When she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the callous, uncaring and otherwise inconsequential men and women who carried out The Holocaust and society’s ways of “normalizing” their actions, Hannah Arendt was seriously underestimating Hollywood’s response to one of the most monstrous crimes in human history.
When the movies came to tell this story, the villains would be played by Gregory Peck and Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. They would love poetry and opera, urbane figures of sinister, rationalized villainy. Rarely would they be depicted as lumps, cowardly functionaries, dull mortals hiding behind “just following orders.”
Such a man was Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, a World War I veteran lured back into “service” via SS leader Heinrich Himmler, an animal lover who might have been content to live out his equine fantasy on a farm had Himmler not put him in charge of the Auschwitz “extermination” camp in Occupied Poland for much of World War II.
Höss is the subject of “The Interrogation,” an Israeli film that uses the camp commander’s hastily-composed memoir, written awaiting execution for his role in the genocide, as its source material. It imagines a Polish translator/interrogator Albert (Maciej Marczewski) coming face to face with this unspeakably evil man (Romanus Fuhrmann), someone the Poles and the Allied Occupation governments want to speak out before he is hung for his Crimes Against Humanity.
Erez Pery’s film focuses on Höss’s reluctance to speak, the decision to talk based solely on an act of kindness he’d have never been capable of himself — Albert giving the SS officer back his wedding band — and his endless equivocations about his actions, most of them depressingly rational and thus all the more disturbing.
Höss recalls (in German with English subtitles) his indoctrination, the idea that “every order would have to be a sacred duty” drilled into him by the political/SS leaders over him. He recalls his greatest fear was being perceived as “soft,” as he was “too attached to the black frock” (the uniform) to disobey orders, even as he insisted he was “unfit for” this heinous duty. “I had too much compassion.”
Albert, leaving behind his wife and family for this work near the camp, which is where Höss would eventually be hung, tape records their interviews impassively. But his actions afterwards — a fling with a local prostitute, a violent response to a prisoner attack — suggest the Nazi is getting to him, corrupting him and making him a reflection of his prisoner.
The men both return to spartan surroundings after their sessions, Höss finishing up his untrustworthy memoir, Albert to a hotel room in 1946 Poland that’s little better than a cell itself.
This is how Pery runs with the “banality of evil” concept, suggesting its contagious, corrupting influence. It doesn’t take a big leap for Albert to act just a little like Höss, and he is chilled to the marrow when he realizes this.
“The Interrogation” is basically a simple two-hander, a drama almost wholly set at a table, listening to stories of camp life, the mass murderer’s attacks of conscience (after executing fellow Nazis), with Albert asking simple questions. The performances are as limited as the characters, mostly as confined as they are to their cells, their meetings and their narrow line of questioning.
It doesn’t cover any new ground on its subject. But in narrowing the focus to a bad man’s rationalizations to a possibly corruptible man interrogating him, Pery has made a quietly compelling Holocaust drama that uses words to paint pictures of the great horrors committed during this infamous time by evil as banal as dullards like Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, sexual situations
Cast: Maciej Marczewski, Romanus Fuhrmann, Joan Blackham
Credits: Directed by Erez Pery, script by Sari Azoulay Turgeman and Erez Pery. A Film Movement Plus release.
Running time: 1:24