Producers: John Barttsek, Luke Holland and Riete Oord Director: Luke Holland Screenplay: Luke Holland Cast: Karl Hollander, Otto-Ernst Duscheleit, Hans Werk, Marianne Chantelau, Klaus Kleinau, Heinrich Schulze, Herbert Fuchs, Karl-Heinz Rinne, Margarete Schwartz, Franz Spalek, Herman Knoth and Friedrich Eder Distributor: Focus Features
Claude Lanzmann’s monumental “Shoah” (supplemented by his other films) remains the touchtone among Holocaust documentaries, but the late Luke Holland’s “Final Account” is a notable addendum to it. It’s composed of interviews with ordinary, now elderly Germans who aided and abetted the horror in small but significant ways, often as lower-level members of the military or camp guards, or as civilians who simply chose to overlook what they knew, or at least suspected, was happening,
The film, fluidly edited by Stefan Ronowicz from some five hundred hours of interviews shot by Holland over the course of a decade (all of which has been archived), avoids a visually stagnant feel through both the varying locales in which the footage was shot (in the sitting-rooms of subjects, the nursing homes in which they reside, and sometimes during walks outside), and the interpolation of archival footage. A connective strand is provided by present-day shots of the camps various interviewees discuss, accompanied by captions indicating the numbers of those who were interned and perished in them, and by the mournful strains of a score composed by Dirac Sea and Jóhann Jóhannsson.
The main strain that runs throughout the recollections is an initial inclination of denial or excusatory evasion and rationalization that gradually transforms into a resigned, quietly grudging admission of some moral complicity, even if most are finally unable to articulate that explicitly. A common explanation is youth: we were only children, our parents, older siblings and teachers supported the Nazi party (usually because of economic distress) and influenced us, and we enjoyed the camaraderie and activities the Hitler youth programs provided for both boys and girls, and the sense of national pride and leadership they provided as one moved up the ladder in them.
And as they grow older and the Nazi regime became more entrenched and all-powerful, the excuses veer more into the realm of fear. What could we do? If we had tried to object, we would have been put in the camps ourselves, or executed. The soldiers emphasize that they were front-line fighters, not perpetrators in genocide. One angrily rejects the notion that six million Jews had died—the number must have been far smaller.
Yet even as the protestations accumulate, gnawing doubts begin to emerge. While one woman repeats the Sergeant Schultz line about knowing nothing, another says that it was impossible not to know, which elicits a response about being able to speak of such matters only in whispers. An admission soon follows about hiding her boyfriend, a camp guard, to prevent his being arrested when the camp is liberated. A reserved man with a habit of smiling shyly recalls how his family came upon some escaped prisoners on their farm, and how they were returned to custody, and finally admits with a sigh that it was they who reported their presence to authorities. A woman recalls that Jewish detainees did her dental work.
One of the interviewees is adamant in refusing to admit any regret for his service in the Wappen SS, proudly fingering his medals as he exults in having been a member of the elite group. He will say nothing bad about Hitler, though he does reluctantly admit that the Jewish problem might have been handled differently. Another feels himself to have been more of a perpetrator than he likes to admit, and goes so far as to try to persuade a group of right-wing, anti-immigrant youngsters from being seduced by neo-Nazi ideology in a talk at Wannsee Villa, the very place where the implementation of the Final Solution became official policy in 1942. The fact that they react with sullen disdain reflects the danger that the twenty-first century might see a repeat of the sort of horrors that blighted the twentieth.
“Final Account” provides a fascinating window into the mindset of ordinary people who in some measure enabled the Nazi regime, while also serving as a salutary warning to be watchful about how such things can happen again.