Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In the Shadow of the Reich: Nazi Medicine and The Cross and the Star are a pair of
documentaries by John Michalczyk. The first is a good, focused look at the role of medicine in
the Third Reich, specifically how a humanistic and world-respected medical system was turned
into a monstrous organ of Hitler's Nazi party.
It's a strong subject handled with discretion and taste. We've all seen atrocity photos of prisoners
or other victims being subjected to horrendous mutilations and destructive diseases, and there's an
uneasy fear factor watching this, wondering how exploitative it's going to turn out. When we get
to the heart of things, with concentration camp twins used for bizarre and sometimes pointless
experiments, there are a few minutes of unpleasant news. The sadism and suffering are enough to
enrage us when
we find out that many, many more doctors were involved than those tried at Nuremburg. Many fled
to South America, or were never even indicted. There are some unpleasant photos, but we get
the idea from the sober voiceover and are spared a gauntlet of visual atrocity.
The real draw in Nazi Medicine is the strong narrative writing, that explains how the great
German doctors were drawn into the trap of subscribing to cockamamie ideas of eugenics and racial
purity. Very good parallels are drawn to precedents already set in the United States, where a number
of states were already sterilizing asylum patients, etc., when nobody in Europe would consider
such a policy. By clearing hospitals of Jewish doctors, and organizing the rest of the profession
within a system that required National Socialist membership to advance, Hitler's ideologues soon
had the doctors under their thumb, conducting 'research' to prove Jews were inferior, and making
plans to euthanize individuals who were a burden on the state - the hopelessly insane, etc. From
there, it was a small step to using doctors to initiate, research and even help carry out the
mass extermination that was to follow.
The script is clear, the documentation good, and the tone intelligent. Good interviews and examples
are given, with one of Dr. Mengele's twins telling her story. The concept people behind Hitler's
hatred, like Julius Stryker, are identified. It's a very educational docu that fills in the holes
left by less enlightened shows. When the content is rough, it's rough, but it doesn't thrive on
The Cross and the Star is an earlier docu by the same director, and is not as good. The
subject is absorbing, dealing with the shared guilt, responsibility and callous actions of
outside authorities in regard to Hitler's crimes and the holocaust, particularly the United States
and the Catholic Church in Rome. But the treatment isn't as well organized as the later film.
There's no throughline or direction, and a lot of opinions are given that aren't backed up, or
if they are, it's just by more opinions. The case for pointing a stern finger at the Vatican is
a strong one; ironically, the slack presentation here almost lets them off the hook, like a bad
The tone of the piece is too scattershot, burying us under information that European civilization both
Catholic and Protestant has been fervently anti-Semitic. We're expected to be shocked that Martin
Luther, in his century, did not have a full set of tolerant 21st-Century attitudes. We're expected
to draw iffy conclusions based on spotty evidence. I'm perfectly willing to believe that Europe
it doesn't have to be proved, and this resembles a lecture that started with a conclusion and
worked backwards to find sensational documentation of
sometimes questionable arguments. Again, it's a good subject and I agree with the filmmaker's point
of view, but the rambling, hectoring docu doesn't work for me.
In the Shadow of the Reich: Nazi Medicine (1997) is strongly recommended. Apparently the
filmmaker learned his lessons well, because it is far more sophisticated and controlled than the
earlier The Cross and the Star (1992). Both are just under an hour long. They look as if they
were direct-to-video productions. The quality varies, mostly with grain that may be the result of
skimpy encoding to DVD. Nazi Medicine in general looks better.
The disc includes a bonus short called A Window into the Camps, and a gallery of photos about the