On 25 December 2020, the documentary "Die Suche nach Atlantis" (The Search for Atlantis) was broadcast as the 6th episode of the series "Mythos: Die größten Rätsel der Geschichte" (Myth: History's Greatest Riddles) with a length of 44 min. It was produced by Story House Productions on behalf of the German TV channel ZDFinfo. A female voice leads through the programme from off-screen, there is no presenter. There is no English version yet.
This documentary unfortunately follows in the tradition of a long series of documentaries on Atlantis that are superficial and flawed. But before we get into constructive criticism, we want to highlight what this documentary did well.
A great advantage is that the documentary consistently tries to maintain a balance between the hypothesis that Atlantis is a real place and the hypothesis that Atlantis is only an invention. Even if the opinion among scientists is very one-sidedly inclined towards the invention thesis, the documentary's conclusion hits the nail on the head: this mystery remains unsolved to this day.
A great sympathiser throughout the documentary is the Greek geologist Evi Nemikou, both humanly and in terms of content. She has a scientifically viable theory about Santorini, and pursues it with due restraint. Until she has proof in hand, she doesn't want to make unfounded claims about Atlantis. Her experiment with the sand-covered inflated rubber glove is also as simple as it is convincing.
The reference to the present is also entirely legitimate: developed civilisations are not immune to extinction. Regardless of the question of whether Atlantis was real or not: this message is in Plato's Atlantis story in any case. It is also true that Atlantis is misused by modern subcultures such as pseudoscience, esotericism and preastronautics.
Many small, unnecessary mistakes were made. It is worth listing them all meticulously to make it clear that these are not just a few individual oversights, but that the number of errors is so large that it is clear that sloppiness was involved. Why was there sloppiness? Obviously, the topic was not taken seriously enough. It's "only" about Atlantis, was the thought. But that's not how it works.
The mistakes in detail:
First, Atlantis is invoked as the "richest city of all times" and the "paradise of antiquity". Atlantis is thus presented as a wonderland or paradise. But on a close reading of Plato's text, it is not. Atlantis is certainly blessed by nature, comparable to Mesopotamia in Herodotus' descriptions, but it is not a wonderland.
By simply letting Evi Nemikou talk, the impression is created that Atlantis lay on a volcano. However, Plato does not speak of a volcano.
By letting Richard Freund speak, the impression is created that the city of Atlantis lay "at" the Pillars of Heracles. This is not the case with Plato. It is rather the island of Atlantis that is said to have been situated directly in front of or "at" Gibraltar, but not necessarily the city.
At one point it is said that the warships of Atlantis held the fleet of Athens at bay. Not a word about this in Plato. On the contrary: Athens defeated Atlantis, and not the other way round! Moreover, Plato was a notorious opponent of fleets, there was definitely no fleet in primeval Athens (in Plato's eyes). So the whole sentence is pure nonsense from beginning to end.
Whether Atlantis really sank because of the punishment of the gods, as is repeatedly claimed, is by no means a foregone conclusion. In Plato's account, the gods are only thinking of a punishment to make the Atlanteans better. The sinking could have other reasons.
In particular, not only Atlantis perished, but also the Athens of that time. However, this remains unmentioned. The fact is important, because the demise of the "good guys" prevents the Atlantis story from being interpreted simply as a moral fairy tale in which morality pays off and immorality leads to ruin. It is not that simple.
The sentence "According to Plato, the Atlanteans are progressive and inquisitive, but also arrogant, self-important and warlike" has no basis in Plato. On the contrary, the Atlanteans are very conservative at the beginning, and preserve their ideal state for a long time. Later, when they leave their conservatism and become "progressive", they also become decadent and the "bad guys" of the story. In contrast, it is above all the ideal primeval Athens, i.e. the "good guys", who are warlike.
It is also wrong that Atlantis never appeared in historiography. First of all, we do not know what Atlantis was really called and which culture it really was, because Atlantis is not its name. Perhaps we already have textual or archaeological evidence of Atlantis, but we cannot assign it to Atlantis? – After Plato's time, Atlantis was an integral part of the world view of almost all Platonists. This becomes clear, for example, in later disputes between the Platonists and some Christians. Some Christians – not all – doubted that the world was 9000 years old, because the Bible supposedly knew an age of the world of only 6000 years. The Platonists, on the other hand, defended a higher age of the world. To this end, they invoked Plato's Atlantis narrative, among other things, partly explicitly, partly only indirectly recognisable because they generally write of knowledge from Egypt, by which the Atlantis narrative is obviously meant. Likewise, with the beginning of the modern era, the church's dogma of the biblical age of the world of only 6,000 years was broken, among other things, by invoking the Atlantis story, for example by the Frenchman La Peyrère. At that time, Atlantis stood for a reasonable, scientific view of the world against a dogmatic doctrine. Today, of course, we know even better (but that is still not the end of the search for Atlantis).
