Hannah Arendt’s infamous diagnosis of the “banality of evil” is on full display throughout “Final Account,” a film as important as it is unstylish, as haunting in its implications as it is ordinary in its presentation.
Documentary filmmaker Luke Holland, the son of a Jewish refugee from Vienna and a descendent of Jews killed by the Nazis, had begun his Final Account: Third Reich Testimonies project in 2008 as an oral history of how Germans, from everyday folk to SS soldiers, justified and committed the worst mass atrocity in European history. Holland, who died last summer, interviewed hundreds of men and women in the autumn of their lives. This posthumous documentary, which opens in Boca Raton theaters today, collects just a sample of his most compelling interrogations. His subjects run a gamut from pride to humility, and from lucid recollections of the genocide around them to convenient separation of the crimes as something other people committed.
For many of Holland’s interviewees, their relationship to Nazism started in childhood. Like any well-oiled Fascist machine, the Third Reich wasted no time indoctrinating its citizens. In one of the movie’s most chilling montages, person after person recalls anti-Semitic propaganda songs, by rote, from their tenures in the Hitler Youth, with the ease of American children reciting the National Anthem. One adult remembers being told Jews were “into deal making, and had hooked noses.”
Holland’s witnesses, at least the ones being remotely honest with themselves, have unshakeable memories of the Shoah. A stationmaster’s son says, “I still have the smell of the crematorium in my nose,” a sensation he likens to “burning car tires.” Others wear their denialism and feigned ignorance like a security blanket. A bookkeeper for the Third Reich compartmentalizes her role in the government as benign: “I had nothing to do with it,” she says, referring to the forced removal and execution of 6 million Jews. That may be true in a literal sense, but it is far from an acceptable answer.
To understand the mindset of the majority of Germans who went along with the crimes, Holland presents a history in which privileges greeted only those who complied with the Third Reich’s agenda. It was an environment where the pervasiveness of Nazism was overwhelming and resistance unheard of. After all, had they disobeyed Nazi edicts, they themselves could be executed. Or is that just the story they have repeated for decades so they can live with themselves?
Holland, who is never shown but whose voice keeps his subjects focused, is a quietly tough and persistent interviewer, chipping away at their various dodges until the line between complicity and perpetration is wafer-thin. For too many of these elderly Germans, it takes acts of acrobatic hair-splitting to justify their complacency. More chilling are the Holocaust deniers insisting that the number of deaths is “wrong,” a falsehood spread by Jewish historians.
Holland intersperses his talking heads with stark data and starker images, shot over the past decade-plus at preserved concentration camps, U-boat bunkers and memorials for Holocaust victims—this basic visual evidence an inherent rebut to the most shameless figures that sit before his camera.
A vital addition to the difficult corpus of Holocaust documentaries that includes “Night and Fog” and “Shoah,” “Final Account” should have a lengthy future in high-school history classes. But its legacy may, in fact, transcend the specifics of its particular genocide: It is a sobering cautionary tale about how easy it can be to brainwash a populace against an other for savage political means. After all, the autocrats of today have social media behind them. Anyone who thinks it can’t happen again is fooling themselves.
“Final Account” opens today at Cinemark Palace and Living Room Theaters at FAU, Cinemark Boynton Beach, AMC Pompano Beach and other area theaters.