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February 20, 2010

Shutter Island – Dachau flashbacks

Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited new movie Shutter Island opened on February 19, 2010.  I was there when the doors opened because I was very anxious to see how the flashback scene of the Dachau massacre would be portrayed.

I previously posted some photos of the movie set for the Dachau flashbacks.  It turns out that the Dachau scene was completely changed and those photos are no longer valid.

Before I saw the movie, I foolishly thought that Teddy Daniels, the main character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, was having nightmares about Dachau because he felt some guilt or remorse about shooting German Prisoners of War in cold blood.  It turns out that the fictional Teddy Daniels is a German-hater and he was traumatized by seeing the dead bodies of prisoners who had died in the typhus epidemic at Dachau, not by what he refers to as the “murder” of the guards.

In the film, there is a German doctor at the Shutter Island mental hospital, played by Max von Sydow, who looks German, but according to some of the reviews, he is actually Swedish in real life.  As Teddy Daniels is talking with Dr. Naehring, played by von Sydow, Teddy suddenly starts speaking German out of the blue.  In real life, Leonard DiCaprio speaks fluent German, which he learned from his German grandmother. The German words are not translated, but most people will catch the German word Konzentrationslager, which means concentration camp in English.

Teddy’s purpose in speaking German seems to be that he wants to express his hatred for German doctors by reminding Dr. Naehring of the experiments done by the Nazis. Teddy is angry that a Nazi doctor was allowed to emigrate to America after the war. The Nazi doctors did experiments on the concentration camp prisoners and some of the doctors were brought to America to continue their experiments.  In another scene, Teddy Daniels says that Nazis provoke him.

There are several flashbacks of Dachau, lasting about 10 seconds each, before the main flashback, which shows the murder of the guards.  The first flashback is triggered when Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck are listening to some German music.  Chuck asks Teddy: “Brahms?”  and there is a ten second pause during which we see the bodies of a couple of dead children at Dachau, before Teddy answers, “No, Mahler.”

Just the thought of anything German triggers mental pictures of Dachau in the mind of Teddy Daniels.  Lucky for him, they weren’t listening to Wagner, or he might have had a hemorrhage and dropped dead on the spot, ending the movie right there.

If there were any dead children at Dachau when the American liberators arrived, no one took a photo of them. The dead children that Teddy Daniels sees are his own children, but we don’t know this at this point.

Another flashback shows concentration camp prisoners, wearing striped uniforms, standing with their hands touching the barbed wire at Dachau.  The electricity was off in the camp because  Dachau had been hit by an American bomb on April 9, 1945, but a generator was still maintaining the electricity in the barbed wire, and a few prisoners died when they ran to the wire and touched it as soon as they saw the American liberators.  The photo below was taken after the electricity was turned off.

Real life photo of Dachau prisoners touching the barbed wire

Very early in the movie, Teddy Daniels mentions that the barbed wire around the mental hospital grounds on Shutter Island is electrified; he explains that he knows this because of some past experience he has had with electrified barbed wire. This is the first reference to his participation in the liberation of Dachau.

Then there is a brief flashback which shows a German officer lying on the floor with his face bleeding, as Teddy Daniels looks at him with an expression of extreme hatred on his face.  It appears that Teddy has shot the German officer. We know that the officer is lying on the floor of an office room at Dachau because we have seen earlier flashbacks of papers flying all over the office as American soldiers go through the camp records.  Yeah right, like the American liberators bothered to look at the records at the camp before shooting the guards who had surrendered!

In real life, the American liberators confiscated the records at Dachau, then put up a sign at the crematorium which said that 238,000 prisoners had been burned in the ovens at Dachau.  It was not until many years later that the American military turned the Dachau records over to the Red Cross.  The total number of prisoners registered at Dachau during the 12 years that the camp was in existence was 206,206.  In addition, there were around 7,000 prisoners, who arrived in the last couple of days before the camp was liberated, that were never counted.

In another flashback, we learn that the wounded German officer, that Teddy saw, was the Commandant of Dachau and that he had tried to kill himself shortly before the American liberators arrived.  This didn’t happen in the real life story of Dachau.

The last Commandant of Dachau, Wilhelm Eduard Weiter, allegedly killed himself a few days after the camp was liberated. He had escorted a group of prisoners to a sub-camp in Austria, and then allegedly shot himself when American troops arrived.  I don’t buy the story of his suicide.  I think he was killed for the same reason that Heinrich Himmler was killed by the British after he was captured.  The Allies didn’t want to put any Germans on trial who might tell the truth about what had really happened.

