First Run Features has released The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich, an English-dubbed version of writer/director Jochen Bauer's 1979 documentary, Geheime Reichssache (a title card reading "Top Secret" is utilized here). Featuring footage secretly taken during the Nazis' "Special People's Court" trials of the July 20th assassination plotters (as detailed in Tom Cruise's Valkyrie, the release of which no doubt inspired this DVD's appearance), The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich might have made for fascinating viewing had the original German version been available here. As it is, we're presented with a severely edited (this version runs only 76 minutes, while the original German is listed at 110 minutes) English dub that doesn't provide verbatim translation of the footage, nor even English subtitles - a needlessly frustrating experience.
The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich is quite interesting for historians and devotees of Nazi documentaries, because it does show extended, lengthy courtroom scenes from the infamous "Special People's Court" (Volksgerichtshof) that was convened in 1934 by Adolph Hitler. Designed to sidestep the normal channels of German constitutional law, the "Special People's Court" prosecuted a wide array of merely perceived (or outright invented) political infractions or disloyalties to the State. It was basically a conduit for the wholesale extermination of any person deemed a threat to the German State. Filmed records of these trials were ordered by both Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and Adolph Hitler, the former for potential use in newsreels to show the German public what happens to "traitors" to the State (he eventually scrapped that idea, determining that the potential for debate - and sympathy - concerning the defendants was counterproductive), and the latter for his own personal amusement (particularly for the more high-level hangings and beheadings). Snippets of these kangaroo court trials have been featured in countless documentaries, but I've never seen longer segments than the ones used here. They're terrifying, unbelievable documents of State-endorsed witchhunts that boggle the mind when one sees notorious Judge-President Roland Freisler (a homicidal psychotic who served in the Volksgerichtshof from 1942 to 1945, and who personally handed down over 2500 death sentences) screaming at witnesses and personally insulting them as he enacts both prosecutor and judge roles as the nominal defense lawyers sit mute, kept 15 feet away from their clients - lawyers who knew that death awaited them if they spoke up for their clients in even insignificant matters.
However, in this edited English dub of The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich, we're left largely in the dark about what actually is being said during these trial sequences, because we only have the infrequent English narration translating a line or two of the German while we listen to whole conversations going on with no subtitles. The obvious power of this footage, therefore, is severely muted by the lack of this translation. Just as bad is the film's refusal to offer even name graphics of the participants shown in the film. I don't speak or write German, so I have to guess how a name is spelled when I hear it in a film, which limited my ability to identify at least half the people featured in this documentary. Of course, Freisler and some of his more readily recognizable defendants were obvious, such as the treatment of Field Marshall Erwin von Witzleben, whose belt was taken away and who was given baggy pants, to humiliate him in court and in front of the hidden cameras (clips of von Witzleben at the bench, where Freisler is heard to scream, "Why are you fiddling with your pants, you dirty old man?" are probably the most commonly used in other docs). But other defendants came and went in The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich as I furiously tried to decipher and scribble down their names, using my best guesses as to who they were, and then trying to find equivalents online - mostly to no avail. Why this particular English dub of The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich felt it was adequate to not only not translate or transcribe the German dialogue, but also to not even signpost the participants with name graphics, is anybody's guess. But it makes for a distinctly unsatisfying and frustrating experience as we see this court footage while failing to truly understand the full impact of these outrageous miscarriages of justice.
The middle section of The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich goes into cursory examinations of the various plots against Hitler, including the pre-war amalgamation of German High Command officers such as Chief of Staff General Ludwig Beck, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and Colonel Hans Oster plotting Hitler's downfall before naive appeaser Neville Chamberlain handed Czechoslovakia to Hitler without a shot fired; a brief look at Georg Elser's attempt in 1939 to blow up Hitler at the Burgerbraukeller Munich beer hall where Hitler celebrated his annual commemoration of his failed Beer Hall Putsch; and even more cursory mentions of "White Rose" resistence leaders Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst (university students who mounted a spontaneous, non-violent protest to the carnage that was the German offensive in Stalingrad, and who were rewarded for their efforts by being sentenced to the guillotine at the People's Court), and of course, the July 20th plotters, eventually led by Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. But these brief examinations of the various assassination plots are far from detailed (the segment on the White Rose is particularly shallow), having been better served in many other documentaries on these subjects. Were these segments given more on-screen time in the full German version of The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich? I have no idea. But it's apparent that some kind of artistic statement about this subject matter was attempted by the director Jochen Bauer - you can see flashes of what Bauer may have been attempting in passages that don't suffer from obvious post-production editing. Only...we don't get to see it. The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich ends abruptly, with no end titles (another sure sign of tampering after-the-fact), and except for some brief, powerful moments where the images speak for themselves, the experience is decidedly constricted.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.