To say that this mammoth nine film boxed set is difficult to sit through is an understatement, to put it mildly. Wrenching, horrifying, rage-inducing, shocking and deeply disturbing, the set, as uncomfortable as it may make its viewers, should nonetheless be required viewing for anyone interested in human (one might say inhuman) history in general and the Holocaust in particular. As visceral as Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, and actually containing more material, length-wise, than even that huge undertaking, the set covers the horrible history of the Holocaust from several angles.
First up is an excellent biography of Wiesenthal, containing a host of interviews with its subject, as well as other family members and many admirers. As might be expected, there is copious archival footage, including the requisite hideous images of the concentration camps. It may surprise some to find out how disparaged Wiesenthal was at various times in his life, not only by the usual suspects (former Nazis now trying to make a political go of it in Austria), but also, strangely, his fellow Jews, some of whom evidently just wanted to get on with their lives and let the past go, as horrible as it was. Calmly narrated by Nicole Kidman, the documentary is aided by an excellent score by Lee Holdridge.
More excellent music (this time by Carl Davis) accompanies a somewhat more narrowly focused piece on the decimation of the Shtetl (small Jewish villages which virtually disappeared during WWII), Echoes that Remain, narrated by Martin Landau and Miriam Margoyles. There are much-needed moments of comedy relief in this piece, albeit brief. My favorite involved a Rebbe who, because he is repeatedly humming a new cantorial tune he doesn't want to forget, ignores a trainmaster's repeated demands that he remove the baggage on the seat next to him. The trainmaster finally comes up to him and throws the bags out of the window. The Rebbe, to the tune he has been humming non-stop for hours, sings, "That isn't my luggage."
The Oscar winning documentary Genocide is up next, with voiceover work by Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor. This piece focuses on the history of anti-Semitism which of course found its culmination in the atrocities of the Nazis. This piece often reflects the more personal tack of Shoah, as it includes several personal stories of victims of the Nazi regime. This piece features a beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein.
For those who question why Jews didn't respond more aggressively to their tormentors (as foolish as that would have been, and as insensitive as it is to allege), Unlikely Heroes presents several stories of Jews who did that--managed to stand up and prevail, if only for a short while, against the onslaught of the seemingly inevitable. Again, the personal aspect of this piece gives it incredible impact. Holdridge again provides a moving score.
Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart (as well as Margoyles again) lend their distinctive voices to the two-pronged documentary Liberation, a fascinating and largely successful attempt to depict the euphoria sweeping Europe as the Allies advanced in contrast to the horrors suffered by the Jews in the last, stifling days of the Final Solution.
The second Academy Award winner of the set, The Long Way Home is the heartbreaking account of what happened to the Jews in the three years after the Holocaust, a struggle fictionalized and somewhat sanitized in Uris' "Exodus." To relive the suffering of these incredible souls who had already been through so much, only to have their hopes again repeatedly dashed (and so cruelly at times), is simply gut-wrenching to watch. Morgan Freeman leads the cast of voice-overs, including several who have been heard in the previous documentaries.
Lest anyone assert that these horrors come from a time long gone, Ever Again deals with the resurgent anti-Semitism that has spread throughout Europe, and, perhaps more importantly and presciently, the threat from Islamic terrorists and hate-mongerers who don't want to just eradicate Jews, but wish to dominate the entire world with their religion. In some ways the most disturbing documentary of the set, if only because it deals with matters currently at hand for a lot of the world, Ever Again should be required viewing for anyone who wants a clear understanding of the threats the world faces from hate groups of any stripe or creed.
After so many hours of such tsuris ("troubles" or "sorrow"), the set ends with two more generally uplifting shorter pieces, Beautiful Music, a lovely and touching account of a Jewish music teacher and her Palestinian piano student, who just happens to be blind and autistic. Have plenty of Kleenex handy for this one, if you haven't already gone through the store's supplies on the previous documentaries. Bringing up the rear of this epic set is In Search of Peace, Part One 1948-1967, narrated by Michael Douglas, which ably portrays the first two tumultuous decades of Israel's existence.
Parental warning: There are many horrifyingly graphic images of the Holocaust scattered throughout this set. Younger children should definitely not watch this.