Berlin: Auschwitz Survivor and Oscar Winner Branko Lustig Talks Forgiveness

Universal Pictures
"Schindler's List"

The Croatian who worked on "Schindler's List" and "Gladiator tells the festival audience a latest war crimes probe at an event for a work-in-progress documentary about the liberation of concentration camps.

BERLIN – Oscar winning producer and production manager Branko Lustig (Schindler's List, Gladiator), who as a boy survived three years in two Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, has said that forgiveness is ultimately the only option for anyone who has experienced such unimaginable cruelty.

He spoke Tuesday night to a largely German audience in Berlin at the premiere of Night Will Fall, a new work-in-progress documentary about the circumstances surrounding the films shot by Allied troops when they liberated Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Madjanek and other concentration camps at the end of WWII. Lustig, 81, said "you cannot live your life hating."

Lustig, who won an Oscar in 1994 for Schindler's List, about the German industrialist who saved Jewish workers from the death camps, said of Night Will Fall: "I like this movie very much; this kind of movie must be shown every 25 years, to every new generation."

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He then revealed that just last week police had called him at his home in Zagreb, Croatia to ask him to be a witness in a case against a former SS camp guard from Auschwitz found living in Lustig's birthplace of Osijek, in the east of the country.

A war crimes investigation has been opened against Jakob Frank Denzinger, 90, reported to have been a member of Hitler's Waffen SS and served as an officer in several death camps, including the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a million Jews were killed between 1940 and 1945.

Denzinger, who lived in the U.S. until 1989 when he was reportedly stripped of his citizenship due to his Nazi past, is on a list of around 60 people compiled by special German prosecutors in charge of investigating Nazi war crimes, Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List reported.

"Jakob Denzinger is the same age as me," Lustig said, adding that the ethnic German born outside of Germany was alleged to have been a guard at Auschwitz and as a boy a member of the Hitler Youth.

"I have a [concentration camp tattooed] number and he also has a tattoo, only his tattoo is an SS one," Lustig said. "He was in the camps, and after the liberation somehow escaped, and now they want me against him."

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Lustig went on to explain to the hushed auditorium that after he was freed at the end of the war, he had decided that forgiveness was the only course.

"When I came out of the camps 70 years ago, I decided not to hate people for what they did," he said. "How can I live 70 years and every evening when I am going to bed think about and hate somebody?"

Lustig said he had many German friends -- he had helped Volker Schlondorff make his 1979 adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel of the Nazi era, The Tim Drum -- and considered the German director "one of my best friends."

"How can I hate Germans because they are only Germans," Lustig said. "I should never forget what's happened and I should never allow this to happen again while I am alive.,, but how can I hate these people?"

Lustig appears in Night Will Fall as one of several key eye-witnesses of the liberation of the camps tracked down by British producer Sally Angel and director Andre Singer -- also a producer on Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, in which former Indonesia death squad killers dramatically re-enact their murderous actions.

The film, produced by London's Angel TV, Spring Films and RatPac Films, in association with London's Imperial War Museum, tells the wider story behind the making of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, a 70 minute documentary produced by the British government in 1945 from footage shot by British, American and Soviet troops as camps were liberated at the end of the war. A restored copy of the film, now completed with the addition of a long-missing sixth reel, screened in the Berlinale's Forum section.

The film, produced by Sidney Bernstein for Britain's wartime Ministry of Information, with help from Alfred Hitchcock and top British foreign office German expert Richard Crossman, was never completed after post-war political priorities shifted as the Cold War began to descend over war-torn Europe. German civilians were needed to help rebuild their country and by September 1945 a film intended to confront them with their collective guilt for the crimes of the Nazi regime had missed its moment.

That some Germans still need to be confronted with the dreadful facts of the Holocaust was evident in Berlin Tuesday evening.

Bernstein's son David, who was in the audience with his two sisters, revealed that after the screening of Night Will Fall, due for international TV screenings on Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2015, a German-speaking man approached him and spat out one word: "verlogen." The word means "dishonest," "untruthful" or "fraudulent."

Bernstein added: "There is a need to show these painful pictures. I am humbled that a German audience sees this pictures first; I am humbled that as an Englishman I am here in your country, seeing this painful reminder."