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New film asks last living generation from Third Reich about

“I’m ashamed!” shouts a shaking former Nazi who has come to talk to German students. “[I] was convinced that what Adolf did was right.”

You might expect the students to be shocked by this confession. Instead, they are hostile and nationalistic; tired of hearing about what their country did. One pupil next to the man reads something in his hands, his disinterest palpable. Another prickles at the suggestion that the Germans did anything wrong. He tells this ex-SS officer to be proud of his history, not ashamed. An explosive argument ensues, before the former Nazi yells with a pointed finger: “You are one of them!”

He should know.

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It is the most powerful scene from director Luke Holland’s documentary Final Account, which portrays the last generation of the everyday Germans who participated in the Third Reich.

This being the late film-maker’s final piece, the title takes on a poignant second meaning, and makes for an inspiring closing chapter to Holland’s career. It was a decade in the making, and provides exceptional access to figures across Germany who bore witness to atrocities in and around concentration camps.

At the core of the film lies the theme of culpability. When a system made up of 86 million people, as Germany was at the time, commits genocide, how exactly do you portion out blame? The Führer is long dead. Most of the leading Nazis either escaped or were put to death. Generations have come and gone in the ghostly villages that break up the interviews. All that remain are these final accounts.

The film’s title might also allude to the accountability and closure it seeks from these former members of the Third Reich. But this is no simple task. Early on, an elderly interviewee speaks of flying low over a concentration camp during the war, and spotting the horrors within. “Is this Germany?” he claims he asked himself, ostensibly appalled. But given the democracy with which Hitler was voted into power, and where the tides of righteousness flowed (hint: not with the Jews), he was likely all too aware of what Germany was at the time.

Another ex-Nazi, Otto Duscheleit, speaks of his time in the Hitler Youth. His cohorts, he maintains, considered him too “girly” and “soft” to be a Nazi. Again, you wonder if time has kindly revised his memory. Countering the contention that being “girly” was a hindrance to entry to the Nazi Party, the next scenes feature frolicking young women in Nazi accoutrements. Sieg Heils aside, the daisy chains and dancing are straight out of The Sound of Music. We meet these girls’ older iterations, who explain how they used to sit around and discuss Mein Kampf. Of course, you can only write a book called My Struggle if you believe you’re on the right side of history, and these women were apparently engrossed.

Still, to camera all these decades later, they’re hesitant to admit as much, turning their focus elsewhere: “It was lovely! There were hiking songs. The ones you still sing today.” This reminds me of Primo Levi’s words that preface the documentary: “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.” As for the men, they speak of linking arms as kids to prevent customers from entering Jewish-owned shops. They were told Jews were smelly, greasy and hooked-nosed – all things that might appeal to a child’s naïve sense of good and evil.

Still, most interviewees insist, wide-eyed, that they didn’t know of the terrors of the camps. They seem sincere; we believe them; they believe themselves. Then, one looks sharply at the camera: “If someone says they didn’t know about concentration camps, that’s just not true.” It triggers a turn in tone. In a later scene, the women discuss what a shock it was to learn about the camps, when one interrupts: “Everyone knew, but no one said anything.”

Now a little less trusting, we viewers meet a man who tells of Jews escaping Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to beg for food at his family’s farm. “What happened to them?” asks the interviewer.

“They were returned to the camp.”

A scene from Final Account by director Luke Holland

“How?”

“The guards got them.”

The interviewer refuses to let it go.

“How did the guards know they were here?”

“Well, we discovered them and reported it. At least, that is what I remember.”

“Did you make a phone call?”

“Yes, yes, yes…” Ruffled, the man looks off into the distance.

“Do you know what happened to them?” “Nobody knows,” replies the man.

In this, we have the essence of the film. Because “nobody knows” really means “everybody knows”. We know what happened to those who were caught after he and his family called the Nazis. And so does he.

In fact, there is so much deflection and puppy-eyed innocence in the responses of these elderly witnesses that it almost comes as a relief when an out-and-out antisemite arrives. Beside the polished Nazi memorabilia that still graces his home, he talks of the pride of having been part of the SS: “an elite group”. Asked whether it was a criminal organisation, he retorts: “I would dirty myself, if I were to admit to that.”

Another Third Reich man claims that the Holocaust was exaggerated or didn’t happen: “I will not believe it. It can’t be.” Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany, but rarely enforced. But it’s unclear whether the man denies its existence out of antisemitism or because to admit it – to believe he was complicit in something so terrible – would be too much to bear.

To deflect is human. Our minds go to extraordinary places to assuage ourselves of guilt; to prevent us from having to “dirty” ourselves. There is a defensiveness – reinforced by a new narrative on Nazis after the war – that prevents many of these Third Reichers from holding themselves accountable. It is telling, then, that the only time a former Nazi passionately confesses to his shame is not when he senses he is being judged or attacked, but rather absolved by a nationalistic student in the name of German pride. “Do not let yourself be blinded!” yells the former Nazi to the fascist-in-waiting. This is his albatross. Yet, for most of the interviewees, the guilt lies everywhere but with themselves. It’s not easy to live with the weight of six million on your conscience.

• Final Account is at selected cinemas from Friday and on Netflix

 

Film-maker on a mission

director Luke Holland

After 10 years working on Final Account, director Luke Holland tragically died before its release. The film was subsequently shown at the Venice International Film Festival to critical success, bringing a poignant end to Holland’s brilliant career. The film-maker and photographer made documentaries that shone a light on the injustices faced by minorities. As a teenager, he found out that his mother had been a Jewish refugee from Vienna, whose family had been killed in the Holocaust. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and went about completing his documentary on everyday Nazis in his final years. He died aged 71 and is survived by his wife Yvonne Hennessy and their sons Zefi and Hugh.



Source: Jewish News

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