Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common man, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” The thrust of that quote forms the backbone of Luke Holland’s engrossing new Holocaust documentary “Final Account”. In it Holland condenses twelve years of work and nearly 300 interviews into a 90 minute study of how passivity can open the door to great evil and how denial of one’s complicity can take many different forms.
There is a tag at the end of “Final Account” that captures Holland’s relationship to this subject – “In the memory of my murdered grandparents and millions of others.” This was a personal journey for Holland who sadly died from cancer shortly after completing the film. He sought to capture the German point-of-view from some of that generation’s few remaining voices. Some were simply witnesses; others were active participants. Either way it’s fascinating (and sometimes shocking) to hear them in their very own words now 75 years since the end of World War II.
When dealing with the Holocaust, movies of all types tend to examine it through the pained eyes of the countless victims. But Holland’s interview-focused documentary takes a different approach, seeking out those connected in different ways to the Nazi Party and Hitler’s Third Reich. Soldiers from the Waffen-SS, officers, bookkeepers, concentration camp guards, party officials – just some of the people Holland talks to who offer a startling array of responses to that dark time in German history.
The plethora of different opinions and perspectives coming directly from the mouths of people with first-hand knowledge is both fascinating and utterly unnerving. Elderly men and woman in the final stages of their own lives share feelings ranging from remorse and regret to outright denial. Some reminisce with an appalling tinge of nostalgia. One lady chuckles as she talks about hiding her SS boyfriend from American troops. While blindly defending an area concentration camp, a man states “most people benefited from it”. A former Nazi officer proudly shows off his service medals while defiantly defending Hitler’s “honor”.
Other people plead ignorance only to later undermine their claims by recalling distinct details such as the smell of human flesh as Jews were burned alive in a nearby camp. Many defended their passivity by saying they had no choice; that they would have been executed had they spoke or disobeyed. You see some of this when Holland sits down with a group of four women at a nursing home in Austria who offer different accounts of their days growing up close to a nearby work camp. “We knew nothing,” one says. “Everyone knew,” argues another.
Perhaps most enlightening are the scenes where Holland asks the interviewees what drew them to the Nazi Party. Nearly all were brought in when they were young, one as early as 9-years-old. Many were indoctrinated at school where teaching propaganda and anti-Jewish sentiment to children was a prominent part of Hitler’s recruitment. By the age of 14 many had joined Hitler’s Youth. For some “participation was mandatory,” we’re told. A few spoke of that time with a sense of shame, but most talked about it as if reflecting on ‘the good old days’.
Moments like those permeate nearly every frame of “Final Account”. Luke Holland stays away from anything showy and there is a minimal use of archived footage. It can make the film feel a little dry, but it allows him to focus on the people he interviews and their direct testimonies. Much of Holland’s questioning is designed to make them sit in front of his camera and express whether or not they should be considered perpetrators. Some genuinely wrestle with a question and more importantly the answer. But most have found unconvincing ways to exonerate themselves in their own minds, with some going as far as to proudly boast of having “no regrets”. Hearing people from our current day clinging to such venomous ideology is hard to stomach, but that is a big part of what makes Holland’s film so effective and powerful. “Final Account” hits select theaters today (May 21st).