The insanity of war becomes so commonplace after a while that it takes something really unusual to awaken it again in some of us. Just a few minutes into this alternately fascinating and horrifying two part documentary, a moving shot, evidently from a motorized cart, starts to reveal the absolutely gargantuan proportions of just one of the hundreds of miles of underground fortifications the Germans built starting in 1943. As the camera pans from intersection to intersection, an actual car drives by going the opposite direction, and soon we see bicyclists and other workers who still utilize the underground city for one of its original purposes, armament production.
Once Germany realized it was not going to be immune from bombing attacks, the Nazis quickly gambled on a strategy that they hoped would save them from ultimate ruin. All it did was forestall the inevitable for a few years. Everything of any value was simply moved underground, including a lot of weapons manufacturing plants. This underground tunnel system stretched for literally hundreds of miles and was not limited to Germany itself; one of the largest still extant underground environments can be found in northern France.
Though The Reich Underground focuses on the tunnel system itself, and includes a wealth of rarely seen archival film and still images, since the tunnels were largely dug by slave laborers, there is also abundant film and still footage (some of it in color, which I personally had never seen before) of concentration camp inmates doing the Nazi's dirty work for them. Once the tunnels were dug and fortified, usually weapons systems were built there, and there are some interesting, if distressing, images of inmates assembling V-2 rockets.
Probably the most disturbing images shown, aside from the "usual" (and how despicable that it should be thought of that way) concentration camp footage, are absolutely devastating images of nerve gas experiments being done on helpless animals like a rhesus monkey or a cat. The Germans were convinced that the Allies would soon be using chemical weapons on them, and they used their tunnel system to not only manufacture agents of their own, but to amass huge stockpiles underground that they felt they could use as a last resort.
The last section of the documentary deals with Hitler's personal underground battlements, which, despite what you might think, were not limited to the Berlin bunker where he ultimately took his life. He also had other underground hideaways throughout his empire, including a relatively luxurious one at Berchtesgaden, where his "Eagle's Nest" resided. Next door, so to speak, was a several room bunker that was meant to house the Bormann family with its many children.
After Berlin fell, the Allies soon discovered that the tunnels literally held riches galore, with bags of gold bullion and art treasures that Hitler had ordered squirreled away. So at least the underground fortifications saved something worthwhile.
This documentary is quite disturbing at times, and should probably not be viewed by anyone with an easily upset stomach. Director Michael Kloft does an admirable job weaving together contemporary explorations of this vast underground domain with a wide variety of archival images and some excellent interviews with involved parties such as one of Hitler's bodyguards. The sheer audacity of this enterprise is brought home time and time again by numerous shots of huge cavernous spaces now decrepit and usually partially filled with water, but which were once part of a subterranean domain that Hitler was convinced would be the savior of the German people. Thankfully, his personal madness ended in the destruction not only of himself but the patently crazy plans he had made to move his empire underground.
The Reich Underground has a pretty soft and television-esque 1.33:1 presentation. Colors are adequate, and most of the archival footage is in relatively excellent condition.
The standard stereo soundtrack suffices fine for this documentary which consists almost entirely of voice-over narration with occasional interview segments (some of them similarly narrated for translation into English). English subtitles are available.
A brief text biography of MIchael Kloft, as well as some previews for other related First Run releases, are the only extras featured.
This is not an easy film to watch, but it is a fitting testament to the madness of war, and perhaps its inherent uneasiness is the best possible reminder we could have that conflict breeds irrationality, as well as vice versa, in a sad spiral of devolution. History buffs and WWII students are sure to find this interesting, if disturbing at times. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet