After suffering heavy losses of aircraft during attacks on German factories, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered — or at least allowed — cities to be targeted, in order to smash German morale and reduce the number of workers available for the Nazi war machine. Roughly 500,000 German civilians were killed as almost one-and-a-half million incendiary bombs turned the center of cities like Hamburg and Dresden into tornadoes of fire. Sixty years later, a new debate is underway over the reasons for this lethal bombing campaign. Were these relentless aerial attacks — many of which came in 1945, in the war’s waning days — a necessary tactic? Or was it an act of revenge by the British and Americans? Michael Kloft’s 2003 documentary Firestorm examines this issue, in fascinating if somewhat distracted fashion.
Kloft has a vast array of historical footage at his disposal (maybe too much), and it’s this material that forms the backbone of Firestorm. There are also plenty of interviews with former bomber pilots and survivors of the destruction too — from British bombardier John Chatterton, now an 83-year-old farmer, to American pilot Robert Morgan, whose B-17 “Memphis Belle” provided Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler with the first color footage of an American bombing run of Germany. The recollections these subjects provide, and the film’s exacting sense of detail with respect to the chronological escalation of this so-called moral bombing (euphemistically referred to by the British as a “de-housing of the industrial suburbs”), give the movie a genuine sense of engagement.
Yet Firestorm isn’t really a sustained moral inquisition. In German historian Joerg Friedrich and British counterpart Richard Overy, Kloft has two compelling advocates for at-odds points-of-view. But he doesn’t contrast these opinions and disagreements over matters factual and moral as directly as he should, and too often fritters away the heavy ethical lifting with digressive asides, like ducking into (some admittedly hilarious) footage from a National Socialist Party firefighting training video. The film would also benefit from a slightly more academic explanation of the British and American research that actually informed saturation incendiary bombing — how British Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris plotted for the roofs of buildings to be first blown off, and then peppered with small stick bombs that would shoot flames after the initial explosions, burning for only 10 to 15 minutes but, in sum, overwhelming German firefighting capabilities. This wasn’t accidental collateral damage, in other words — this was truly a scorched-Earth policy. Knowing the specifics of the research that informed this policy would be interesting.
A lot of Firestorm is preamble, though perhaps necessarily. It’s only in its introduction and its final 25 minutes or so — detailing the bombings of Hamburg and Mainz, and then the fire-bombings of Berlin, Dresden and another port city in Eastern Germany, full of refugees — that the movie truly examines some of the more controversial bombings of World War II. If a debate about moral equivalence is mostly avoided, though, that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t put those questions in your mind.
Housed in a regular Amray case, Firestorm is presented in 1.33:1 full screen, and comes with eight minutes of (silent) amateur film footage of a bombed-out Germany in ruins. There’s also a scrollable text biography of Kloft, who from 1989 to 1995 worked as a
freelance director of historical TV documentaries for Chronos-Film in
Berlin and for Spiegel TV, and has since personally produced a variety of historical
films in addition to serving as the head of Spiegel TV History. Extra interview material would have been nice, but for history buffs this title is still a solid, meat-and-potatoes kind of meal. To purchase the film on DVD, click here. B (Movie) B- (Disc)