One of the great things about the documentary format is that it can enlighten you on subjects you had absolutely no idea existed. Even the most well read and intelligent student of history can stand to learn a thing or two from time to time. And when a fact-based presentation, either on television or the big screen, can shed some light on an otherwise disregarded aspect of the past, it does the compendium of overall knowledge a great service. Unsolved History, a show that has taken quite a beating from this critic in the past, offers up a very intriguing story, one that has all but disappeared from most discussions of World War II. When the German refugee boat, the Wilhelm Gustloff, left Prussia for a return journey back to the Fatherland, it was torpedoed by a Russian sub. It sank within an hour. It was estimated that over three to six thousand people – men, women and children – perished either in the bowels of the ship or in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea. It was the worst maritime disaster of all time, topping the Titanic and the Lusitania, combined. Unsolved History's mandate was simple and compelling. As has happened with the famous frigate and the iceberg, the show wishes to recreate the Gustloff in a computer and run a series of virtual tests to determine how the ship sank so quickly and the exact number of people on board. Using eyewitness accounts, naval engineers and sophisticated software that determines human movement in a time of crisis, they hope to reconstruct the fateful voyage. It's an amazing idea, concerning a relatively unknown incident in the War. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, Unsolved History can't get their poop deck together to do this material justice. From the scattershot approach, to the lack of a final dramatic revelation, this Discovery Channel show simple does what it does best – take a potentially potent idea and completely mess it up.
Going into this episode, Unsolved History has had a fairly lousy track record with this critic. It's not because the shows are unprofessionally produced or amateur. No, the big problem with Unsolved History is that it can't tell its story straight. Usually hobbled with the most promising of premises (Hitler's Bunker, Kennedy's Assassination) but then finding the most foolish and suspect aspects of same, the narrative tosses non-sequitors, constant repetition and open ended conclusions at its audience, hoping something will stick. Nothing usually does. But with the Wilhelm Gustloff, the show has one of its most potent propositions ever. Since Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet stole all the shipwreck thunder with Titanic, any other ocean liner disaster has either had to play second fiddle or pass off the importance radar completely. Resurrecting the incredibly tragic story of this doomed refugee cruise is a subject absolutely perfect for this conjecture-fest. And for the first ten minutes, Unsolved History actually achieves something unheard of: it is truly compelling. Learning the fate of the ship and the passengers on board, as well as the reasons why it is not more well known (the German government forbids diving expeditions to the wreckage) gets you good and interested for the proposal to come. We can't wait to see the recreation of the attack and wonder if technology will confirm the incredibly large death toll.
But then it happens, just like in any other episode of this slipshod small screen stool. Just when you think you may learn something crucial, witness an important incident or be privy to a heretofore-unseen piece of the puzzle, Unsolved History goes all goofy and starts backtracking. It begins with the Gustloff's wreckage. We are party to a real rarity – a diving expedition to the underwater remains. Remember how the German's reject all requests? Well, Unsolved History got permission and they're heading under the sea. And we are right along with them. As divers don wetsuits, we anticipate the fantastic footage. As they slink down the guidelines to the murky darkness of the deep, we can feel our pulses race. Just then we spot a bit of the boat sticking out of the sand and we relish the reveal. But just like a parent turning off your favorite show as it hits it stride or arrives at "the good part", Unsolved History buckles and does a volte face. Turns out the ship is not "positioned properly" to see anything important and the few images we do glimpse are mostly of twisted metal shards. We hear all kinds of wondrous details about the massive damage and the eeriness inside the ship. But we see nothing. Then we are "told" that the reason the evidence is unsalvageable is because Russian underwater teams "destroyed" it, we are left to take the show's, and its experts', word for it. No explanation how they did it. No real rational reason for why they would want to. Just the word of some waterlogged wasteoid concerning some massive Soviet cover-up.
Oh well, off to the naval engineers. They've promised an accurate animated 3-D model of the ship, capable of recreating in CGI glory the last moments of the Gustloff's doomed expedition. They mull over blueprints. They point and click their mouses. They drag and drop items onto open multi-tasking windows on the PC desktop. And when they reveal their vivid recreation it's....it's...it's a basic vector diagram that looks like a five year olds interpretation of a floating cigar. No detail. No depth. Just an outline of a tube and some pretty unspectacular animation (like stick figures sinking). What a complete bust. But wait – there is another artist doing something similar over in England. Let's go talk to him. He's even gone so far as to track down a model maker who's made it his goal to reconstruct the Gustloff from pictures and diagrams. He has what many consider to be the best example of what the ship looked like available anywhere. Our artist meets up with the man and looks at his impressive handiwork. The replica is magnificent and when our Picasso renders his pixelated version, it looks just like the mock-up...too much like it. In fact, it appears that the ship used in several of the recreation sequences is the builder's reproduction blue screened over computerized water.