Completely wrong is the representation that "the Nazis" had appropriated Atlantis. "The Nazis" in general had nothing whatsoever to do with Atlantis, even if one can read something different "everywhere". Only individual Nazis like Heinrich Himmler believed in Atlantis, but only for themselves privately. The assertion made is doubly false, especially in connection with the "Haus Atlantis" of Bremen's Böttcherstraße, because it is precisely in connection with Bremen's Böttcherstraße that a word by Adolf Hitler has been handed down in which he makes fun of Atlantis believers: "We have nothing to do with those elements who know National Socialism only from hearsay and legend and therefore confuse it only too easily with indefinable Nordic phrases, and who now begin their motive research in a legendary Atlantean cultural sphere. National Socialism rejects this kind of 'Böttcherstrasse culture' in the strongest possible terms."
It is true that Heinrich Himmler was concerned with Atlantis. But that his "Ahnenerbe" research and expeditions were aimed at Atlantis is again wrong. Only a few of these activities had an Atlantis connection, e.g. when Hermann Wirth or Edmund Kiss were involved, and even then the Atlantis connection remained mostly unofficial. The claim that the leader of the Tibet expedition Ernst Schäfer believed that the survivors of Atlantis had saved themselves in the high plains of Tibet is also completely false. Ernst Schäfer was very careful to keep his distance from such issues and also successfully prevented Edmund Kiss from being sent on the expedition with him (then it would have been an Atlantis expedition). Not even a word on the subject of Atlantis has come down to us from Bruno Beger, the race researcher on the Tibet expedition. The false claim that the Tibet expedition was an Atlantis expedition is not made any truer by constant repetition. It was certainly a racist expedition, but not an Atlantis expedition. One could at most assume that Himmler interpreted the results of the expedition for himself in this sense, against Ernst Schäfer's intention. (One could also have mentioned that the idea of Atlanteans in the Himalayas originally goes back to French scientists of the 18th century. What was once science is pseudoscience a hundred years later).
It is false that the eruption of the Santorini volcano brought about the demise of the Minoan culture, as is repeatedly claimed. The Minoan culture survived and only perished much later.
It is wrong that the ship fresco of Akrotiri shows a harbour "surrounded by red rocks, just as Plato describes it." For one thing, the rocks on the fleet fresco are rather red-yellow-green, and not only red. For another, Plato speaks not only of red rocks, but also of black and white rocks, and he does not speak of a harbour in this context. So it doesn't really fit.
It is wrong that Atlantis is depicted as a city in the classical Greco-Roman style. Plato explicitly writes that the temple of Atlantis looked "foreign" (barbarikos), which makes perfect sense because the Atlanteans were not classical Greeks. So one should model the appearance on other and older ancient cultures, e.g. the Minoan or Babylonian cultures, or perhaps the round temples of Malta? (Note that "foreign" is strictly speaking to be interpreted from the Egyptian point of view, because the Atlantis story supposedly comes from Egypt. So Atlantis must not be depicted in the Egyptian style either. No pyramids in Atlantis!) If one wanted to make the criticism sharp, one could ask whether the documentary makers only credit the Greeks with a developed culture because they portray Atlantis as Greek. But we don't want to criticise so harshly, that would be unfair.
The Atlantis model in the documentary, which is repeatedly shown, has many flaws. Some of them may be forgiven because of a schematised rough drawing. But at least a hill could have been depicted in the centre of the triple ring structure. That would not be too much to ask.
It is repeatedly portrayed as if the researchers were just making their finds in front of the eyes of the film crew. This is, of course, staged. Unfortunately, it looks phoney and therefore dishonest. A better solution would perhaps be a moderator who conducts a conversation with the researcher in which his or her discoveries are reconstructed.
The off-screen voice that leads through the docu sometimes speaks in a questioning style, for example: "Atlantis: Lost paradise of antiquity?" In this way, assertions are made and yet not made. A documentary that wants to explain something only asks such questions if they are also answered. As a rhetorical question, it comes across as a suggestive assertion. Or as an act of cluelessness and helplessness, with the help of which a "solution" is simply guessed, instead of relying on arguments. In any case, this is not pleasing.
