'Final Account': Film Review | Venice 2020

Final Account Still 1 VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
A sobering round-up of voices from the Third Reich.

British filmmaker Luke Holland’s historic documentary compiles what may well be the last interviews with German WWII veterans about their memories of the concentration camps.

There are no heroes in Final Account, no one to empathize with. What makes it uniquely worth watching is its cast of octogenarians and nonagenarians who were eyewitnesses and in some cases active participants in the horrors of the concentration camps. British documaker Luke Holland has ferreted out ordinary Germans and Austrians whose role in carrying out Hitler’s crimes of genocide is something they now downplay and shrug off with embarrassment or denial.

Twelve years in the making, it is one of the featured films in this year’s Venice Film Festival and after fest and TV exposure, will take its place in Holocaust archives.

Because 75 years after the end of the war, there aren’t that many voices left. The speakers who peer into the camera to say their final piece as witnesses to history are bound to churn up anger, sorrow and a ton of emotion in the viewer as Holland implacably asks us all the question, when do people realize they are implicated in a crime?

Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi commented on the danger of ordinary functionaries in the Nazi machine, and that is just who the film presents: a procession of old Wehrmacht soldiers, SS officers and prison camp guards who were just following the genocidal orders of Adolf Hitler and his deputies. Their positions range from “Hitler wasn’t guilty, his idea was right” to “everybody was guilty.” It’s sobering to see how few — how very few — take responsibility for their personal role in killing their Jewish neighbors, or even express regret at having fought for the Third Reich. And the hardest thing to hear are their justifications, because they make one wonder what one’s own reaction would have been in that situation.

Their childhood indoctrination included ABC primers that taught them to hate and fear Jews. Their entry into Hitler Youth groups at 14 was unavoidable, they explain — a harmless way to be part of a group, to see their friends and act out a war. Their teachers controlled their minds, we hear. Later, as soldiers, officers, guards and functionaries, they were caught up in a killing machine from which there was no escape, no rebellion. Although she isn’t mentioned by name, political theorist Hannah Arendt and her concept of the banality of evil come to mind with every testimony that Holland extracts.

Even former SS officers declare themselves not guilty, while proudly showing off their paramilitary medals to the camera. One man discovered he had a Jewish grandmother, and therefore, by law, his father was Jewish, too. Most disconcerting. Another was a young cadet during the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) in 1938 where he watched a synagogue burned to the ground — he couldn’t understand why the firemen standing by didn’t put out the fire.

Some are still proud of belonging to an elite military corps like the Waffen SS, and one such man exhibits a tattoo under his arm stating his blood group, which was a sign of his value as a fighter. He insists that the SS was not a criminal organization. All Holland’s efforts to make his subjects own up to being implicated in horrendous crimes go unheeded.

Not just soldiers, but ordinary Germans and Austrians like farm workers are made to admit that when Jewish escapees from the camp next door tried to hide on the farm, they were the ones who betrayed them. In a peaceful Austrian retirement home, elderly women recall the smell of the crematorium and burning flesh.

The one storyteller who seems genuinely traumatized by what he witnessed is a medical orderly who watched the massacre of a village, as Hungarian SS men on horseback torched the houses people had taken refuge in and then mowed them down with gunfire as they ran outside.

The film's technical work is exceptional, contributing a paradoxically peaceful feeling to a highly charged subject.  After a decade of shooting interviews, the editing job must have been massive, and Stefan Ronowicz does a superb job picking out key moments and delicately interspersing surreally serene views of the major camps today, sad monuments rising up in the midst of nature.

Reinforcing the gloom are the same six notes of a cello which are too often repeated. But there is interesting new archival material, including some brief color footage shot during the war, which is saved for last.

Production companies: Participant, ZEF Productions, Passion Pictures
Director, screenwriter: Luke Holland
Producers: John Battsek, Luke Holland, Riete Oord
Executive producers: Jeff Skol, Diane Weyermann, Andrew Ruhemann, Claire Aguilar
Associate producer: Sam Pope
Editor: Stefan Ronowicz
World sales: Cinephil (North American sales: Submarine)
Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition)
90 minutes