Today is Memorial Day, the day where Americans honor their fallen military over the course of our history. We’re also living in an era where fascism is once again on the rise, anti-Semitism runs rampant, and certain seats of government throughout the country are working with increased zeal to dismantle the very foundations of representative democracy. In an age where anti-fascism or “Antifa” is spun as a term to attack those who value freedom as somehow being terroristic, it’s only appropriate today of all days to look at a new documentary that shows us the last remnants of the world’s deadliest fascist cataclysm.
Directed by Luke Holland, the grandson of Jews exterminated in concentration camps, Final Account is the culmination of over 300 interviews conducted over the course of a decade throughout Germany and Austria with aging veterans and civilians of Adolf Hitler’s regime. Some were lockstep SS soldiers, others camp guards, still more nurses and conscripted civilians, and of course several former members of the Hitler Youth who were too young to fight in the second World War. With a combination of archival footage and very frank interviews, Holland gives us a wide spectrum of viewpoints for those who survived and those who actively took part in Nazi activities, including some damning reflections about just how history might repeat itself.
The interviews began in 2008, and you can get a relative idea of when each one was conducted, given the picture quality of the cameras being used. Earlier ones are much more grainy and not nearly as defined as the more recent ones. It’s not off-putting, but it would have helped if Holland had provided more of a timeline for his subjects, all of whom are well into their late 70s and 80s at the time of their recordings. I wouldn’t be surprised if every single one of them has passed on between the time they were interviewed and the time the film was released. Holland himself died shortly after completing the picture in June of last year.
Instead of a timeline for the interviewees, Holland forges something of a linear narrative in the circumstances of his subjects, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. Several of the subjects provide anecdotes and photographs of their time as children or teenagers when the tide started to turn, noting how odd it felt that friends and neighbors who happened to be Jewish were suddenly ostracized and scapegoated in public, and how some fled or simply “disappeared” from their towns. Meanwhile, they had to join up with local Nazi Party youth organizations, which eventually became the Hitler Youth once they reached the age of 14. For some, it was to keep up appearances and not raise suspicions. For others, it was considered a family honor, especially for those whose parents served in World War I.
By the time Kristallnacht rolled around in 1938, most of the subjects knew the full scope of what their country had become. What’s more frightening is that some 80 years later, a couple of the people in the film are still proud of that night of terror. Eventually, the story moves further south and east towards Austria and Poland, the sites of the worst of the camps, and stories change from childhood naivete to reconciling their actions or lack thereof with regard to the genocide that eventually unfolded during the war.
I got the impression watching the film that the range of interviews fit in nicely with the classic Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. The first, and most poignant here, is denial. There have been Holocaust deniers since the atrocities took place, and people all around the world (mostly anti-Semites and white supremacists) still actively reject the notion that it took place, despite myriad photographs, collected remains, records kept by the Third Reich, and ongoing discoveries of mass graves.
It’s dangerous to hear modern people talking that way, mostly because they frame it as a Jewish lie that they wish to recreate, in order to “make them honest.” Just as disturbing in the film is seeing how people who lived the moment are still in denial about it. Former guards and nurses at the camps say they had no idea what was going on, with very little pushback. Another woman, a civilian, believes something happened, but that there’s no way six million Jews could have been killed (plus six million more combined from other “undesirable” demographics). A reformed and penitent Nazi speaks to a room full of at-risk youth (all of whom get their faces blurred out to protect their own hatred) and basically has to shout them down and eventually beg them to believe that all this actually happened, that he was there, that he participated. It’s heartbreaking to see 20-something skinheads-to-be basically call a man a liar when he’s painfully recounting his own crimes and trauma to them in hopes that they’ll choose another path.
This is where the anger comes in. Throughout the course of the film, it’s clear that the interview subjects are mostly hesitant to discuss what they did or witnessed. Part of it is because to this day former Nazis are being prosecuted for their roles in the Holocaust, and they don’t want to incriminate themselves. But part of it, at least in some cases, is that they’re at least somewhat proud of their roles. One former SS officer in particular speaks with fondness about the fact that only those determined to be Aryans could become officers, and that he got his commission basically the moment he came of age. When Holland presses him on whether he still buys into the idea that his genes are superior, the veteran gets extremely defensive and very nearly hostile. A man who was forced to join the Hitler Youth notes with anger that he had to hide the fact that he had a Jewish grandfather, and was thus guilty by association according to Nazi law. What’s troubling is that he’s both angry at such an arbitrary rule (his grandfather died before he was even born), and visibly ashamed at his own heritage.
Bargaining is something that I did not expect to see here, but it showed up nonetheless. In a nursing home filled with former nurses and guards, one woman is constantly interrupted by another who tries to rephrase everything her friend is saying to make the actions at the camps seem less horrifying but also give herself plausible deniability through ignorance. She insists that none of them knows for sure what happened because they never directly witnessed people being put in ovens or gas chambers, they merely saw the smoke that rose from the area of the camp when they were used. The same Aryan officer mentioned above gives an absolutely chilling answer when Holland asks him if he believes the Holocaust was wrong. He says it was wrong to kill the Jews. He wouldn’t have wanted that. He just wanted them expelled from Germany and sent to live as a collective in some far-flung part of the world.
The depression stage is fairly obvious as well, as most of the interviewees, to their credit, realize the full weight and gravity of what happened all those decades ago. Most are remorseful for what they did or failed to stop. Some still lose sleep and openly weep on camera from the slightest memory or reference to something horrible they either witnessed or took part in, whether it was voluntary or not.
And then finally, there’s acceptance. This is the hardest one to talk about, because even 70-80 years on, some of them still can’t grasp what happened. Some of them still find ways to insist they had nothing to do with it. Several of those who served in the SS make a point to mention that the SS never oversaw any camp activity, and thus they believe their hands are clean. Still, thankfully, most of those we see not only understand what happened, but are either taking steps to atone or are at least frank and open about it. A small town civilian who lived near the train station at Dachau notes that he never saw anyone die, but he knew that every single person who stepped off that train was never going to get back on. He recounts that he never saw any person twice who wasn’t wearing a uniform. Another talks about an old tutor who was his favorite teacher, until he suddenly disappeared, and it was like he never existed.
We see this exact range of reactions to this day. Holocaust deniers occupy seats in our government. Voting laws are being changed in several states to ensure that people the ruling party deems “undesirable” have as hard a time as possible casting a ballot, if they can even vote at all, and even then they’re trying to empower themselves to overturn the results if they don’t like them. Hell, even today, the former National Security Advisor suggested that a military coup similar to the one that recently took place in Myanmar might be necessary to reinstall the fascist leader we as a nation just ousted.
Germany took a long, hard look at itself after the fall of Hitler, and took aggressive steps to make sure another one couldn’t take his place. And despite all their success, the late Luke Holland, a descendent of Holocaust victims, showed us that while some have turned for the better, others remain loyal to such horrific ideals. The title, Final Account, is at once a direct reference to the fact that those who lived through that time are a quickly dying breed, and an indirect warning that unless we remain vigilant, the title itself will become ironic before too long.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy historical documentaries? What are you doing to prevent another rise of fascism? Let me know!