Elderly Nazis Laugh as They Recall Massacring Jews

Venice Film Festival
Venice Film Festival

VENICE—It is the vivid description over and over by different voices—sometimes with a wry laugh—of the smell of the burning flesh of thousands of Jewish people killed in Adolf Hitler’s ovens that makes British filmmaker Luke Holland’s Final Account both painful to watch and hard to turn away from. The most poignant aspect of the film is that it proves how state control and coercion can normalize even the most horrific acts, a lesson perhaps more relevant in today’s world than ever.

The 90-minute documentary, which screened Wednesday night at the scaled-down 2020 Venice Film Festival, boils down 12 years of work through 1,000 hours of footage and 300 interviews with the last living members of Hitler’s Third Reich. The men and women, who joined the Hitler Youth or who became SS members or Wehrmacht fighters, are now elderly pensioners whose denial about their complicity in the horror is unanimous, but whose memories are unnervingly crisp when it comes to their childhoods—which played out in Germany’s worst period under Hitler’s reign.

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Most regret what happened as they deny they had anything to do with it—with the blatant exception of an elderly man named Karl Hollander who still honors Hitler and who says the numbers of those killed is exaggerated. Others wish that Jews had just “been driven from the homeland” rather than being executed.

Many of those featured have pristinely preserved their swastika-stamped membership cards to the Hitler Youth and the SS, unwrapping them for Holland with what can only be described as pride. Others had scrapbooks and other memorabilia of a time it is hard to fathom could have produced anything like a happy childhood, yet photo after photo shows these elderly people as smiling young children caught up in one of the bleakest moments of history.

In interview after interview, these men and women explained how they were removed from the horror even as they stood guard at concentration camps or did other work that supported Hitler’s actions. The women spoke of how thin the camp prisoners were, how hungry they were as they sipped coffee and ate biscuits with Holland. One woman marveled at the great dentists among the prisoners, explaining that they had to provide dental care for free to the local community members and showing how the repairs on her own teeth had lasted all these years.

Holland, who died of cancer in June 2020 at the age of 71, departed from his usual genre of documenting vanishing cultures and persecuted peoples for this searing look at Germany’s history. Final Account gives the “other side” the stage, at first even coddling them in a way that is at times almost too uncomfortable to watch.

He is invited into their homes as they try to justify how joining Hitler’s movement seemed “like a good idea” at first, with some even admitting they had dreamed of the day they could be sworn in. One man was an athlete who said he knew the physical training was rigorous and thus good for his sports, even if it entailed training for heinous activities. Several of the women enjoyed the soirees in which they met young Hitler-inspired men. In one scene, a group of ladies giggled over coffee about those days in glowing terms.

Then Holland would masterfully catch them off guard, and ask a question about the ovens, to which, feeling at ease, they would describe how the smoke from the burning skin could be smelled up to 2 kilometers away.

A character named Heinrich Schulze takes Holland back to his family farmhouse to show him the barn in which Jews hid, a fact that he personally reported to authorities. When Holland asks Schulze if he knows what happened to those people, the old man shrugs and says he has no idea, even though it is absurdly clear he, and everyone else, does.

One scene depicts the most repentant of the characters, Hans Wierk, who was asked to address a group of young students and ends up in a confrontation with a budding neo-Nazi whose face was pixelated, and who accuses him of shunning history and telling him that he should be worried about migrants killing him and not about what he was involved in during the Holocaust. Wierk nearly cries, warning the young man, “I ask only this of you: Do not let yourself be blinded.”

The film is dispersed with images of German landscapes—some with the expected remnants of the twisted metal of concentration camps, but others show mountain scenes and one of a grazing horse loudly chomping on grass. Holland said of this project before he died that the German landscape is inescapable from the Holocaust, that it is countrywide and that everyone knew someone involved in the wrong side of history.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Venice Film Festival</div>
Venice Film Festival

There are also horrific scenes from inside concentration camps, including rarely seen footage of dead bodies under the snow, which Holland and the editors saved for the final scene. Other images showed the burning of synagogues in German towns and the torching of homes and businesses. A solemn cello playing the same note over and over punctuates much of the documentary.

The film then goes back to the aged faces of these men and women, sipping their coffee as they laugh at the memories of what happened as if it were a work of fiction they can’t believe is true, rather than their own lives.

Toward the end, Holland’s tone turns and he asks each of his main characters if they are complicit. Some admit that doing nothing perhaps could be construed as such, but that if 99 people in front of you kill Jews, then by the time it’s your turn, it seems right. Holland, who only learned of his own Jewish heritage in 2005, set out to discover who murdered his grandparents, but surely never imagined he would meet so many unrepentant Nazis.

The film begins with Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s quote, “Monsters exist, but they are too few to be truly dangerous; ordinary men are more dangerous.” And Holland’s film proves it.

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