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‘Final Account’: An Oral History of a Broken, Brainwashed Nation

A collection of interviews with the last generation of Germans who lived through the Third Reich doubles as an urgent reminder to keep history from repeating itself

A scene from the documentary on Nazi Germany, 'Final Account.'

Focus Features

In 2008, filmmaker Luke Holland began hunting Nazis. He was not attempting to capture them, or bring them before a war-crimes tribunal, or put a bullet in their head. Holland merely wanted them to talk. The elderly men and women he sought out in the big cities and small burgs of Germany and Austria were the last living generation to have experienced the Third Reich firsthand. They had been members of the Hitler Youth, served as Waffen S.S. stormtroopers, guarded concentration camps. Others had simply watched as their neighbors were rounded up and shipped away, never to be seen again. They were witnesses, and they were participants.

For close to 10 years, Holland interviewed dozens of these “ordinary” Germans on camera, with the goal of getting them to reflect on their country under a monster’s rule and life during wartime. Some were ashamed. Some had no regrets. Some claimed ignorance regarding the extent of the Reich’s campaign of genocide, or were in deep, decades-longs states of denial about how bad things had been. And some said they had no choice but to go along, because the penalty of not following orders would have been death.

An oral history of a once-broken, brainwashed nation, Final Account is the end result of Holland’s efforts to collect testimonies on the unthinkable before those who were there are gone. It begins with a Primo Levi quote about the dangers of “functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions,” though it’s another, oft-misquoted statement that comes to mind as you observe these old folks describing Hitler’s Germany: John Stuart Mills’ declaration that “bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” To hear these men and women recount a collective madness in terms of personal memories is to remember that those who followed a madman, who printed propaganda, who burned synagogues, and who turned away when others were sent to death camps were not ogres out of fairy tales. They were human beings. And while Final Account is far the first work to state this fact, it is a potent reminder of why the statement needs to continue being made again, and again, and again.

Every one of the geriatric interviewees have their reasons for adopting the National Socialist cause as children and young adults, ranging from Fatherland pride to enjoying the feeling of belonging. You see how the indoctrination started with songs (a nursery rhyme about “sticking a blade into a Jew’s belly” plays over the soundtrack) and group activities; home movies of smiling kids swimming and frollicking outdoors accompany stories of being attracted to the uniforms, the camaraderie, the summer-camp atmosphere of Nazi youth brigades. Recruiters for the S.S. target young, athletic men wishing to test their mettle. One person talks about an alphabet book filled with contemptible Jewish caricatures. Another mentions how traveling troupes would show anti-Semitic movies to small villages, with attendance being mandatory.

What comes next are the almost offhanded details of mass atrocities happening on the periphery of “polite” society. Numerous “Jews not welcome” signs appear in the backgrounds of photographs. A soldier happens to notice a fire off in the distance one night while on patrol, which turns out to be the beginning of Kyrstalnacht. Residents in Bernburg observe buses with blacked-out windows heading towards the town’s sanatorium, and smell sweet-smelling smoke in the air (an intertitle identifies the hospital as one of six “euthanasia centers” that murdered 14,000 people). A man describes Bergen-Belsen prisoners marching by in wooden clogs as “sounding like a threshing machine.” Some mention that businesses were happy because they now had a free labor force — there may not be a more chilling phrase than “the Auschwitz industrial complex.” Rumors of things happening just outside the forests provoke whispers but, tellingly, no protests.

That so many of these stories are recounted with such casual matter-of-factness by Holland’s subjects do not make them any less horrifying — nor does the terrible familiarity of such anecdotes, or the simplicity of Final Account‘s talking-head format. As with all documentaries about the Holocaust (and most documentaries in general, for that matter), this recording of eyewitness accounts resides in the shadow of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic, nine-and-a-half-hour look at how the process of mass murder was enacted and enabled. Like that landmark film, Holland’s movie relies on someone coaxing people to speak of things they’d rather forget, in addition to a coded sense of aesthetic somberness that Shoah had established around the subject: mournful strings, desolate landscape shots, a dread-filled lingering within the ruins of camps and train stations. Yet Lanzmann’s onscreen presence — as an interrogator, instigator, prosecutor and therapist — added a sense of personality and righteousness to his exhaustive, enlightening endeavor. And though he never appears in the frame, Holland’s sense of inquiry drives this documentary as much as the French filmmaker’s slippery, investigative prodding drove his. He wants to know what people were thinking, doing, feeling. He needs to know.

Even if you aren’t aware of Holland’s personal connection (much of his mother’s family were killed in the camps), or know that the 71-year-old filmmaker was battling terminal cancer while rushing to finish his film (he’d pass away in July of 2020, several months before the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival) you can tell that Final Account is fueled by a palpable sense of mission. The “final” emphasizes his last-gasp attempt to get these testimonies on record, and you have to guess that the title’s uncomfortable similarity to “the Final Solution” is not coincidental. The “account,” however, cuts two ways: to archive, and to hold responsible. There’s no evident chronology to these interviews, only the sense that time, the enemy of all biographers, is running out. But the documentary purposefully seems to build to two late-act testimonies in particular. One is with a former soldier who says the Waffen SS was not a criminal organization, despite the fact that the Nuremberg trials clearly established that fact; for him to acknowledge that, however, is impossible, “because then I would dirty myself.” Accountability would collapse the moral house of cards he’d built for himself over a lifetime. He’s not the only subject who seems reluctant to admit this. He’s simply the one who says it out loud.

The second one takes place at the site of the Wannsee Conference, where Nazi officials planned the Final Solution. Hans Werk, who was also a member of the SS, is meeting with a group of young students. He begs them to understand that what happened was a betrayal of Germany’s ideals and a tragedy, and to understand his shame in having been a part of it. One of the young men begins arguing with him: Why are you ashamed to be German? Why do you feel that “standing up for the Fatherland” was wrong? Why doesn’t he worry about “some Albanian stabbing you on public transport” rather than mistrust his fellow countrymen?  It devolves into a screaming match, and you suddenly see why Holland felt such an urgency to capture this older generation’s experiences on film. It isn’t just the preservation of how they perpetrated something so horrific. It’s also a reminder that, at this particular moment in time, we’re on the verge of seeing history repeat itself through attitudes held by folks like that student. And Final Account‘s final thought is: We can never, ever allow that to happen again.

From Rolling Stone US