Savant was eager to get his hands on Firestorm because it was directed by the German filmmaker Michael Kloft, the co-director with Kevin Brownlow of the fine documentary The Tramp and the Dictator, and the writer of the superb documentary The Goebbels Experiment. In addition, Firestorm is an in-depth assessment of one of the troubling policies of WW2 that led to the establishment of the Air Force as America's foremost strategic security enforcer.
Firestorm is told largely from the point of view of the victims of the allied bombing. The strategies and policies are discussed at length. The allies were committed to bombing as a long-term terror weapon that initially had little effect on German war production. The film shows the destruction in more detail than anything I've seen. We all remember film images of German cities reduced to empty brick skeletons, but Firestorm shows color aerial views that seem to last minutes, and cover dozens of square miles of absolute ruin.
The concept of Total War didn't come with machine guns or deadly gas, but with governments willing to extend the violence of war to civilian populations. In Total War all enemy citizens are fair targets. Tens of thousands of non-combatants were killed in single raids simply because it was possible to do so. Experience in England had proven that bombing only stiffened the resolve of civilians to resist, and in any event the German population was incapable of overthrowing their Nazi leaders. Hitler and Goebbels boasted of Vengeance weapons and brought heavy losses to England and Holland with cruise missiles and space-age liquid-fueled rockets. But the allies visited true vengeance on Germany, paying back the aggressor nation a hundred times over.
Kloft's film uses voiceover and interviews to record the unpublicized reality of the bombing campaigns. Bombing survivors, most of whom were children during the raids, talk about the orderly rush to the shelters. Historians discuss the way targets were chosen and the division of missions between the British, who flew by night, and the Americans and their daylight raids.
Defenders of bombing policy claimed that the stiff German defense mandated night bombing or high-altitude day bombing, which made discriminating between military and civilian targets impossible. That might be a good argument when the objective was a specific factory or a railroad yard, but in practice entire civic areas were simply carpet-bombed, even cities without organized war industry installations.
The docu goes back to original records to explain the discovery of the phenomenon called a firestorm. The intense heat rising from massed fires causes a hurricane-force draft that feeds oxygen to the center of the conflagration, turning a city into a furnace and asphyxiating even those people protected in air raid shelters. The military planners back in London realized that igniting hundreds of separate fires in a densely populated city could be more efficient than dropping heavy bombs. Magnesium-fed incendiaries were developed and dropped, and the effects recorded so that the munitions experts could make their weaponry more efficient. The notorious eradication of Dresden was not an isolated attack but part of a learning process. By that time, late in the war, enemy resistance in the air was almost nil. The Air Force brass was eager to gather research, for future use.
Firestorm instills a firm idea of the inhumanity of all this organized carnage, and doubtless the men who dropped the bombs would agree -- they interpreted warfare as simply giving the enemy hell in any and all ways possible. Kloft doesn't dwell on images of dead bodies, but those we see certainly have an effect. The show avoids political conclusions and makes no defenses for the Nazi government. Michael Kloft wisely stays within the hard evidence of his film resources and his witnesses, and allows us the freedom to decide for ourselves.
First Run Features' DVD of Firestorm is a good documentary that lacks the visual polish of earlier Kloft shows. Produced for German television and obviously not given a lavish budget, the docu makes use of remarkable archive film, clearly culled from prime sources as opposed to being compiled from pieces found in other filmmakers' work. Much of the footage is in color, which has both film and digital grain; a large percentage of scenes are slowed down to give us a better look at what were originally shorter shots. Judging by the texture of the images, the film might be a good but not optimal output from a non-linear editing system.
Emily Clarke-Brandt's narration dominates the soundtrack, which does not go in for dramatic sound effects or music. The words and pictures are powerful enough. For extras, First Run provides some filmmaker bios and an assemblage of 'amateur film footage of Germany in ruins." That description makes it sound like a picnic, which it isn't.
The cover art pictures a variety of bomber I don't associate with raids on Germany, but authentic-looking footage in the docu shows that exact kind of airplane being used. As with almost every DVD about the European theater or Nazi Germany, a big swastika dominates the cover graphic. It's strange how yesterday's feared and loathed symbols eventually become banal marketing tools. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. My father kept a Nazi swastika flag recovered from a tank in North Africa. He'd take it out only once every few years, and then put it away again. He didn't want to get rid of it, but it also wasn't something to be proud of. Only when my father was much older would he talk much about his wartime experience, and even then I didn't get many answers for my hundreds of questions.
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