Where death wears a smile

Place Europe: Czechoslovakia
Accession Number F04761
Collection type Film
Measurement 49 min
Object type Documentary
Physical description 16mm/b&w and colour/sound
Place made Australia
Date made 1985
Access Open
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945
Period 1980-1989

Item copyright: Unlicensed copyright


A documentary film produced for television release by Cinetel Productions. "This film follows the path of a group of Australian and New Zealand prisoners of war who so infuriated the Nazi regime by their constant escapes that they are punished by being sent to The Small Fortress of Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Two Australians, Walter Steilberg and Alex McClelland describe their exploits on the run and how they saw it as their duty to try to escape from captivity at every opportunity. Finally they fall into the hands of the Gestapo and are condemned to The Small Fortress. They soon realise that this is not a ordinary POW camp. Their diet barely keeps them alive Steilberg loses half his body weight in six months and they witness and are subject to the most brutal mistreatment. Half a kilometre away lies the township of Theresienstadt which becomes the greatest Nazi hoax. Also a concentration camp it is known as the "Paradise Camp" a show place for the Red Cross. A propaganda film is made at Theresienstadt showing a happy hard working Jewish community. It is the most hideous lie of the war. The outside world and visiting Red Cross do not see the reality an overcrowded, diseased ghetto where prisoners die in the thousands. Even this death rate disappoints the Nazis and Thereisenstadt becomes a port of transit on the way to the exermination camp of Auschwitz. But a remarkable culture springs from the ghetto. Composers and musicians moved by the anguish create theatre and opera, giving precious moral support to their fellow prisoners. Life in the camp is portrayed in full by the famous artists of Theresienstadt, untill their work is discovered and they are sent to The Small Fortress. To the SS guards, The Small Fortress is a cosy retreat where they can indulge in all of their excess far away from the Front. They practise only one profession, murder. Steilberg recalls work on an anti-tank ditch where hundreds of weakened prisoners are killed. When the war ends both men strive to put these experiences behind them. But they cannot. The memories are kept alive by successive Australian governments denying that Australian soldiers ever entered The Small Fortress or any Nazi concentration camp. So begins a long and bitter fight for recognition and compensation. British POWs in concentration camps received compensation from West Germany in 1964. The Australians? For almost 40 years they are abandoned by their own country. The men are devastated. McClelland lives in self imposed exile in England, Steilberg retreats to the Australian bush. "Where death wears a smile" draws the two men out of seclusion and back to The Small Fortress to confront their past. They do so with dignity and openess. While investigating the fate of the SS guards, the film uncovers irrefutable evidence of Allied POWs in the camp. It is evidence of an abhorent massacre of 40 Australian, New Zealand and British POWs who were shot for refusing to work on the anti-tank ditch in the last desperate weeks of the war. The film discloses why the Australians and New Zealand survivors cannot as yet be compensated by West Germany: it is the startling fact that no Peace Treaty has ever been signed to end the war. As a result of claims made in the film the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs has ordered a special committee to find a way of compensating the men for the persecution they suffered." Transcription of the producers synopsis. Persons appearing in the film: Alex McClelland; Walter Steilberg; Doris Steilberg; Les House; Dr Ernest Morgan; Edith Sheldon; Dr Ruhfus Secretary of State, Federal Republic of Germany (FRG); Hermann Weissing State Prosecutor of War Crimes, FRG.