They are ordinary people, the elderly EveryGerman you’d meet in the park feeding the birds, gathered for a kaffeeklatsch or simply reminiscing in groups in retirement homes.
Their names never made it on the court dockets at Nuremberg, never gained international infamy. They weren’t literal “war criminals.”
With a little prodding, they might break out a photo album or scrapbook filled with memorabilia from a time most have mixed feelings about. Here’s a photo from my Hitler Youth days. Here I am in uniform. Here’s the badge from my SS unit, my Nationalist Socialist Party membership card.
German filmmaker Luke Holland realized, back in 2008, that these people, Germany’s “infamous generation” to America’s “greatest generation,” were dying out. And while screens of every size have been filled with stories of the victims of the Holocaust, families torn apart and murdered off, and of the most heinous criminals of that atrocity, those movies aren’t the whole story.
The ordinary Germans who enlisted, joined the “elite” SS, who fought the war that their votes and their enthusiasm started, and who for decades avoided opening up about what they did during history’s darkest hours, are dying off. Holland set out to find them, hear their stories, prod them and discover how they reconciled this part of their lives, to give a “Final Account.”
That “mixed feelings” about the war and the war crimes associated with fascist “Nazi” Germany is embodied in the phrases we’ve heard so often they’ve become international punchlines.
“Never a member of the Nazi Party…I fought in the Wehrmacht (army, not the SS) on the Russian front.”
We hear the most common of those in Holland’s quietly chilling film. “I knew nothing,” in German, with English subtitles.” “We saw nothing.”
But we also hear of “our shame,” see expressions of guilt and regret scattered among the denialism, rationalizations and worse that the many SS, Werhmacht and Luftwaffe (air force) servicemen serve up, that the female accountants and simple private citizens use as excuses for looking the other way.
Some recall long-dead parents and siblings falling for Hitler. But many of those interviewed here didn’t join the various “party” youth groups out of ideology.
“We didn’t support the party. We loved the uniforms, the singing.” And when they enlisted in the military?
“I believed in it and wanted to die a hero’s death, nonsense like that.”
Former members of the Hitler Youth recall how they were ordered to “guard” (block entry) to Jewish businesses, others remember Kristallnacht’s crimes against Jewish people, property and synagogues.
“We were astounded” when the fire brigades stood by and let buildings burn on those nights in November of 1938.
“The Jews weren’t very popular,” one Waffen SS lieutenant, with the unfiltered bluntness of old age, shrugs. “This had...consequences.”
Their names are given — just ordinary Heinrich and Franz, Klaus, Herbert and Margarethe and many others. Some are questioned by Holland, the oldest man interviewed here is nudged into talking by his daughter. Many repeat the same denials they’ve lived with for 75 years, others mutter “How could they/we NOT know” what was going on, either next door, down the street or in the camp just outside of town.
We see archival photos, “evidence” of the horrors, which almost everyone admits “were whispered about” right from the start. But the reason for the whispering was fear.
And we’re shown memorials, not just to the most infamous camps — Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen. There’s Sachsenhausen, and Mauthausen, and Ebensee, Austria and Bernburg, Germany, home to a euthanasia center — lest we forget the German Reich also murdered those it deemed a “drain” on society — those with mental or physical disabilities.
And we hear about those who “benefited” from the mass incarcerations and murders, small local businesses that were willing cogs in a planned fascist-capitalist slave labor industrial complex.
If “Final Account” has a shortcoming, it’s that few moments stick out as most chilling of all. Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is very much on display. This stone mason or that infantryman doesn’t have that stick out as the essential testimonial or image here.
There’s no Polish railwayman reprising the throat-slashing gesture he made — out of cruelty, fatalism or warning — to Jewish arrivals at the death camp he delivered them to, the most haunting image of Claude Lanzman’s “Shoah.”
Here, flashes of unapologetic racism and glimpses of humanity intermingle in people whose very “ordinariness” is their most striking quality. That, coupled with the timing of Holland’s film, with global fascism showing its fangs again in countries which always sneered “It could never happen here,” reminds us that most Germans never thought that either. And like us, they could not have been more wrong.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some disturbing images
Credits: Directed by Luke Holland. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1″34