The story of John Demjanjuk, the Cleveland man who was put on trial in the late 1980s and charged with being the notorious concentration camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible, is one of layered complications.
It’s a head-scratcher that interrogates generational trauma and the steps necessary for closure, the maintaining of nightmarish memories stretched across decades, the intersection of moral and legal justice, the legal systems in multiple countries and which pieces of the truth we need to protect and prioritize. It raises an astonishing number of questions, very few with settled and settling answers.
I’m not sure there’s a version of the Demjanjuk saga that could cover it all completely even in five hours and Netflix’s The Devil Next Door is, at best, only able to answer some of the questions it poses and only able to tackle the complications adequately. Boasting a solid cast of principals from Demjanjuk’s original trial, Yossi Bloch and Daniel Sivan’s newly available documentary series is strongest on that facet of the story, before struggling and stumbling to make any big-picture arguments.
For those who don’t recall: In 1986, Demjanjuk was arrested and deported to Israel to face trial for war crimes. In his primarily Ukrainian enclave of Cleveland, Demjanjuk was known as a family man and dedicated Ford employee. He appeared to be an ordinary Rust Belt senior citizen and embodiment of the American immigrant dream.
According to recovered Soviet documents and witness statements, however, Demjanjuk was actually a particularly brutal and sadistic piece of the extermination machine at the Treblinka camp. In Israel, a country still grappling with its treatment of Holocaust survivors, this was the biggest trial of its kind since Adolf Eichmann was brought to justice in 1962. It reopened national wounds and became a multiyear saga of conflicting evidence, Cold War paranoia, emotional testimony and the kind of twists and turns you’d expect from perhaps a Leon Uris novel.
Shows of this sort can often, for a variety of reasons, have access only to a one-sided perspective, but Bloch and Sivan do about as well as one possibly could to assemble the key players from an incident that began over 30 years ago. Flamboyant Israeli defense attorney Yoram Sheftel, who became something of a national pariah (and later a best-selling author) for representing Demjanjuk, is the documentary’s most candid talking head and increasingly its central figure. Several members of Demjanjuk’s extended family and his American attorney Mark J. O’Connor are featured. On the other side, prosecutors Michael Shaked and Eli Gabay offer insight, as do two of the three judges who heard the case.
The trial was nationally televised, and so Devil Next Door can rely heavily on courtroom footage, which is especially necessary here since Treblinka was already a camp of such horrifying efficiency it left precious few survivors and it was already crucial to Demjanjuk’s case at the time that it might be the last opportunity to seek justice for the few remaining witnesses.
The filmmakers’ approach does not seem to have been one of independent investigation, so this is not an opportunity to dredge up new information or evidence, much less to gain fresh knowledge on the problematic evidence and testimony presented at the time. That keeps Devil Next Door from having the urgency of The Staircase or the first season of Making a Murderer. Sticking with Netflix true-crime limited series, this may have more in common with Evil Genius, but without that show’s meta commentary on authorship and obsession, finally its most intriguing element.
Here, the main interview subjects have some introspection on what they went through, but they haven’t been saving secrets or dramatically altered viewpoints. The trial was full of shocking and unbelievable moments and I think the presentation here may play even more astonishingly now to viewers who don’t remember any of these events from when they were unfolding. A lot of the mistakes and inconsistencies are more glaring at this distance. I just wish that when the directors let defense figures, especially Sheftel, make allegations of conspiracies and gross legal miscarriages, that there was any ability to use the intervening decades to get additional clarification.
The directors do so well to populate the Israeli trial portion of the story, but aren’t nearly as successful following the case past that. There are subsequent globe-trotting chapters that are barely afterthoughts. Then the series closes with almost a 30-minute postscript that introduces utterly provocative ideas — like the willingness of the U.S. government to allow former Nazis and Nazi-adjacent figures into the country post-World War II because they were also anti-Communist — and brings them to the current moment without the time or experts to honor those ideas.
Even beyond the “Was Demjanjuk really Ivan the Terrible?” question, which has a borderline simple-ish answer, there are so many quandaries associated with Demjanjuk that the series isn’t able to answer or decides to treat as intentionally fuzzy and surrender on completely. I can imagine many viewers deciding the simple question is the most important question and completely missing the farther-reaching implications and moral uncertainties, much less how they touch on our lives today. In this light, I’m not sure the title was all that well or appropriately chosen either, since the Cleveland portion of the story that it points to is thin and underrepresented, when it could have been substantive.
The Devil Next Door shares producers with Wild Wild County, and like that series — but without any interview subject as revealing or shocking as Ma Anand Sheela — it’s a look back on an ’80s moment that experienced a wave of sensationalism and exposure at the time. It may play better if you know or remember very little and are content to head to the Internet after watching to try to research the dark corners barely illuminated here. It’s a watchable and fast-moving show that could introduce some viewers to something important. I wish it were able to dig deeper.
Premieres: Monday (Netflix)