W. German documentary on concentration camp raises ruckus
Bonn — A documentary on the Maidanek concentration camp has triggered a controversy here similar to the one that raged when the American television series ''Holocaust'' was shown six years ago.
Eberhard Fechner, a leading West German filmmaker, spent eight years making his film, ''Der Prozess,'' (The Trial). It concerns the longest trial ever conducted in West Germany - that of former guards of the Nazi concentration camp at Maidanek, in Poland.
West German television stations are owned by public corporations that are controlled by boards whose members represent the political parties, churches, labor unions, and other mass organizations.
''They tried to kill my film by silence,'' Mr. Fechner said in a statement distributed to journalists.
In the end, ''Der Prozess'' was shown late last month on the third TV channel , which is reserved for programs of interest to minority social and cultural groups. Fechner wanted it shown on the more popular first channel.
''By shunting it to the third channel,'' he said before transmission, ''it will be seen only by those persons who in any event have not forgotten the human guilt for the Nazi crimes. All of those who suppress or attempt to deny what Germans did in the concentration camps will be spared my film.''
His editor, Hans Brecht, was less angry.
''After all, you cannot make anyone watch something that is painful to him,'' Mr. Brecht said after the airing of the three 90-minute segments. ''As it turned out, somewhere between 5 and 8 percent of all TV owners did see the series. And in any event, we made it so that 50 years from now, people can view it and learn what happened in the concentration camps.''
The American film, ''Holocaust,'' also was shown on the third channel. But it was preceded by an enormous publicity campaign, and each segment was followed by long studio discussions among experts answering questions called in. The Federal Central Office for Political Education sent tens of thousands of packets of specially prepared material to schools that asked for it after pupils saw the TV series.
Fechner's film was preceded by lots of publicity about the dispute over its placement. But as a documentary rather than a teleplay, it stood by itself without the need for post-transmission explanation.
Fechner filmed interviews with 70 persons - defendants, judges, witnesses, survivors of Maidanek, journalists, and other courtroom observers. The defendants were accused of participation in the murder of at least 250,000 persons, most of them East European Jews, at Maida-nek. Fechner interviewed only persons who were eyewitnesses of the events in Maidanek or the Dusseldorf trial.
The trial lasted 61/2 years, and the defendants spoke to the court only once, to plead innocent. But they talked to Fechner's camera.
Fechner told his story by splicing together sections of his interviews. The interviewer is neither seen nor heard. The camera stares from one angle at those being interviewed.
This is particularly effective when contrasted with the frightful crimes being discussed in ordinary living-room voices. Fechner has 250 hours of such interviews on film, which he is giving to the federal archives. They are to be available to any researcher.
Transmission of the film was delayed until appeals by the five former Maidanek guards had been rejected by the Supreme Court and their prison sentences became effective.
The first segment was transmitted on West Germany's Repentance Day. Mr. Brecht said most of the telephone calls made to TV stations that night were to protest the documentary. The second night, he said, about half the calls were positive, and the third night all of the calls approved the showing of Fechner's film.
Brecht said that many of the positive calls and letters that followed came from young people.
''Some Germans will claim the trial was simply a dirtying of the nest,'' a German journalist who witnessed most sessions of the trial told Fechner's camera. ''But in fact it cleaned the nest.''