Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Review: Camp Confidential

Is it worth going to the stars if the launch pad is made of skulls?

At first hunch something feels distinctly wrong about an animated documentary - animation is obviously an abstraction of reality, in one way or another, and documentaries are supposed to capture reality directly, as impossible that can be; even photographs are distortions of reality, for the world is not still. Hence the idea of Netflix’s short documentary Camp Confidential was intriguing to me. It involves a peculiar secret project of the US Army during World War II, directly tied into the tension within the Allies that would spiral into the Cold War.

Camp Confidential is a short, slim documentary, a little over a half hour; it’s easy to watch, and won’t dominate an evening. In a way, the animated format makes it more accessible; not all of us have watched black-and-white footage in documentaries regularly, but most of us have watched cartoons, at least as children (but ever more so as the century goes on, as adult animation is more respected), and so there’s a certain degree of familiarity. The art style feels like a brighter version of an old war comic, lighter than squalid grimness but never becoming openly childish.

When you start the short film, you will quickly see live-action footage of interviews with elderly men who are the last survivors of what this film calls ‘camp confidential,’ a top-secret American military facility outside Washington D.C. By virtue of their experience, their age, and the exalted place to which modern America has elevated their generation (it’s not the ‘greatest generation’ for nothing), they are intimidating figures. You see the tape recorders warming up, the interviewer asking these venerable veterans several questions, first to set the scene, and then to move the story along.

Both of these men are Jewish. Indeed, the men profiled by this documentary were almost all Jewish, many who successfully got out of Europe before Nazism killed them (one says he was on the literal last ship before the war brought trans-Atlantic shipping grinding to a halt). Many members of their respective families were not so lucky (I’m reminded of the Austrian Jews who killed themselves after the Anschluss). These men, having fled to America, enlisted in the US Army, by virtue of revenge or principle or the draft card, were selected for this job for one reason: they all spoke German. One of them is depicted as reciting Goethe to an American officer, who waves him away, to be sent to this nameless place in the woods of Maryland.

It is from that ominous beginning that the true brilliance of the storytelling here begins to shine. The narrative scaffolding comes from the interviews, and the color of the experience, the je ne sais quoi of seeing, of feeling, rather than just reading or hearing, comes from the animation. There is an ultimate verisimilitude that derives from the interviews, of being in the ‘presence’ of such men, with such experiences, that grounds the film, but the animation, as odd as this sounds, makes you feel like you’re there.

It is only after some time that the mission that these young men have been assigned to is revealed: they are ordered to befriend German scientists who have been captured by the Allies to get information out of them. In pure linguistic terms, this makes sense, because they all speak German, but they are all quickly revolted by having to be friendly with the people who have profited off of the cold-blooded murder of their families and co-religionists. What follows is a wild ride, sometimes uproariously funny, but other times absolutely enraging.

It is a saying among some in international relations scholarship that states are not moral entities. They are algorithms, in a sense, pursuing blunt material objectives over any moral code (see how Russia, in Tsarist, Soviet, or Federal guise, has struggled and raged for a warm-water port for which to base its navy). As such, things like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are in some sense mere propaganda. In any case, there is a question of ends justifying the means; some of these men have fun with the assignment, tormenting the Nazis in their own petty ways, and how this results finding Peenemunde, the German rocket testing range and development facility on the namesake island in the Baltic Sea, and its destruction by Allied bombers. One of the men remarks that this seemed like deserved comeuppance.

But this becomes ever more fraught, as if it weren’t already, by the transformation of their duties from interrogators to ushers: they must make these evil men accepting of America, so that they may aid America in its missile development in its arms race with the Soviet Union. As Germany was divided, as northern Iran and Greece and Korea became flashpoints of a new global order, America was more than happy to look beyond simple things like ‘war crimes’ and ‘genocide’ to exploit German scientists in its weapons development, and to use relatives of victims to ease them into their new role.

One of cleverest part of the documentary, as well as one of its most poignant, is its portrayal of Wernher von Braun, whose amoral dedication to science is commemorated in an amusing Tom Lehrer song. He is introduced as something of a cartoon villain, arriving on a boat on a literal dark and stormy night, complete with suitably sinister black coat and a flash of lightning. This obviously evil, othering portrayal slowly changes over the course of the documentary, mirroring the other Nazis; at first, you are seduced into believing that good, noble America could never bend to these men, but you eventually realize that there are far more commonalities between them. After all, Hitler said that “the Volga shall be our Mississippi,” reflecting an admiration of the vicious reality of America rather than its liberal propaganda; the idea of lebensraum was patterned quite explicitly after Manifest Destiny. It is in this awful convergence, this amoral concordance, that these men have been thrown into without much warning, and not much care for their feelings or well-being.

Camp Confidential is a warning for us in an age of high technology. In little more than half an hour, this film shows you the meaning of my favorite quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (which I confess to have learned from Civilization V):

“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

This film is an investigation into what ends justify what means. Was the space program worth it, if it used the graves of Jewish slave laborers as stepping stones to the stars? The film does not answer this question definitively, but it forces you to see, in excruciating detail, how the sausage was made.


The Math:

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.