Venice film festival gears up to award masked Golden Lion winner
Soldiers, accountants, children … Luke Holland persuaded elderly Germans to account for what they did under Nazi rule, and the air of shrugging unrepentance is damning
One of those interviewed in the film, as he was during the second world war. Photograph: Mary Cybulski/77th Venice International Film Festival
Heinrich Schulze is a kindly-looking old man who lived as a child near the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in Lower Saxony, Germany. In the course of Luke Holland’s quietly searing Final Account, Schulze returns to the old family farm to point out the hayloft where a group of escaped prisoners had once taken shelter. The escapees were starving and had begged him for some food. But then the guards came and retrieved them, which was of course very sad. Under further questioning, with a sheepish shrug, Schulze admits that yes, the prisoners were recaptured because he himself called the guards. As to what became of them after that? “Oh,” Herr Schulze scoffs. “Nobody knows that!”
Round them up and bring them out: the bystanders and functionaries, the children who pitched in and the adults who turned a blind eye. Holland, a British documentary-maker, spent the last decade of his life with these straggling survivors of history, those with first-hand experience of the Nazi regime, and the results are damning; the testimonies chill the blood. Monsters, Primo Levi once wrote, are always aberrations. But the small men who watch from the sidelines and occasionally lean in to lend a hand: these are the real danger. They’re even worse than the monsters.
Holland names these functionaries – and therefore it’s important that we do the same. Margarette Schwarz recalls having her teeth filled and straightened by the inmates of Dachau. (“They were nice prisoners,” she says.) Herman Knoth explains that the Waffen-SS were seen as the peak of the nation (“Not just physically. Spiritually, too”). Even today, half-deaf and doddery, Karl Hollander admits that he still honours Hitler and can’t bring himself to blame him. He feels that on balance the Jews should not have been killed. They should have been driven out of the homeland instead.
While few of Holland’s other subjects are as unrepentant as Hollander, their airy defences sound depressingly similar, to the point where one half-suspects witness tampering on an industrial scale. Either they knew nothing about what was really going on or – if they did – they bear no responsibility whatsoever, given the fact that they were frontline soldiers, or humble accountants, or excitable members of the Hitler Youth. A precious few (Hans Wierk, Kurt Sametreiter) call out these lies for what they are, insisting that, yes, everybody knew what the camps were for; you could smell the bodies burning from 2km away. The others, meantime, are keen to explain the ways in which their very presence boosted the local economy. The camps, it was said, helped the butchers, the bakers and the grocers as well. Everyone benefited, except for the people inside.
Holland was diagnosed with cancer while working on this project and he died in June, shortly after its completion. He leaves behind a simple, unadorned study of everyday evil, one which balances eye-witness accounts with archive footage and wintry location shots of mountains, forests and leaf-blown railway tracks. Explicitly, his film shows how a hundred shades of grey combine to make a darkness. Implicitly, it warns that it could well happen again.
Kurt Hollander, it turns out, is not the most purely worrying inhabitant of Final Account. That dubious honour falls to the unnamed, pixelated young student who berates elderly Hans Wierk for being ashamed of his history and says that the old man should be more worried about an Albanian immigrant mugging him than anything his country may or may not have done long ago. Sat at a table, listening to this diatribe, Wierk is distraught and close to tears. He shouts: “I ask only this of you. Do not let yourself be blinded”; the past speaking to the present in a hoarse, failing voice.