Are you starting to get the point? Is the picture coming into focus? Unsolved History has a guaranteed goldmine of an idea, but they can't find anyone who can do the story justice. The eyewitnesses and survivors offer well rehearsed horror stories that sink into your psyche, but they are not there to recreate the event, just recall its awful elements. Just about the time you give up all hope, though, an expert from London who specializes in catastrophe factors turns up and almost saves the show. He has a software program he's developed over several years which reconstructs maritime accidents and predicts – with some fairly pinpoint accuracy – the reactions of human beings under such stress. His mingling PC people fill the basic outlines of the Gustloff's structure and the step-by-step pandemonium is played out for us. We watch stairwells overcrowd and become impassible. We see the massive build-up of "hot spots" – red areas on the monitor screen – showing where passengers line up to wait for lifeboats and meet their destiny. Using data compiled from those who were there as well as ship's registries and rosters, our authority calculates that number of survivors – and miraculously, arrives at a figure only a few dozen away from the actual total. But the most compelling news is kept for last. It wasn't three, or six, or even eight thousand people who perished in the ship. He feels that more than TEN thousand died in the Baltic that night.
If only all of Unsolved History could be this interesting and complete (our accident authority provides the only real closure in the show) it would finally have found a subject to match its strange style. But sadly, this insight into the death toll is the only interesting aspect of the entire program. We never do see the promised sinking animation. We never observe the Gustloff struck by torpedoes, scuttled and then submerged. Instead, we are given ADD like snippets of this material randomly strewn among the various other clips in the show. The whole explanation as to why the Germans wish to bury this incident can be measured in four words: because it was embarrassing. No more insight there. The whole Russian subterfuge salvage is never discussed again and the survivors disappear after they've had a chance to sufficiently move us. Indeed, almost all of Unsolved History is in the business of offering just enough, nothing more. It saves its countless repetition for obvious points while giving short shrift to those ideas that would have the most impact. And especially with a story like the Wilhelm Gustloff, it doesn't appear like they'd have to try that hard. It's the kind of narrative that, when told properly, seems to write itself. All they had to do was dress it up with a little eye candy and some historical scholarship and we would have bought it all just fine. But Unsolved History has concentration and focus issues and the resulting 43-minutes are muddled and mixed-up. This could have been a good episode. It ends up being as routine as the rest of the series.
The Discovery Channel must still misunderstand the definition of DVD. Instead of digital versatile disc, they must think it means 'dramatically very dull' or 'disgusting video dung' because that's exactly what they serve up here. Oh, the transfer is fine, cable quality clarity and loads of detail in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. But there are no chapter stops (you can only advance through the show in 10-minute intervals) and you must suffer through the opening advertisements (you cannot skip or fast-forward through them. If it didn't look like a CD on steroids, you'd swear Unsolved History was being offered on a flat plastic video cassette, what with all of the backwards technological limitations Discovery employs.
The dilemma with the aural aspects of Unsolved History go a little something like this: the better the sonic representation, the more clearly we can hear the human banshee of a narrator as she talks down to us in a pitch perfect version of patronization. So if you enjoy being humiliated by some unseen voice over, give the Dolby Digital Stereo on this disc a good listen. You'll feel like a fool afterward.
Still waiting for the DVD player to automatically stop, eject, bathe in acid and discard but, apparently, The Discovery Channel has only managed to find the first facet technologically manageable – DAMMIT! Otherwise, the disc is as barren of extras as a low-budget action movie.
It's really hard to tell what's worse – a bad story told well or a good story told poorly. Unfortunately, Unsolved History really does neither. Anytime they have had a hackneyed history lesson to lay on us, they've usually found a forgettable way of presenting it. And in the rare cases – like the saga of the Wilhelm Gustloff – where they happen up something special, they completely muck that up as well. Most of the blame falls squarely on the concept they foster throughout each episode: the recreation. An installment lives or dies by how compelling their redux is, and in the case of the Gustloff disaster, we never even get a chance to see it. Frankly, all Unsolved History had to do was discuss the tragedy, bring on the eyewitnesses, offer up the scientific claptrap and then fire up the full fledged computer animation. Add in the crisis manager and a confirmation of the number of casualties and – BINGO! – history has been served and the audience has been entertained. But there is too much talking head horse hockey going on with this show, too many know-it-alls wanting to tell-it-all to the camera...over and over again. This unsung horror at the end of WWII has remained a barely known quantity for far too long. Hopefully, another TV show will tackle the deadly voyage in the proper fashion. Unsolved History does nothing to secure the Gustloff's legacy. Leave it to this half-assed show to fumble a perfectly catchable concept.