After Weiter had conveniently committed suicide, the previous Commandant of Dachau, Martin Gottfried Weiss, was put on trial by an American Military Tribunal, although there were no specific charges against him and several prisoners testified in his defense.  He was convicted and hanged; his crime was that he was the Commandant of Dachau.

The main Dachau massacre flashback shows the American liberators entering the Dachau concentration camp through a gate with a large sign that reads “Arbeit macht Frei.”  I guess someone told Martin Scorsese: “You gotta show the Arbeit macht Frei sign because that is the universal symbol of the Holocaust, known by everyone in the civilized world.”

Unfortunately, the scene does not show anything resembling the real Dachau gate house; the sign is just hanging there, like at the Auschwitz main camp.  In the movie, the buildings inside the Dachau camp are brick; the whole scene looks like Auschwitz, not Dachau.

Real life Arbeit macht Frei sign on Dachau gate

In real life, the first shots of the Dachau massacre did not take place inside the Dachau concentration camp, but in the SS garrison that was next door to the camp.  The first SS soldiers were shot before the Americans even saw the dead bodies in the camp, and before they saw the gas chamber. It was the sight of the bodies on the “death train” that caused the American soldiers to lose all control and murder the guards. In the movie, the guards are killed before the Americans see the “death train.”

Dead bodies piled up at Dachau crematorium

The photo above, taken in May 1945, shows the bodies of Dachau prisoners who died of typhus AFTER the camp was liberated. There were up to 400 prisoners dying each day in the typhus epidemic; the photo shows some prisoners still wearing their striped uniforms, which indicates that they died after the camp was liberated.

Railroad gate and tracks at Dachau

The soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division of the US Seventh Army actually entered the Dachau SS garrison through the railroad gate, into the SS garrison, which was open because the “death train” was part way inside the garrison.  My photo above, taken in 2001, shows the location of the railroad gate and a short section of the tracks, which have been preserved as a memorial to the prisoners.

Real life execution of German soldiers at Dachau

The photo above shows the execution scene inside the SS garrison at Dachau.  Note the hospital in the background on the right. There were other executions of German soldiers in various locations inside the Dachau camp.

In the flashback scenes, there is great emphasis placed on the snow at Dachau.  The ground is covered with snow and the bodies are frozen and encased in ice.  The most visible bodies are a woman and a young girl. None of the photos taken at the liberation of Dachau show dead bodies of women or children.

There had been some snow flurries at Dachau, but it was not snowing on April 29, 1945, the day that Dachau was liberated. It did snow on May 1, 1945 at Dachau. The snow seems to be symbolic because it matches the ashes that fall in other flashback scenes.

The actual shooting of the guards at Dachau was so short that it was impossible for me to identify the uniforms that they were wearing.  The German guards were lined up against a barbed wire fence and shot by a number of American soldiers who were firing rifles.  The first shot was fired at a guard who was trying to run away.  The excuse that the  real life American liberators gave for shooting Prisoners of War at Dachau was that “they were trying to get away.”

In real life, the regular guards at Dachau had fled the night before the liberation of the camp, and there were 128 SS soldiers in prison at Dachau who were released and forced to guard the camp until the Americans arrived.

The general impression that most people have is that the SS men, who guarded the concentration camps, were allowed to abuse or murder the prisoners any time they felt like it. Actually, any SS man who did something like that was put into a wing of the camp prison at Dachau that was reserved for the SS. There had been 128 SS men in the prison the day before Dachau was liberated. That part of the prison at Dachau has long since been torn down and the tour guides tell visitors that the inmates were beaten for something as minor as having a button missing on their uniform.

The surrender of the Dachau camp is not shown in the movie, and viewers are led to believe that the SS men at Dachau had to be shot by the American liberators because they were defending the camp.

The German soldiers, who were murdered at Dachau, included Wehrmacht soldiers in the regular army, as well as Waffen-SS soldiers who were sent from the battlefield to surrender the camp to the Americans. The Wehrmacht soldiers were dragged out of a military hospital and shot by the American liberators.

In one scene in the movie, Teddy Daniels says that after seeing Dachau, he knew what men are capable of doing to other men.  This trite expression is repeated by every tourist who gets anywhere near Dachau; it makes me want to scream every time I read it or hear it.  But in the movie, it has some significance, as viewers will learn at the end of the movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio should win an academy award for best actor for his performance in this movie.  The movie is good, but not that good; it is too contrived.

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