Released May 21, 2021
1 hour 30 minutes
Directed by Luke Holland
Participant, Passion Pictures, ZEF Productions
German with English subtitles
Director Luke Holland, a UK documentary filmmaker who tragically died of cancer in June 2020 at age 71, has delivered a truly remarkable and memorable film, which consists of interviews with the last generation of ordinary Germans and Austrians who grew to adulthood during the Third Reich. That Holland was able to remain calm during his one-on-one chats with former members of the Waffen SS, Wehrmacht, camp guards and ordinary witnesses to Nazism must have required him to call on immeasurable levels of inner strength and composure. This strength is particularly impressive because, as we learn when the credits roll, Holland dedicated his film not only to the millions who were killed but also to the memory of his own murdered grandparents.
Holland began his project in 2008, spending more than a decade shooting 500 hours of footage and interviewing more than 300 perpetrators of and bystanders to the horrors of the Third Reich. The responses he elicited, which unfold painfully and with increasing intensity in his documentary, Final Account, illuminate the reasons people had for conforming, failing to stand up to antisemitism, joining in lockstep with their peers and supporting rampant nationalism, and also their associated guilt today (or, in most instances, lack thereof). Many of the interviewees would have us believe that they knew precious little, and, in some cases, nothing at all, about the persecution and atrocities they conducted. Yet their recollections remain crystal clear about almost every other aspect of their lives from 1933-1945.
The film’s chronological time frame leads us from the start of Hitler’s regime in early 1933, to the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938, through the war years and finally to how individuals now in their twilight years reflect on their pasts.
We meet former Waffen SS member Hans Werk, born in Berlin in 1927, who vividly describes how, when six in 1933, his teacher was a party functionary who demanded his pupils start every morning by standing up and proclaiming, “Heil Hitler,” and who enthusiastically imparted Nazi doctrine to his charges.
This is not new to me. I grew up hearing the vivid recollections of one particular 11-year-old girl who took the train, in the spring of 1933, from her family’s luxury villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to her girls’ school in Potsdam, full of the daughters of army officers. As the only Jewish girl in her class, within weeks of Hitler coming to power, the other pupils began tormenting her, placing Der Stürmer (a Nazi antisemitic newspaper) in her desk and putting her on a chair while they danced around her singing, “When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, it’ll be twice as good.” That girl was my mother.
Conformity was the norm. Holland meets a group of women who have nothing but praise for the Bund Deutscher Mädel (the League of German Girls), remembering wistfully the blue skirt, white blouse, triangular neckerchief uniform, the marching and wonderful social evenings. They were still able to sing on camera the “lovely” hiking song they had learned as youngsters: “Raise the flag! The ranks tightly closed. The SA marches with calm, steady step.”
Stunning archival footage, as well as some never-before-seen photos, accompany the many rich descriptions illustrating life during the Third Reich and World War II.
Holland asks his interviewees how they viewed themselves, and their answers enable us to glimpse the way in which populations become inured to the persecution of others. As the Nazi ideology takes hold, the film’s mood darkens—a man in the town of Celle says that Jews were not popular there, “they had hooked noses,” and in Bernburg a witness to buses bringing patients to a psychiatric hospital saw “every few days, black smoke rose, and it smelled sweet,” so the locals concluded, “people were burned there.” Another man, who saw the fires of Kristallnacht, says, “I didn’t feel any pity for the Jews.”
What did these people know of the ghettos and death camps? In moments when they let their guard down, they admit they knew all too much. Among the many testimonies offered, we hear from Margarete Schwartz, who, from the age of 14, was employed for six years as a nanny for an SS family while the mother, a member of staff at the Mauthausen concentration camp, worked nights in the camp’s canteen. Without any hint of remorse, she extols the skills of the “very nice” prisoner dentists who fixed her teeth (which to this day are in first-class condition). And, without the merest hint of shame, Heinrich Schulze admits to personally telephoning the authorities whenever he found forced laborers, who had escaped from Bergen Belsen, hiding in his family hayloft or pigsty and, chuckling, describes to the camera how these people were hungry.
It is (almost) too easy to see how the steady drip of ideological poison over the early years led, inexorably, to the nation’s youth craving to join the elite units. The Waffen SS was seen by the German people, according to former member Herman Knoth, as “the peak of the nation, not just physically, spiritually too.” Rolling up his shirt sleeve to show off the tattoo on the inside of his upper left arm, which denoted his blood type, he clearly saw that as a mark of distinction rather than ignominy. A strong stomach is required when listening to one former member describe his unit behaving like “in a cowboy film,” carrying out Hitler’s “scorched earth” policy on the Eastern front, ensuring that no house should fall into Russian hands. When Holland asks him why officers did not write reports about the SS activities, he answers with a smile on his face, “What is not in the archives does not exist.”
Holland seems to have skillfully lulled his subjects into a sense of security, feeling they could bare their souls to him. When he probes them about whether they feel they are implicated in participating in a crime, some admit to feeling ashamed. All too many do not. We see the full range of emotions, from indifference to excuses, all the way to outright denial. One man extols the camaraderie he found in the Hitler Youth while another shows off his collection of Nazi memorabilia and medals. Yet another remains staunchly proud at having been admitted to the elite SS, insisting it was not a criminal organization and that, while it was found to be such at the Nuremberg trials, no German court has decreed it to have been so. When pushed to explain themselves, some wriggle and squirm and finally admit, as one former camp guard does, that, yes indeed they were “complicit in other people’s crimes” and that as “nobody walked away” from the work, their “complicity turns to guilt.” Appallingly, one man says that he thinks the claim that six million Jews were murdered is a “joke” and dismisses one million killed at Auschwitz, saying “I don’t believe it.”
What are the lessons for today? Hans Werk, who served at the Buchenwald concentration camp as a member of the SS, is a rarity. He now feels “ashamed of the crimes committed” and is filmed meeting a group of young Germans at the House of the Wannsee Conference (where, in 1942, the infamous meeting was held to draw up plans for the mass deportation and extermination of Europe’s Jews)—a short stroll from the villa where my own mother grew up. He cautions the students that “Adolf and his clique brought us to disaster,” but one young nascent neo-Nazi man retorts that Werk should be more afraid of being stabbed by an Albanian on public transport. Werk, shaking with emotion, explodes: “Don’t let yourselves be blinded. I ask only this of you!”
Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation, was a friend of Holland’s. In an interview, hosted by the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan on May 11, about Final Account, he urged: “We live in a time where we need to talk to our young people much more about political literacy.”
His warning is most prescient. As extremist nationalism rears its ugly head again across Europe—and the United States—one is forced to ponder the terrible question: Could it happen again? If what Holland discovered is a mirror to us all, humanity is in deep trouble.
Final Account opens in movie theaters on May 21.