The Accountant of Auschwitz
(Canada, 80 minutes)
Dir: Matthew Shoychet
Programme: The Good Fight.(World Premiere)
Recent studies show that the Nazi slaughter of millions of men, women, children, and even infants is fading from memory, particularly among millennials. Some believe that two million, not six million, Jews were murdered. Many have never heard of Auschwitz, let alone less known death camps. The people surveyed are not Holocaust deniers; it’s just that their awareness is sketchy at best.
World premiering at Hot Docs, The Accountant of Auschwitz carries weight not only because it helps to keep memory alive in a world where genocide has not been eliminated. Matthew Shoychet’s documentary is a nuanced film that sheds new light on the story of one of the greatest catastrophes in history.
The movie’s core subject is the 2015 trial of Oskar Gröning, who transitioned from Auschwitz staff to living out a quiet, respectable life in his hometown. When he was arrested in his nineties and put on trial as a willing death camp employee, controversy abounded. Especially because Gröning didn’t personally shoot or gas anybody, some Germans argued that it didn’t make sense to try the frail old man.
A Princeton professor argues he was a different person when he was in charge of organizing the possessions, bracelets and rings, watches and heirlooms, of Jews when they arrived in the camps. He was an “accountant,” not a killer, although he did stand out there on the platforms when the victims arrived, terrified by the snarling dogs and the orders barked at them by guards. As Gröning testified in court, he witnessed atrocities like a disturbingly wailing baby slammed to death. “The crying stopped,” he pointed out matter-of-factly.
On the other hand, the old man never soft-pedalled the horrors he witnessed, nor denied that he worked in a camp. Apparently disgusted by Holocaust deniers, several of whom protested outside the court, he hits them between the eyes with the reality he witnessed.
This thoughtful, eloquently assembled film raises the issue of forgiveness without advocating for or against it. One of the camp survivors who tell their nightmarish stories in the movie embraces Gröning in the courtroom, offering forgiveness as he caresses her face.
Long ago, a British friend told me that actor Richard Burton had a no-holds-barred attitude toward Germany after the war. When he saw a VW parked in the road, he would kick in the doors; he thought that the Fatherland should be decimated. Too bad he didn’t live to play in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which like Django Unchained, doesn’t exactly see forgiveness as a response to the perpetrators of unimaginable crimes and the people who allow them to be committed.
Chief prosecutor at Nuremberg Benjamin Ferencz, a recurrent figure in the film, does not pity Gröning. As a young man, he knew what he was doing when he made his choices. No matter the ages of unpunished Nazis, they must face justice for what they did, Ferencz argues. Moreover trying them is not just about them, it’s a “statement for humanity,” a warning that sooner or later, future mass murderers will be rounded up and tried for their crimes.
Gröning didn’t actually kill anybody? Neither did Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz (we meet his grandson Rainer, now an anti-fascist activist). And Hitler didn’t kill anybody either, says lawyer Also Dershowitz (weirdly now Donald Trump’s defender).
In the film, Dershowitz points out that if Germany had seriously prosecuted the guilty after the war, rather than avoiding and deflecting, they never would have bothered with functionaries like Gröning. In 1945, there were 800,000 SS and only 60,000 charged with murder. Incredibly, prosecutors managed only 124 convictions. Acquittals, short sentences, and early releases were the norm.
Following the arrest and conviction of camp guard John Demjanjuk, who had been living happily in an American suburb, prosecution rules changed. Authorities began pursuing the guilty, no matter their age, and whether or not they got their hands bloody. The job description is criminal, and that allows Germany to attempt compensation for its wilful negligence.
Like all films about a history that becomes more incomprehensible as time goes by, The Accountant of Auschwitz, despite its calm measured tone, infuriates. People like Gröning had a choice. There is no record of an SS person being punished for saying no to an Auschwitz assignment.
The Accountant of Auschwitz screens:
-Sun, Apr. 29 at 5:45 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Mon, Apr. 30 at 3:45 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Fri, May 4 at 9:00 PM at Scotiabank
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.