(JTA) — There is a remarkable scene toward the end of the new documentary “Final Account,” a collection of eyewitness testimonies of the Nazi regime from elderly Germans and Austrians who remember it (and, to various degrees, were part of it).
In the sequence, a former Waffen-SS officer sits down with a group of students in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee — the site of the infamous Wannsee Conference, where Nazi officials met in 1942 to map out the parameters of the Final Solution. The officer, Hans Werk, speaks of the tremendous shame he feels for himself and his country to have orchestrated the genocide of 6 million Jews.
When Werk is challenged by a young German nationalist — an anonymous right-winger obsessed with “protecting the Fatherland” and sick of hearing about “shame” from his elders — the former Nazi fires back, recounting Jewish friends and neighbors of his who had assumed they were also part of the Fatherland, until they were marched off to the camps. The true Nazi ideology was not patriotism, he says, but hate.
“Do not let yourselves be blinded!” he shouts.
The film itself has the same aim in mind. “Final Account” is the result of more than a decade of interviews conducted by British documentarian Luke Holland, who discovered his Jewish heritage as a teenager upon learning that his mother’s family had been murdered in the Holocaust. Holland tragically died last year shortly after completing the film; it now lives as his final account, too.
There is a workmanlike quality to “Final Account,” which is made up almost entirely of contemporary interviews with former Nazis, mostly conducted in cozy apartments and retirement homes. Naturally there are many fewer eyewitnesses left alive today than there were four decades ago, when the French-Jewish filmmaker Claude Lanzmann interviewed scores for his landmark 10-hour documentary “Shoah.” Lanzmann could talk to high-ranking SS officers, including some who oversaw the death camps. By contrast, Holland’s interview subjects were largely children or teenagers at the time.
Many of the anecdotes in Holland’s film revolve around the subjects joining the Hitler Youth as kids or watching their parents support the Nazi Party. A few worked at the camps, or the train stations that led prisoners to them, but their own accounts seem to conveniently distance themselves from the actual murders. Some continue to deny the genocide ever took place.
These occasional denialists feel more like sideshows to the film’s main goal — and they might be committing a crime on camera, since both Germany and Austria have outlawed the practice of Holocaust denial.
By and large, most of the interviews in “Final Account” focus on the language of culpability: when (or if) one’s presence within an evil regime constitutes being a perpetrator of its aims.
“We didn’t support the party, but we liked the uniform,” one subject says, conjuring the comic images of exuberant Nazi children in “Jojo Rabbit.”
Others remember the odd yet mundane details that allowed them to build an everyday life around the atrocities taking place in their name, like a former nanny who remembers taking her employer’s kids to their local concentration camp — to say hi to their mom at her place of work.
Holland is never seen on camera, but the fluent German speaker occasionally prods his subjects from offscreen to acknowledge their participation in crimes against humanity, much as Joshua Oppenheimer did to architects of the Indonesian genocide in “The Act of Killing.” Together, Holland, Oppenheimer and Lanzmann all form an unsettling lineage of Jewish filmmakers who have felt compelled to confront genocide participants face to face on film.
“Final Account” doesn’t have quite the same revelatory feel as its predecessors in this genre — the film rarely breaks through the surfaces of its subjects’ accounts to dig at whatever their emotional truth might be. Maybe there isn’t any: One of the overarching messages is that populations can follow hateful ideologies blindly, even blandly, if they feel acceptable enough to the masses.
But there are moments that wrestle with deeper questions. The Wannsee scene, in which one generation of German seems incapable of passing on his personal and historical shame to the next, invokes not only the past but also the future of Holocaust memory. Their conversation is in anticipation of a world in which we have no more “final accounts.”
When that does happen, and there are no more eyewitnesses left, how are we to continue the lessons of “Never Again”? What forms of education and vigilance will keep us from becoming once again “blinded” to the past?
It’s a question that has haunted the last century of Jewish life — and, by necessity, must also haunt the next.
“Final Account” opens in movie theaters on May 21.