Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, 94-year-old Oskar Gröning was charged with the murder of 300,000 Jews. The defendant’s age and his role in overseeing the confiscation of the victims’ possessions on arrival at the camp sparked a worldwide debate on his culpability and fitness to stand trial. This powerful documentary explores complex legal and moral questions, questions that affect not only our remembrance of the Holocaust but also the promise it will never happen again.
The Accountant of Auschwitz opens with a rather upbeat recollection of life at Auschwitz as seen through the eyes of a functionary, before transferring the perspective to Bill Glied and Hedy Bohm, both Auschwitz survivors as they participate in Thomas Walther’s quest to bring Gröning to justice and “set a precedent for the future.”
This is the start of a powerful documentary that takes us from the horror of the Holocaust to the new alt-right mentality and casts a vital prism on the lengths that people will go to for what they believe is right.
On an international scale, we get a sense of the difficulty of pursuing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and the emotional toll it takes on those involved. Survivors voices are heard and they still speak in such vivid terms of their experience of the concentration camps. Elsewhere, academics, legal specialists and investigators also discuss the logistics of pursuing the likes of Gröning and give us a feel for the sheer scale and complexity of this form of justice.
Balancing the argument as to whether Gröning should be on trial is at the heart of The Accountant of Auschwitz. With no statute of limitation on crimes against humanity, time wasn’t a factor, but Gröning hadn’t killed anyone, he had taken their money and possessions. The case of John Demjanjuk, however, allowed Gröning to be tried as an accessory to mass murder, despite the discovery that Demjanjuk wasn’t the Ivan the Terrible that the witnesses had known at the time. Demjanjuk wasn’t innocent, he just wasn’t who the survivors thought he was.
Whilst Demjanjuk may not have executed prisoners, his involvement in the process was enough to convict him, despite the purported theatrics of an old man trying to avoid judgement. It was this that laid the groundwork that would later see Gröning in the spotlight. That, and a 2005 BBC interview in which Gröning admits his actions at Auschwitz whilst denying that being “part of a large group of people” who were involved in what went on is enough to make someone a criminal.
The people of Lüneburg, where Gröning resided at the time of the trial, are a crucible of opinion as they explore the spectrum of public opinion. The question of whether a 93-year-old man should be convicted of seventy-year-old crimes is a common theme of this documentary. Some residents of Lüneburg claim he was just a proverbial cog in the wheel, following instructions of his superior without consideration of whether it was the right or wrong thing to do. Others just want the past to be accepted and to move on and emotions do occasionally run high.
Going back as far as the Nuremberg trials, where only 22 Nazis were put on trial as that’s all the dock in the court could hold, we see the astounding efforts that were made to establish international criminal law as a concept and the groundwork that was laid to track down the perpetrators of one of the worst atrocities of humanity.
There’s footage in here that will shock, not just footage of bodies and those being held at the concentration camps but of those released early from their soft-touch sentences during the Nuremberg trials and the conflicted emotions with which the trials were received in Germany, a country trying to rebuild with the history of World War II fresh in its mind. Statistics are well used, highlighting how futile the prosecution seemed, with hundreds of thousands of perpetrators being reduced to just over 100 convicted.
Reflecting on Gröning’s trail, survivors and experts discuss Gröning’s attitude and seeming lack of remorse, speaking about terrible things as if they were commonplace. The actions of one woman, Eva Moses Kohr spark further debate as she questions the actions of the Nazi, but embraces him on the principle of “the best way to defeat an enemy is to make him your friend.” Gröning’s purpose, and what brought him to the attention of the legal world, was to challenge Holocaust deniers, and it was certainly something that he managed to do, possibly not in the way he would have wanted. He was, however, it appears, ready to face his past.
Benjamin Ferencz, the chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg trial, reflects on the difficulty of doing justice to the victims whilst hoping to create a statement of principle for the future and that’s what The Accountant of Auschwitz is about – establishing an understanding that humanity can follow to prevent such atrocities being seen as acceptable in future generations.
“We were convinced… that we had been betrayed by the entire world,” we hear as a justification for the actions of The Holocaust and it’s easy to see how modern day extremism operates through this prism. “Nobody listened to the perpetrators,” says the grandson of Rudolph Höss, who served as commandant of Auschwitz, lamenting that often the voice of the victim is louder. The documentary closes with a look at some of the atrocities and anti-semitic protests that have taken place recently as a reminder that it’s easier to say “never again” than to stop the horrific acts that are borne of hatred.
The Accountant of Auschwitz strikes an exemplary balance between documenting events and finding the emotion in the facts. It’s not sentimental or accusatory, it’s a superbly constructed insight into an unspeakable atrocity and how, decades later, voices must be heard.
Dir: Matthew Shoychet
Scr: Ricki Gurwitz
Cast: Bill Glied, Hedy Bohm, Eva Kohr, Max Eisen, Thomas Walther, Efraim Zuroff, Alan Dershowitz, Ben Ferencz, Peter Singer, Eli Rosenbaum, Kirsten Goetze, Lawrence Douglas, Rebecca Wittmann
Prd: Randi Kirshenbaum, Ricki Gurwitz, Ric Esther Bienstock
DOP: Luke McCutcheon
Runtime: 78 mins
Signature Entertainment presents The Accountant of Auschwitz on DVD & Digital from Monday 15th April, 2019