Serving up ten 50-minute episodes spread across three DVDs, Athena's new release of The Rise of the Nazi Party offers a retrospective account of the infamous German political party's activities spanning several decades. Of course, the bulk of this documentary series focuses on the horrifying, systematic events of WWII and their far-reaching effects. From this perspective, it covers plenty of ground we've seen or read about in countless documentaries, books, fictional productions, etc., but its well-paced format allows for plenty of time for this material to unfold in a logical, easy-to-follow manner. For that alone, The Rise of the Nazi Party is most certainly aimed at those looking for more of an entry-level account of these historical events...but even more seasoned viewers might end up getting their money's worth.
Not surprisingly, these 10 episodes unfold in a largely chronological format, typically with the first few minutes devoted to a quick summary of the events to come. The party's formation and early years is discussed in modest detail, including its initial formation in 1918, Hitler's leadership in 1921, and his return seven years later after a brief prison sentence (whereupon he wrote Mein Kampf). From the use of propaganda to the recruitment of officers like Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels, the party's violent rise continued during the political murders of "The Night of the Long Knives" (AKA "Operation Hummingbird", June 1934), which led to Hitler's reign as Fuhrer for over a decade. Interestingly enough, this series doesn't simply roll the credits immediately following Hitler's 1945 suicide or even the Nuremberg trials; instead, additional time is devoted to such events as the attempted "de-Nazification" of Germany and the controversial employment of unofficially pardoned Nazi war criminals to exacerbate The Cold War (including "The Butcher of Lyon" Klaus Barbie, who was finally hunted down in 1983 and died in a French prison eight years later).
In most cases, specific events aren't just glossed over or mentioned by name: comments by historical experts, authors and professors are paired with vintage film clips, photographs and re-enacted footage to create a fairly well-balanced portrait of the subject matter. I'll admit that the latter isn't a favorite of mine; more often than not, it's a distracting tool that ultimately does more harm than good. But in this case, the re-enactments are fairly well done and help to fill in the blanks when necessary, although some of the music cues border on unnecessary. Other like-minded documentaries have also employed more interesting formats---specifically, A&E Video's The Third Reich---but all things considered, The Rise of the Nazi Party is an entertaining and informative series that rarely misses a step. My only reservations about Athena's three-disc package, aside from a lack of extras, are more technical in nature but hardly a deal-breaker.
Disc One: "Nazism is Born", "Becoming Respectable", "Seizing Power", "In Power"
"Preparing for War", "Hitler's Biggest Blunder", "The Final Solution"
"Plots and Delusions", "End Game", and "Aftermath"
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
It's tough to give a definitive visual grade to documentaries like The Rise of the Nazi Party, mainly because it's a mixture of vintage film clips, photographs and more recent re-enactment footage. There is no shortage of imperfections native to the source formats including a general lack of detail and texture, as well as mosquito noise, dirt, debris interlacing and occasional compression artifacts...but under the circumstances, perhaps some of these problems couldn't be avoided. My only objective complaint (and it's kind of a big one) is that native 4x3 material has been cropped to fill this 1,78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, an unfortunate practice for many documentaries produced in the HDTV era. This decision was clearly intentional and I'll also admit that nothing of extreme importance seems to have been lost in the process...but given the source material limitations, it does nothing but amplify existing problems even further.
DISCLAIMER: The re-sized screen caps featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent this DVD's native 480p resolution.
The audio is much less complicated, and that's a good thing. Presented in a fairly standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, there's a relatively good balance struck between dialogue, narration, sound effects (real or manufactured) and background music from start to finish. While I definitely took issue with some of the more melodramatic cues along the way, the lack of surrounds actually keeps them from dominating the production so it's not a glaringly offensive problem. Though most of the audio is easy to follow, optional English subtitles have been offered during all 10 episodes if the need arises.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the clean and simple menu interface is easy to navigate, though a handful of trailers and other logos must be dealt with beforehand (mostly on the first disc). This three-disc release is housed in a black hinged keepcase with a matching slipcover. As usual for Athena collections, a small but informative Booklet is also inside; contents include a timeline, articles on Hitler's early life, Jews in the German-speaking world, Fascism around Europe, and biographies of prominent men in the Nazi regime. No extras are present, but the length of the main feature partially makes up for it.
WWII-era documentaries and films are well accounted for on home video at this point, even those that mainly focus on German events. So does The Rise of the Nazi Party separate itself from the pack? Yes, despite a few mild reservations. Though certain portions of the modern footage, historical re-enactments, and certain heavy-handed music cues don't do it any favors, there's a wealth of information here and the 8.5 hour running time allows plenty of time for it to unfold. Athena's DVD package offers no tangible extras, but most of this material speaks for itself. While history buffs might not learn anything new, audiences looking for an entry-level account could certainly do a lot worse. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.