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At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center Sept. 29 to Oct. 2
Charles Guggenheim, one of the country’s most esteemed documentary filmmakers, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. For health reasons, however, he didn’t go to Europe when his unit did. Thus he avoided not just the bloody slog to Berlin, but also one of the most horrific fates of any American troops in that war. Some 6,000 GIs, including many of Guggenheim’s cohorts, were captured by the Germans in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. Roughly 350 of them were “identified”by dog tags, names, or appearanceas Jewish and sent to a site in southeastern Germany. Berga wasn’t a death camp, merely an “annihilation through work” facility where starving, disease-wracked men excavated an underground factory in which the Germans planned to manufacture synthetic fuels safe from the threat of Allied bombers. The war would end within months of the Americans’ arrival in Berga, yet at least 70 of them died, some at the camp and the rest on a forced march after it was closed. Completed just before the Georgetown-based documentarian’s death last fall, Berga: Soldiers of Another War is a moving account, with a personal element unusual in Guggenheim’s work. (It’s the only one of the director’s films that he narrated.) Although the film powerfully evokes individual adversity, it’s less satisfying as history. In addition to talking-head recollections, Berga mixes archival film with docudrama sequences newly shot in black and white, and it fails to identify which is whichor how pertinent the actual documentary footage is. (Most of the train and POW-camp scenes seem to be generic WWII newsreel stuff.) The film would also benefit from a little more background on the men sent to Berga, especially the ones who agreed to reminisce for Guggenheim’s camera: It would be interesting, for example, to know how many of them weren’t actually Jewish, and to learn more about the background of Hans Kasten, the German-American who was the GIs’ leader. Berga is fascinating on its own terms, but it should come with several pages of footnotes. Mark Jenkins