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Wellspring presents

Ghosts of the Baltic Sea (2005)

"We always think that the Titanic was the greatest maritime disaster, that the most people that ever died on a ship died on the Titanic. Not even close."- Dr. Robert Ballard

Stars: Dr. Robert Ballard
Director: Jon Goodman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 50m:03s
Release Date: 2006-08-15
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+B-B+ D-


DVD Review

This 50-minute National Geographic channel special gets the DVD treatment courtesy of Wellspring, and in Ghosts of the Baltic Sea renowned deep-sea wreckage explorer Dr. Robert Ballard (Titanic, Bismark, USS Yorktown) introduces a catastrophic but little known chapter of WWII history. The staggering revelation of the opening narration refers to it as "three ships, three tragedies, and 20,000 lost lives," something that Ballard reminds was far greater than the Titanic, Lusitania or Empress of Ireland disasters, and the fact that the stories of this massive loss of human life from 1945 remain largely forgotten just seems all the more tragic.

Quick background history, for those who are not devout WWII scholars, or those like me, who thought they knew a fair amount of war-related information but just plain knew nothing of this: the three ships—Wilhelm Gustloff, Steuben, Goya—that went down via Russian torpedoes were just a small part of Operation Hannibal, a daring 1945 plan overseen by German naval commander Karl Dönitz to mass evacuate German citizens (though refugees seems more apropos) from eastern Prussia, across the Baltic Sea and back to Germany, just ahead of the incoming assault of the Russian army. Those three ships—two of which were sunk by the same Russian sub commander—took an estimated 20,000 down with them when sunk, a figure that still seems incomprehensible to me as I write this.

For Ghosts of the Baltic Sea, Ballard and his crew have gathered up four elderly survivors (two from the Wilhelm Gustloff, and one each from the Steuben and Goya), with the intention of taking them out on the water over where their particular ship went down, as some sort of personal closure. The concept to me seemed odd at first, almost unnecessarily cruel, but as we learn the background stories of the four, and how they came to be on those ships, it gives the ugly history of war a sadly personal layer, in a narrative that spends more time leading up to the sinkings (with all manner of rarely seen archival footage) than on Ballard's usual underwater camera investigations of wreckage.

And strangely enough Ballard's trademark shipwreck footage plays a very, very small part here, with only two of the three ships actually getting any on-screen time, and that being comparatively brief. This is a history lesson first, and an expedition well after that, and the emotional remembrances—particularly of the woman who survived the sinking of the Steuben—are pure heartbreakers. Her 60-plus years of grief over a close friend who perished is this doc's most tearful moment, and if you're not moved then you're made of stone.

It doesn't even run an hour, but this was really a depressing eye-opener for me. How the hell do I not remember ever learning about this? Was it because the people who died were "the enemy," even though most of them were just civilians? These were not boatloads of rampaging Nazi stormtroopers, but it seems that somewhere along the line the telling of these sinkings sort of vanished into the shadows.

As Ballard theorizes, it is likely that because the victims of Operation Hannibal are not part of the "romantic" element of great maritime disasters that the history has been seemingly overlooked. The sinking of these ships occurred during wartime, and even though the majority of victims were terrified civilians fleeing an invading army (in this case Germans fearful of advancing Russian forces), it's as if their deaths were casually lumped with battlefield totals. Ballard tries to right that wrong here, and the effect is memorable.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Wellspring has issued Ghosts of the Baltic Sea in nonanamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen, a decision that seems tragically odd, at best. The transfer itself is decent, and the array of archival footage sports the usual age-related defects, while the present day material carries fairly soft colors and a bit of grain throughout. Not awful by any stretch, just ordinarily average.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 surround track doesn't really get much opportunity to show off, but the presentation delivers boomy and resonant narration from Alan Coates and a bit of modest rear channel activity courtesy of some of WWII sound effects played over some of the archival footage.


Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The disc is cut into 12 chapters, has no subtitle options, and the only extra consists of three text screens of bio on Dr. Robert Ballard.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

Get past the nasty cover art for this one, which looks like a reject from a beginners Photoshop class, and you'll find a depressingly grim reminder of the horrors of war, as well as a part of WWII history that is far from common knowledge.

The disc runs just 50 minutes, and there are no extras to speak of, but the content is haunting.

Highly recommended.

Rich Rosell 2006-08-14