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The 'Evil' That Men Do

November 9, 2011 By:
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The Holocaust as ritualized genocide -- planned methodically -- comes across powerfully in "Engineering Evil," shown Nov. 15 on History.
Three times the charm -- or three times the tragedy?
 
Erik Nelson is capping his company's troika of Holocaust-related films with Engineering Evil, conducted in claustrophobic and transfixing detail of how Nazis went about their daily destruction of bashing the lives of their Jewish victims.
 
But no scenes are awash in blood, no concentration camp grave displayed in this portrayal of the Nazis-engineered details that can be seen on Nov. 15, at 9 p.m., on cable's History.
 
Presented by Nelson's Creative Differences company, this film is distinctly different from other Holocaust-era documentaries, this one showing how the day-to-day planning of Nazi life ceded to the moral daze that engulfed a nation, and almost all of Europe, at one point.
 
Using archival footage, artifacts from hallowed Holocaust collections such as Yad Vashem, and experts of the era, the film employs its camera with extraordinary close-ups and pans for a heinous historical frame of reference. Shown without narration, the past does the talking. "The concept was to put the viewer in the jackboots of the perpetrators," says Nelson.
 
And he has done so astonishingly well. "The victims' story has been told a lot in incredibly moving ways," says Nelson, who is not Jewish but has long been engrossed by Holocaust history.
 
"This forces you to confront it in a different way," he says.
 
The trilogy -- including Scrapbook From Hell: The Auschwitz Albums and Nazi Masters of Death -- has been a way into the hearts of the heartless, but this segment took more out of Nelson than the other two -- including 40 weeks of editing.
 
Nelson is no stranger to the grit and gristle of doing documentaries -- nor the grizzly elements: He made Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog, focusing on a naturalist whose preternatural obsession with bears led to his evisceration by one.
 
"I am proud of my commercial work, which is made for the widest popular audience," the producer says of such fare as When Fish Attack and Prehistoric Predators, as well as the lilting if less-mass-marketed Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man.
 
Want the ultimate reality show? Nelson is known as your man. Here, in Engineering Evil, the reels showing off blueprints for a crematorium and those focusing on dirt-encrusted bullets expunged from victims' bodies leave a viewer reeling.
 
This is history not histrionics, Nelson emphasizes. "It is important to get" all this out there.
 
Can he educate the ill-informed -- even change minds of those mindless to the reality of the Holocaust? "You will never break the back of revisionists," he says.
 
"There is nothing you can do about Holocaust denial."
 
Undeniably, Engineering Evil is not engineered with them in mind; nor, he says, is "this film for Holocaust scholars. It is for viewers who have not truly encountered the Holocaust before."
 
And while it has not been made for scholars, the film has been made for schools: Study guides and information have been targeted to middle and high schools nationwide.
 
Nelson -- whose body of work includes the biting Dreams With Sharp Teeth, about the outer limits of life limned by sci-fi writer/personality Harlan Ellison -- had his own dream realized recently.
 
Engineering Evil was screened at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. just prior to its network premiere. "That," says the prolific producer, "was one of the biggest honors of my career."

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