We all know that knee-jerk racism and willful ignorance are the handmaidens of evil: Without these all-too-common traits, heinous acts are difficult to perpetrate on a large scale. Documentary maker Luke Holland’s “Final Account” is the first product of an ambitious undertaking to interview the now elderly helpers and handmaidens whose tacit acceptance of the Nazi regime enabled the Final Solution. The film is a distillation of roughly 300 interviews with men and women, some of whom were literally cogs in the machine, like the governess of a Nazi family, while others, such as SS men, were directly involved. Their willingness to appear before the camera is surprising, but not the range of responses, varying from unconvincing ignorance to pride and, just occasionally, a recognition that atrocities took place literally under their noses. Clocking in at a swift 90 minutes, “Final Account” is like a teenager-friendly approach to “Shoah,” designed as an introduction to issues of responsibility, guilt and the banality of man’s inhumanity to man.
Given the glut of Holocaust dramas and documentaries, it’s valid to ask who’s the audience for “Final Account.” Definitely not those of us who had the slogan “Never Again” drummed into our brains alongside lullabies, or whose family names are inscribed on memorials throughout Europe. “Final Account” is really for people like Holland himself, unaware of his Jewish origins until adulthood, or for younger generations coming to the topic practically for the first time.
That’s not a problem. We need these kinds of documentaries as well, and Holland’s approach, in general, is good. Yet the concern when watching an interview-based film of this kind is the constant need to question everything: Why did these people agree to participate? Can we read something in their eyes than what they’re saying? Are the people who admit a certain degree of guilt therefore the “good” ones? This kind of interrogation of words and image is as important — and even more rarely addressed — than the question of guilt itself. The editing of course does some of that, as when images of flames consuming a synagogue during Kristallnacht are juxtaposed with Obersturmführer Herbert Fuchs now, recalling that he was completely indifferent to the horrific destruction of that night. Perhaps it’s overburdening the documentary to expect more than this.
Holland opens with a montage of elderly people singing an anti-Semitic song whose tune is the same as the Dutch “Happy Birthday” ditty. It’s an effective way to begin, and underlines a key element of the film: The sights and sounds of childhood, with their jingles and playground games, remain with us, and when they’re overlaid with racist and nationalist propaganda, everything gets mixed up. The oldest person interviewed was 19 when the Nazis seized power but most were younger, and of course their recollections of summer camps with plenty of exercise and buoyant games are tinged with happy nostalgia. “Ah yes, it was so lovely to sing and march together,” to paraphrase one woman’s recollections.
So how do we judge those who participated in the Hitler Youth? Hans Werk, once in the Waffen-SS, was eight years old when the Nuremberg laws were introduced, and recalls that his teacher influenced his thinking more than his parents; he expresses more regret than most, yet how should we parse such excuses? To Holland’s credit, he guides the viewer to ask those questions themselves, by using interviews coupled with images both historic and contemporary, but given the documentary’s basic supposition of mid-level unfamiliarity with much of this material, one almost wants it accompanied by a study guide to facilitate discussion.
One of the film’s strongest scenes proves this point, when Werk talks to a group of teenagers with right-wing sympathies, to give them a first-hand account of the dangers of racism and nationalism. They’re resistant to his spiel, either sitting there — in the Wannsee villa, of all places — with crossed arms, or arguing that they refuse to feel guilty about their nation’s past. Werk has boldly spent years talking of his shame, but the rising right-wing refuses to listen, even when they’re given firsthand accounts. They’re more likely to pay attention to Herman Knoth, also a Waffen-SS member, saying the SS had nothing whatsoever to do with implementing the Final Solution, or others who outright deny that six million were killed.
Although cries of ignorance have long been rejected, there are those in the documentary who hide behind that canard, treating their moment before the camera as a way of discharging themselves of any culpability. Holland ensures this tactic is undermined by including a few voices who say they still have the smell of burning flesh in their noses, and equally powerfully includes a drone shot of the Grunwald S-Bahn station in Berlin, from where thousands of Jews were transported to extermination camps. As the camera rises above the platform, we can see the scores of well-to-do homes in the vicinity, proving it would have been impossible for neighbors not to be aware of the scenes taking place within earshot.
“I’m ashamed as a German but not as an individual,” one woman says, which resembles the argument by a former secretary at a U-boat shipyard who remarks that it still amazes her that people could be so inhuman — but of course, she adds, there was nothing she could have done. That’s the crux of “Final Account”: Those refusing to take ownership of the horrors perpetrated by their government become complicit in the crimes. As one man admits, every business in the vicinity of a concentration camp benefited from its presence, yet almost no one was willing to remove themselves from the equation.
The documentary suffers somewhat from repetition, and the explanatory titles are very Holocaust 101. Holland’s most important achievement is the hundreds of hours of footage he shot, now archived, which will be useful to historian-ethicists grappling with the questions raised; distilling it all into “Final Account” makes sense as a sort of primer, but its ambitions are too high. On the one hand, it treats viewers like newcomers to the Shoah, and yet at the same time expects them to engage in complex questions of responsibility and guilt. The maddening music, especially at the start with far too much xylophone and triangle, aims to avoid pomposity but instead ends up trivializing the images.