Their responses to questions about what they knew, saw or did during the Holocaust range from “Nichts gewusst” (“I had no idea”) to tacit or, in a few cases, explicit, if grudging, admission of complicity. If anyone who lived through those dark times claims not to have known what was going on, says one subject, “they’re lying.”
The bodyguard, a former member of Hitler’s elite Leibstandarte, denies nothing and says he regrets nothing — except, of course the deaths of millions. Hitler had the right idea, he explains, but the Final Solution went too far. German Jews should have been persuaded to leave the country peacefully, relocating to somewhere they could rule themselves.
Such willful blindness is astonishing, and the opposite of illuminating.
“Final Account” aims to provide insight into the psychological mechanism that would allow otherwise good people to stand idly by (or actively participate in) the perpetration of mass murder. As such, it’s only partly effective, and frustrating.
Fear is certainly one powerful motivator, cited by several subjects. One woman speaks of the whispered rumor that anyone who dared to speak up would have ended up in a camp herself. A former soldier justifies the oft-cited explanation, “I was only following orders” by saying he surely would have been shot if he had refused to assist in extermination.
Even some Jews participated, it is noted, as a form of self-preservation. One former resident of a village near a work camp recalls that her dentist — and other doctors treating her neighbors — were camp detainees. They were all quite pleasant, she notes, with a cheerful tone that lends a touch of grotesque surreality to a film that is already something of an exercise in moral and ethical head-scratching.
Extreme youth is another frequent excuse: Many of the film’s subjects were quite young during Hitler’s rise to power. “When you’re caught up in it, you keep your mouth shut, at 16,” explains one. “I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.”
There may be something to that, Holland’s film suggests. Hans Werk — a veteran of the Waffen S.S. — was only 8 years old at the 1935 introduction of the Nuremberg race laws. As a child, he says, he was more susceptible to the influence of his pro-Nazi teacher than that of his father. More than anyone else in the film, Werk manifests a deep and seemingly sincere sense of remorse about his wartime actions. That leads him, late in the film, to address a group of nationalist, anti-immigrant German teens, who mostly sit in stony silence as he tells them, “Don’t let yourself be blinded.” (Ironically, the meeting takes place in the Wannsee villa where Hitler’s plan for the Final Solution was hammered out.)
This frightening confrontation between a country’s dark past and its uneasy future hints that, despite “Final Account’s” conclusive-sounding title, this is a story that’s not quite over yet.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements and disturbing images. 94 minutes.