[9 June 2009]
It’s rare that a documentary film can achieve a truly dreamlike quality. Unfortunately, Restless Conscience recalls nothing so much as that too common nightmare of arriving to a big test completely unprepared.
Telling the story of the group of conspirators within the German government who plotted first the overthrow, and ultimately the assassination of Adolf Hitler, the film, by director Hava Kohav Beller, is an eminently respectable work of historical scholarship that is significantly flawed as a piece of cinema.
Courtesy of the release of Valkyrie on DVD, Restless Conscience, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1992, has gotten a renewed lease on life on DVD. But with a convoluted storyline and less than engaging visual style, the films limited popular appeal may see it destined mostly for enforced appreciation in college classrooms throughout the land.
After presenting all too brief biographies of the major players in Germany’s small but notable resistance movement, Restless Conscience takes off, expecting viewers to follow its dense presentation of history at a pace most will find uncomfortably brisk. Anyone who ever had troubling taking notes from the lecture of a brilliant but unforgiving history professor will find the sensation of watching Beller’s documentary an unnervingly familiar one. Obscure, just introduced names are rattled off at high speed, and keeping the cast of characters straight is a Herculean task.
For those who are willing to put a lot of work into watching a film – perhaps several times – there is a lot of rewarding knowledge to be gained in Restless Conscience, but it is not a film meant for casual audiences. Viewers without an unusually high level of patience and interest in the subject matter could find themselves easily frustrated, and it’s not on them. While Restless Conscience is phenomenally detailed and diligently researched, the presentation leaves much to be desired.
One can perhaps not fault Restless Conscience on the grounds that it isn’t entertaining – no right thinking person would go into a documentary about Nazi resisters in WWII Germany expecting a popcorn flick. But audiences of any film have a right to assume that, if not entertained, they will be engaged by any film, and this is where Restless Conscience falters.
From the baseball card style introductions of the major players in the conspiracy to the sometimes less than articulate interviews with the plots survivors and contemporaries of those who weren’t so lucky, Restless Conscience is an often frustrating piece of cinema, notable for some brilliant shots and touching moments that are for the most part lost in a confusing fugue of names, dates and accounts without suitable context or explanation. It’s a documentary with a fascinating story to tell, but it expects so much of audiences that what should have been a terrific story instead induces mostly head scratching as viewers struggle to keep up with the narrative.
Among the most interesting figures in Restless Conscience is Capt. Axel von dem Bussche. One of the few conspirators to survive the Second World War, von dem Bussche came late to the conspiracy, unable at first to accept the actions of his nation and his government. The retired officer illustrates with remorse and eloquence the sentiment of many Germans who did not become resisters, a denial of the situation growing from an inability to wrap one’s head around the growing horror surrounding them.
“You can’t get at the concept…. No.” says an obviously distraught von dem Bussche in an interview. “One went and did one’s day to day duty … and started to keep a curtain down to this news.”
Also fascinating are the tales of warnings of resisters inside the Nazi regime, who were ignored by leaders in Britain and the United States. After watching Restless Conscience, one is struck by the extent to which mistrust and poor communication contributed to a war that could have been avoided, or at least reduced in impact and scope.
It’s unfortunate that most of the interview subjects are nowhere near as interesting as von dem Bussche. The overwhelming blandness of the lion’s share of interviews conducted by Beller leaves the burden of storytelling on miles and miles of stock footage. And while Beller does her best to make it watchable, she’s fighting an uphill battle. A few moments of clever, affecting editing and effective tension building aside, Restless Conscience is made up of roundly snooze-inducing visuals, the shame being that the film’s few brilliant moments serve only to tease audiences with what could have been.
The special features included with the latest release of Restless Conscience are disappointingly in lockstep with the rest of the film. The features, which can hardly be described as special, consist of one transcribed interview with Beller, as well as a biography of the filmmaker and several pages of quotes from newspapers and students saying nice things about the film. And nice things deserve to be said about it.
Restless Conscienceis, on the basis of its story alone, worthwhile viewing for history buffs of any caliber. It is a thorough and often intriguing exploration of a poorly understood historical moment. But sadly, the films appeal to audiences more interested in watching a film than sitting through a history lesson taught at a fever pitch is limited at best.