Posted: 04/10/2008


Secrets of the Dead


by Jef Burnham

Premiering on PBS on April 23rd.

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Premiering on PBS on April 23 (check local listings for exact time and channel) is an exciting new anthology series of documentaries, narrated by Liev Schreiber. Each installment of the series promises to be unique in its presentation of content, which should make Secrets of the Dead a substantial success for PBS.

In the first episode, “Aztec Massacre,” archeologists make a discovery in the ancient Aztec city of Zultepec that challenges our views of the confrontation between the Aztecs and the Conquistadors led by Hern‡n Cortes. Whilst it has been long believed that the Aztec people put up little fight against the invading Spaniards, but it would seem that this is a case of history being written by the victors. When archeologists discover mass graves at Zultepec containing more than 400 sets of remains—some 40 of which can only be of European origin—it’s up to archeologists and historians to determine who these unfortunate Europeans were and how they came to be sacrificed and devoured by the Aztecs. This episode provides a fascinating look at the practices and beliefs of the Aztec society.

The second installment, airing on April 30, is an entirely different kind of documentary from the investigatory “Aztec Massacre.” “Escape from Auschwitz” is an account and exploration of the incidents surrounding the escape of two Slovak Jews, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, from Auschwitz in an attempt to deter the Hungarian Jews from boarding the Nazi cattle cars to the death camp. This is the first documentary dedicated solely to the story of Vrba and Wetzler and is composed of dramatic reenactments, as well as archival footage and interviews with survivors and historians. Though the Jewish leaders in Hungary never released their reports of the conditions in Auschwitz, Vrba and Wetzler’s 3 days hiding in a wood pile and subsequent 15-day trek across the border of Poland saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews. I cannot recommend enough that you tune in to “Escape from Auschwitz.” The story of Vrba and Wetzler, who are surely two of the greatest heroes in history, is one of the most incredible accounts of courage and determination ever recorded.

Jef Burnham is a film critic in Chicago.

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