinger's high profile, this disc is pretty slim in terms of bonus features. The key extra is a feature-length audio commentary by Berlinger, which provides plenty of background regarding the film, including why it was made, the challenges he faced in making it and why he's in it. There's no extended dead air, as the director has plenty to say about his experiences in making the film, though some of what he says is repeated from the film. It's definitely an interesting listen, and at this short length, it never gets boring.
A five-screen text biography of Berlinger follows, along with a brief text timeline of the story, tracing the eugenics program from 1907 to 2005. That's all there is in terms of film-related extras, though there's also an info piece on Docurama and an extensive catalog of their releases, which includes several trailers.
The Bottom Line
For a television short documentary, Gray Matter is great theater, as there's a story that's as good as any novel at the core of it. At just under 59 minutes, the film doesn't outstay its welcome, delivering an impact that a longer run-time might have diluted. This is an interesting film, as the commentary that's included may be just as important as the movie, with the two combining to tell the whole story of the murdered children and Berlinger's efforts to tell their stories. In order to better tell that tale, he often puts himself into an internal conflict that he discusses on the commentary. The DVD could have used a few more extras, but then, this isn't exactly a feel-good story that will end up on everyone's shelf. Give it a rental, but definitely make sure you check it out.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.