‘Final Account’ Hauntingly Lets the Last Generation of Nazi Germany Give Lasting, Unnerving Testimonials
The power of a good, sober documentary is that it encapsulates for all time real moments and people. “Final Account” is a chronicle of the last remaining generation of Germans who can still remember, some with unnerving vividness, their experiences of having lived through the Third Reich and World War II. Some of those interviewed were not mere civilians, but concentration camp guards or SS soldiers. Their way of speaking and remembering almost elevates the documentary beyond the many that have already been made on Nazi Germany and its horrific crimes. By the end fierce questions are raised with a universal import about one’s role amid dark times, and when being a bystander can still mean complicity.
This documentary is also the final work by British director Luke Holland, who died in 2020 as the project neared completion. Holland began working on the documentary in 2008, venturing into German towns to seek out those who could still share what they remembered. What Holland finds are individuals who look like any classic idea of a grandfather or grandmother. They are frail, elderly and yet clearly remember living through a terrible, momentous time. Some of the interviews are very nonchalant and straight forward, like Otto Duscheleit, who remembers his older brother joining the Nazis in the ‘30s and showing off spiked knuckles used for attacking Communists. Marianne Chantelau looks back somewhat fondly at the early days of Nazi girls’ camps, which gave adolescents a chance to leave the house for recreational activities, while being indoctrinated in fascist dogma. More haunted is someone like Hans Werk, who remembers joining the Waffen-SS as a prideful youth, but now acknowledges shame at having been a part of the system that carried out the Holocaust.
As time moves on and events like World War II recede further and further back into the distance, a documentary like “Final Account” first serves the practical purpose of documenting essential material. To read about the death camps and atrocities can still provoke a sense of disbelief. But here are actual participants and witnesses. Comparisons will probably be made to Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 “Shoah,” the compelling 566-minute documentary also primarily structured around talking to survivors, both Jewish and German, about what they saw. Holland’s shorter work is nonetheless striking in its own way, because it shows how certain memories and even attitudes refuse to fade away even when you’re going past 90. One interview subject proudly shows off his SS medals and refuses to accept any responsibility for the genocide that ensued. He goes so far as to insist Adolf Hitler is still worthy of praise, because “the idea was right.” But compare this to Werk, who now speaks to student groups in Germany to educate them on the crimes of the Nazi era and the lingering sense of guilt he carries. In a rather extraordinary moment, a right-wing student calls out Werk for “going soft on camera” before the aged man pleads for them all to listen. Giving the moment a truly piercing aura is that the meeting is held at the Wannsee villa, where Nazi officials meticulously planned The Final Solution. Karl Hollander, another interviewee who was in the SS, has a near blank look when he remembers Kristallnacht and feeling nothing while watching a synagogue burn. We get the same reaction from a veteran who recalls the carnage imposed on the Soviet Union during the Nazi invasion, and admitting certain atrocities were not recorded so there would never be evidence it happened.
The more disturbing and challenging aspect of “Final Account” has to do with the interview subjects attempting to acknowledge what happened while creating some distance, using the old “nobody knew” argument. At a nursing home a group of men and women in Berlin veer from claiming no one knew about the death camps to explicitly remembering Jews being herded to the nearby Grunewald S-Bahn train station for the death trip to the camps. In another moment an interviewee can still sense the smell that would travel the air from the Auschwitz crematorium. Mostly civilians, these subjects can always say, and they do indeed, that one had to maintain reserve or silence over what was known lest the Gestapo knock on your door. But what about those who were members of army units or government departments? Here Holland comes close to capturing what Hannah Arendt meant when she coined the term “the banality of evil.” A record keeper admits she saw the horrors of how prisoners were treated, but she had a simple, easy job to do. A jolly-looking man remembers being a prison guard and peeking through a window as camp prisoners were hung, and admits if a commander had ordered him to partake he would have. It goes to the more controversial aspect of Arendt’s thesis, in that these are participants to the Holocaust, but the process repeats itself in any power structure where people claim they were just following orders. We are still shocked by the scale of what the Holocaust was, but inhumanity has a way of infecting any society, anywhere.
Holland keeps the style of “Final Account” direct and simple. There are a few quotes by Primo Levi and others used for fade-ins, and panning shots of death camps and picturesque German towns. Concentration camp footage is juxtaposed with surviving footage of Nazi youth clubs or German soldiers on the prowl. But even without all of that the interview footage would be absorbing on its own. These individuals can remember back to these events that so shocked and changed the world. How they react and choose to remember has a wider implication for any viewer. Preserving this history is vital, but it should also make us wonder how we will remember the darker chapters of our time. When they ask how a certain president was elected or a certain war tolerated, how will we respond? “Final Account” is about the past, but in its deeper themes it is fit for any century.
“Final Account” releases May 21 in select theaters.