'Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz': Film Review | TIFF 2018

A bare-bones look at a man with powerful stories to tell.

Barry Avrich's doc profiles the man who prosecuted mass murderers at Nuremberg and never stopped arguing for international rule of law.

A story in which the right historical cause found the right man to stand for it, Barry Avrich's Prosecuting Evil celebrates 98-year-old Ben Ferencz, a diminutive Jew who at the age of 27 put mass-murdering Nazis on trial at Nuremberg. Though humble in terms of production, the straightforward doc contains enough dramatic anecdotes (and, we're required to add, sufficient relevance to current events) that it merits screening outside educational settings.

Born in Transylvania, Ferencz was brought to New York by parents who soon divorced. Teachers pegged him as a gifted student, and after attending City College, he got a scholarship to Harvard Law, where he worked for a professor studying the then-obscure field of war crimes.

That experience led to Ferencz being on U.S. Army teams sent to gather evidence from concentration camps near the end of WWII. Avrich shows us familiar photos and film clips of the horrors those camps held, but Ferencz's vivid memories of what he saw make these unnecessary: "I was ice cold.... I did my job," he says, then goes on to prove he remembers every haunting detail while prisoners awaited food and medical help.

The movie's format is bare-bones — Ferencz telling stories from an armchair, accompanied by low-quality stock historical footage and an occasional comment by younger government officials or lawyers who look up to him. But the story gets engrossing enough that we don't much miss what Avrich doesn't offer.

Having gone home to New York after the war, Ferencz was summoned to D.C. to meet Telford Taylor, the prosecutor preparing for historic trials at Nuremberg. Ferencz went to work below Taylor, and in the course of research found a treasure chest: journals that not only kept meticulous tallies of killings by the Einsatzgruppen death squads that followed behind front-line soldiers, but listed all the higher officials to whom copies of these tallies were sent — making them powerless to claim ignorance. Ferencz realized he had a new group of mass murderers to put on trial, but, as he remembers it, he was told there was no money for staff to prosecute these men. So he added these cases to his workload and became the prosecutor in one of the 12 trials that followed the initial tribunal. (The film is a little hazy on the details of how these legal proceedings were managed, possibly because a full accounting would require its own doc.)

We see footage of Ferencz during those historic proceedings, and hear recollections that range from wry ("I wasn't nervous at all — I didn't kill anybody") to philosophical: He recalls his impressions of chief defendant Otto Ohlendorf. "Quite a decent chap, you might say," if not for the fact that he killed thousands of innocent people.

The lessons Ferencz took away from these years, that "otherwise decent people" can be made murderous by war, fueled his postwar desire to see all nations submit to a single court where difficulties might be resolved and war criminals be punished. Again, Avrich doesn't offer much detail, but other interviewees suggest that the lawyer's work was influential in the creation of the International Criminal Court, now based in The Hague. The film glancingly details the U.S.' problematic relationship to this body: Bill Clinton signed the treaty authorizing it only at the last minute, and under public pressure (he didn't get it ratified by the Senate); then George W. Bush decreed that America would not join or cooperate with the court.

Pointedly summing up Ferencz's feelings about this, Avrich offers warnings about how seemingly sane nations, like Germany, can go insane under the right conditions. As Ferencz warns about countries "that prefer force to rule of law," the film offers video clips of two totalitarian strongmen, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, with a clip of their admirer Donald Trump sandwiched neatly in between.

Production company: Melbar Entertainment Group
Director-screenwriter: Barry Avrich
Producers: Barry Avrich, Caitlin Cheddie
Executive producers: Patrice Theroux, Martin Katz
Director of photography: Ken Ng
Editor: Tiffany Beaudin
Composer: Michael Perlmutter
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

82 minutes