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History & Drama

Historical Accuracy in Drama Reconstructions | by Detlef Siebert

Dramatization: Hans Frank speech

How the drama scenes in Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State were created.


In most factual programs, dramatic reconstructions serve as backcloth—or 'wallpaper' in filmmaker's jargon—to illustrate interviews or narration. Some of the drama scenes in the six-part BBC/KCET co-production, AUSCHWITZ: Inside the Nazi State are used in just this way. Most scenes, however, have more than just a supportive role and tell their own story through dialogue. We wanted to take the viewer into the real world of the Nazis to provide insights into their motives and decision-making—insights that no interviewee could provide.

There are, of course, countless feature films based on actual events and characters of World War Two, which also take the viewer into the Nazi world: Spielberg's Schindler's List, Hitler: The Last Ten Days with Alec Guinness in the role of the Führer, or Conspiracy: The Meeting at Wannsee with Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich, to name but a few. But whilst many of these films are very well researched, they remain fictional works. They are, above all, intended to tell a story; they inevitably use a good deal of artistic license, at the expense of factual accuracy.

Our drama reconstructions, however, had to be as close as possible to the historical reality. Any fictional elements or factual errors in the drama scenes would have compromised the integrity of the entire series. The historical accuracy of set design, cast, and dialogue was of greatest importance.

Close to the truth

In a few cases, this was relatively easy to achieve. The second episode, for instance, shows the Nazi Governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, giving a speech, in which he talks openly about the planned mass murder of the Jews. Both a transcript of the speech and an attendance list survived the war, so we knew exactly what Frank said and who was there. We also knew the location where the speech was given and one of our researchers managed to unearth two photos of the actual occasion, which enabled our set designers to re-create the exact look and feel of the place.

For a similar reconstruction in Episode Four—Himmler's infamous speech to SS generals in Poznan/Posen about the destruction of the Jews as "a page of glory in our history"—we were even able to draw on an audio recording of the speech. Our actor used the recording for an extensive rehearsal and very skilfully adapted Himmler's characteristic way of speaking.

Such a degree of verisimilitude would have not been possible if we had filmed the scene in English rather than German. But to remain true to the factual reality, all drama in the series was shot in the original language of the historical event, for transmission with subtitles.

Imperfect sources

However, it has to be said that the available documentation for the speeches by Frank and Himmler is unusual. For most historical events, the source material is far less comprehensive and reliable. First-hand word-by-word accounts of historical dialogue are extremely rare. More often than not, we had to rely on reports or minutes, most of which offered merely summaries of what was actually said.

To give one example: in the run-up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, a committee of Nazi officials held a meeting, in which it was determined that for the German Army to be able to requisition enough food for themselves millions of Soviet people would have to be starved to death. It is a historically significant meeting—but the only record is a note of a few lines. To be able to reconstruct the dialogue, we were forced to look elsewhere for supplementary sources. So we studied memoranda and other documents, which the leading members of this Nazi committee wrote at the time of the meeting and in which they set out their plans for the occupied Soviet territories. This allowed us to compose a dialogue of direct quotes from documents that reflect the thinking of those present at the meeting. But, although every single word spoken in the resulting drama scene was based on primary sources, the scene could never be more than an approximation of the historical event—a fact that is consequently made clear in the commentary that introduces the scene.

As any historian knows, historical sources are imperfect material and can rarely be taken at face value. It's not just that most historical records are incomplete—they may also be misleading and unreliable. Before any historical source can be used, the circumstances in which it was produced and the possible motives of its author have to be taken into consideration. This is particularly true for post facto testimonies, such as memoirs, affidavits, or interviews, where the time gap between historical event and testimony puts an additional question mark over the factual accuracy of the source.

Double checks

As a general rule, we trusted our historical sources only if they could be confirmed by other documentation or academic research. For some historical events, we had no first-hand contemporary records but only the post-war testimonies of former Nazis. These had to be treated with utmost caution as most of them are, for obvious reasons, self-serving and often omit incriminating but essential details.

For instance, several drama scenes in Episode Five look at Eichmann's role in the deportation of the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in 1944. We compared Eichmann's numerous post-war testimonies on Hungary with contemporary records and with the post-war testimonies of others who knew Eichmann at the time: SS officers and activists of the Jewish community in Hungary. Whereas their testimonies confirmed each other and were also supported by additional documentary evidence, Eichmann's accounts proved to be completely unreliable. It is obvious on which sources we based our drama reconstructions.

Historical drama reconstructions require as much judicious interpretation of the available sources as any treatment of historical events in scholarly works. No historian can be absolutely certain to offer an unquestionable, definitive account of historical events. All a historian can achieve is an interpretation that is verifiable through references to primary sources.

Detlef Siebert was the Drama Director for Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State.