Michael Verhoeven’s documentary “The Unknown Soldier” follows the controversial Wehrmacht Exhibition as it toured German cities from 1997 through 2004. Th exhibition challenged the long-standing popular myth in Germany that the Waffen-SS was solely responsible for war crimes while the average German Army soldier was merely a battlefield participant.
The truth, as documented in movie footage, photographs and letters from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, showed a decidedly different version of what occurred. German soldiers were clearly shown to be responsible for the persecution and execution of civilians, particularly Jews. The German population, confronted by this evidence, reacted with a variety of emotions: denial, shame, incredulity, anger and (in the case of youthful skinheads) violence against those who supported the exhibition.
It is a painful but important subject, to be certain, but the film dilutes its own effectiveness by devolving into a collection of talking heads who often seem to be repeating each other. It may have been more effective at a running time of 60 minutes or less – at 97 minutes, the repetition of opinions (coupled with Verhoeven’s sluggish editing) becomes tiresome and stale.
At one point in the film, an elderly man (and, presumably, a veteran of the wartime German Army) angrily questions why other countries aren’t holding similar exhibitions of their human rights abuses in distant lands. Of course, denial of atrocities is hardly unique to Germany (witness how the Japanese conveniently forget their actions in China during the 1930s and 1940s, or how the French gloss over their crimes in 1950s Algeria). It also makes you wonder why the Smithsonian Institution is lacking exhibits about the colonial era African slave trade or the 19th century genocide of the American Indians – or whether they will have exhibits in 70 years about what took place in Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Guantanamo, etc.