The translation is sometimes not good enough. For example, Richard Freund says in the original: "... this is the best location", but the translation says: "... dass dies der richtige Ort ist" (that this is the right place). There is a small but subtle difference between a "best" and a "right" location.
The description of the individual researchers is sometimes unsatisfactory. In the case of Richard Freund, it would have been inevitable to say that he is a biblical scholar who takes the Bible quite literally. This cannot be inferred from the descriptions "archaeologist at XY University" and "expert in the archaeology of mythical sites". The "island expert" is again simply a tourist guide. Of course, this also makes him an island expert, but it is still not the same thing.
In the case of Richard Freund, one might have expected other researchers to be mentioned who had advocated the same thesis before Freund. Richard Freund is perhaps taken more seriously and favoured by journalists with this thesis because he has the title of professor. But to make him out to be the main proponent or even the originator of the thesis is not truthful. It is all right to show only him. But one should have at least mentioned the others. The same applies to the youtuber whose hypothesis was presented earlier and more prominently by others. He is welcome to present the thesis, but it is not "his" thesis. (Unlike Freund, he does not even give this impression).
Although the documentary is better than average in many respects, in the end it has only become "the usual" Atlantis documentary again:
The focus should really be on Plato and his text and the historical context. One would have to start from quotations and discuss them historically and critically as individual topics. Only at the very end would one end up with concrete hypotheses and researchers. Individual topics could be: When? The 9000 years of Atlantis. Where? The Pillars of Heracles. Who? The person of Critias. What was Aristotle's opinion on Atlantis? Etc.
It is more difficult to create imagery for texts than for concrete finds. One could show papyri and libraries and archives. In addition, schematic drawings could be used to explain abstract facts. The historical context can be wonderfully illustrated by the Histories of Herodotus. Egypt as the country of origin of the Atlantis story is also rich in images.
One could also make these abstract topics interesting by presenting them in the style of a historical scavenger hunt à la Dan Brown. There, it is also about texts and abstract riddles, but it never gets boring.
Classical philologists, Plato specialists, ancient historians and Egyptologists should be consulted who can explain the text and context. At present, these scholars will generally declare Atlantis to be an invention, but they also know about the depths of the question: and that's what it's all about, even if you have to ferret it out of them first. Therefore, care should be taken that they are not clumsy Atlantis deniers who argue shallowly and dogmatically, like the Korfmann circle against Eberhard Zangger. The documentary should deal with the theses of established scientists who believed Atlantis to be real. These are rare and mostly deceased, but their theses are very much alive and still keep the question of Atlantis open today.
Historical-critical thinking in itself must be emphasised. It is a scientific achievement that has a great tradition, especially in Germany. It is most familiar to the public from the development of biblical interpretation. Currently, similar debates are being held on the early period of Islam, which of course also did not proceed exactly as the traditional texts claim, but somewhat differently. In general, Plato was received in the Islamic world just as he was in the Christian world. In this way, viewers learn to have a reasonable perspective on history, which is also useful beyond the Atlantis question.
The "message" of Atlantis should also be taken more seriously. It is also a warning of the demise of an evolved civilisation, yes. But what exactly did that civilisation do wrong, in Plato's eyes? And what did primeval Athens do right? And why does primeval Athens perish too? Most people just gloss over that. And further, one should ask: was that Plato's last word on the question of the best state, or did Plato perhaps change his mind later? (He did.) From these questions, theses can be distilled that are at odds with our current zeitgeist. That is not always pleasant. But stimulating for friends of education.
The average documentary maker on Atlantis will not imagine this, but there are indeed recent changes in the research on Atlantis! For example, these ones:
A concrete example for a very different and better documentary could perhaps be the four-part documentary "Bible Unearthed" by Israel Finkelstein and Neil A. Silberman. There is a lot of historical-critical argumentation, but there is no lack of good pictures.
The subject of Atlantis is probably simply not taken seriously enough to produce good documentaries. But the question of Atlantis is indeed an open question and more seriousness is required than some people think. The exclusion of the literal interpretation of Plato's dialogues by the findings of modern science (evolutionary theory, geology, Egyptology, oceanography) does not mean that Atlantis was not a real place, since Plato's "impossibilities" are within the scope of typical errors of the time. And: the Atlantis story touches the very foundations of our civilisation. A direct line leads from Plato's question about the best state to our Western democracies and their current exposure to hostilities. It doesn't get more topical than that. With the necessary seriousness, one could also produce a completely different kind of Atlantis documentary.