The Relief of Belsen (UK Documentary Review)

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

Some years ago, I walked around Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. It’s an astonishing building, based on a deconstruction of the Star of David. A lot of Berliners had paid to look at it, proud that this beautiful edifice representing modern, liberal, cultured Germany coming to terms with its past was there. Nobody mentioned, or seemed to notice, that it was empty. They hadn’t put the exhibit in. Berlin’s Jews were absent from Berlin’s Jewish Museum, as they were from Berlin. It was a more ironically poignant memorial to Germany than the Germans imagined.

I was reminded of Libeskind’s building as I watched The Relief of Belsen (Monday, C4),a docu-drama on the liberation of the concentration camp. “Where are the Jews?” I kept whispering. We were being shown British and Germans, and Richard Dimbleby, and any amount of authentic-looking stage management and set design; there were just no on-screen inmates. They were referred to: they were down the road, round the corner, having a lie-in. Of course, there are technical and practical reasons why you can’t get holocaust victims as extras. For a start, you’d need so many of them. And there is the problem of the look. It’s difficult to get that near-to-death look. Where do you go for extras who are being starved to death? You can’t do it with prosthetics, and you couldn’t do it with green screen, like Jurassic Park. All things considered, perhaps it was more tasteful and less squeamish to leave them out altogether.

So, without the embarrassment of Jews, we were offered a military version of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, concerned with the knotty problem of how to delouse and feed 30,000 invisible women and children. It was all done with a lot of English phlegm and jaw-muscle-flexing, the sort of war-film acting I thought we’d forgotten how to do. It was all strangely disengaged, less compelling or moving than the average episode of Grey’s Anatomy....

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