“Final Account” – Painful truths [MOVIE REVIEW]

FINAL ACCOUNT by director Luke Holland, released by Focus Features. Courtesy of Focus Features

Director Luke Holland worked on his documentary “Final Account” for ten years and during that time he accumulated 500 hours of interviews. That he even got one is incredible because this is a story of the ordinary Germans who facilitated the “Final Solution” and without whom there would have been no Holocaust. Getting them to talk could be the subject of a film in itself. What they said and how they said it is the result of this extraordinary film.

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” So said Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor, chemist, and writer. It is about these common men and women that Luke Holland trained his eye in a straightforward and unflinching manner.

Holland began this project in 2008. His premise was that perpetrators were not born, they were made. His time would be limited because so many of those who were alive during the war were now dying. Many, he discovered, had never talked to anyone, not even family, about their experiences. This was the tatergeneration, or the generation of perpetrators.

It started early with all of them. After Hitler’s ascension to the top of the German government in 1932. By 1933 his power was consolidated and the Nazi Party was deemed the only political party permitted in Germany. He quickly moved to eradicate his foes and ban labor unions, socialists, and Communists. By 1934 he crushed any remaining opposition by killing his rivals.

Schools were brought under his banner and curriculums were changed and youth groups were formed, leading to the indoctrination of the young. There were rewards for joining these groups —camaraderie, favoritism in classes, medals— that eventually led to the big prize, membership in Hitler’s Youth. So many of the interviewees, both men and women, talked about the marches, the outdoor activities, and the beautiful uniforms. It was those uniforms that they loved. The psychology of indoctrination was especially effective. James Clavell wrote a chilling short novella entitled The Children’s Story that lays out how quickly and easily the young can be influenced to substitute one belief system with another by an adept teacher.

The indoctrination of the children active in Hitler’s Youth in the years leading up to the war would have made it particularly difficult to eradicate or even face the damage that was done, let alone the damage they contributed to. Chilling is the film footage of children watching the burning of the main Synagogue in Berlin, where the fire brigade stood idle, there only to protect the surrounding non-Jewish buildings. The schools were closed so that the students could watch the burning. It was a holiday for them, and you see the delight on their faces.

Holland found a wide cross-section of individuals who were willing to talk to him. All talked of their experiences in youth programs. The boys were all eager to join elite programs and many of Holland’s subjects gained access to the elite SS schools, the Waffen SS being the pinnacle.

It’s interesting to note that many of the men and women he talked to did not claim ignorance of what was happening. Those individuals did not hide behind “I didn’t know.” Of particular note is one former Waffen SS officer, a wizened old man and the oldest of the group, who was unrepentant. In showing Holland his many medals from the war, he waxed euphoric about his time in the war and his continued disdain for Jews. To this day he feels that Hitler was not guilty of any crimes although he may have been misguided in trying to kill all the Jews. He should have just expelled them.

Several who attended the Waffen SS school next to the camp at Dachau expressed ignorance about what was going on just next door. But others found it hard to deny what was happening at the time when the smoke from chimneys at the work camps was evidently from the burning of the dead, dead Jews and other forced laborers. As one man said, workers went into the labor camp and never came out; they had to have gone somewhere —up the chimney in smoke.

As recounted numerous times, the SS was all about camaraderie; you could count on your fellow officers. The SS had nothing to do with the extermination of the Jews. But not all of Holland’s subjects were unrepentant. One former Waffen SS member was someone who had gone up through the ranks of Hitler Youth and into the elite academy. He pointed to the tattoo under his arm. All Waffen SS recruits had similar tattoos. And although several who were interviewed showed their tattoos with pride, this gentlemen felt it was a mark of Cain that he would have to bear forever. It was a reminder to him of all the horror that had been done; the horror he overlooked.

The women interviewed express different viewpoints. They were observers; their function was to support their husbands and raise good Nazi children. Like the men, some profess not to have known; other profess that it was all greatly exaggerated, and still others face the crimes straightforwardly and acknowledge that they were part of the problem.

Klaus Kleinau stars in the documentary FINAL ACCOUNT by director Luke Holland, released by Focus Features. © 2021 PM Final Account Holdings, LLC. Courtesy of Focus Features LLC.

As is pointed out by one man who has been haunted all his life by his inactions, there are three common excuses: (1) I didn’t know; (2) I didn’t take part; and (3) If I had known I would have acted differently. As he remarks, all are false.

Where Holland excels is in his approach to all his subjects. He is non-judgmental, straightforward, and calm. He is not looking for confessions; he is trying to understand so we, too, might be able to understand. He has carefully, almost painstakingly, laid out the scenario of how such horrors occurred, and consequently, how they could occur again. His film is an excellent addition to the German approach towards this history as embodied in the Berlin museum “The Topography of Terror.” What struck me the most about that museum that goes hand in hand with this film is the depiction of the active participation, rabid one could say, of the ordinary citizens in Hitler’s plans. For without them, there would have been no Final Solution.

This is a riveting film that should be seen by everyone because this type of mob acceptance of horrific acts continues today as we become inured to the terrors. It is also an unspoken explanation of why it took Germany so long to come to grips with the after effects of World War II. As is evident from this documentary, many if not most of the perpetrators, for essentially everyone was a perpetrator, did not discuss their roles during the war with their children. Those children, who would now be in the 60s and 70s, grew up stubbornly believing that everyone was telling lies about their country. It was not until the next generation that the government properly addressed this through education and facing the damage that they did. It is this generation that produced museums such as The Topography of Terror and made films like Phoenix, Labyrinth of Lies, and Never Look Away.

In German with English subtitles.

Opening May 21 at the Landmark, as well as the Laemmle Town Center 5 and Playhouse 7.

 

 

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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