The atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis before and during World War II are well-documented, but what has rarely been put on film are interviews with those who witnessed or perpetrated the crimes. The most famous example is the 1985 film Shoah, a more than nine-hour documentary by Claude Lanzmann that told the story of the Holocaust directly from the mouths of survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators.
The new documentary Final Account treads similar ground, albeit in a much more compact form. Starting in 2008, director Luke Holland, whose grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, devoted himself to tracking down and interviewing former Nazis or those associated with sites where killings took place. Each of the people interviewed was in their 80s or 90s at that point, so it would seem that Holland was giving them one last chance to repent for their sins, as the title indicates.
What’s striking about the interviewees is not only that none of them seem reticent to talk about their memories, but also how few of them show any guilt or remorse about their participation. There is much talk about pressure to join the Nazi party or go along with what everyone else was doing, but very little reflection on how “going along” made them complicit in the murders. Some of them denounce the slaughter, but the lack of force behind their condemnations makes their words seem a little empty.
To be fair, not all of those interviewed were “active” Nazis; some took menial jobs in places that ended up being horrific. They also speak about how the Nazis recruited children to bolster their ranks, with boys and girls as young as age 10 put into groups. The groups would then make gatherings a lot of fun for the kids, including songs joking about killing Jews, making the indoctrination of the children even easier.
Like Shoah, the film has modern-day shots of former concentration camps and other Nazi locations to give context to the stories and to show how they continue to haunt the countries where they’re located to this day. Some interviews are also accompanied by period video and photos, and despite ample footage in other films and TV shows over the years, the sight of the swastika being paraded about and people performing the Nazi salute still has the power to shock.
What Holland, who unfortunately died of cancer in 2020 before the film could be released, succeeded in the most with the film is showing how humans can trick themselves into believing almost anything, including that they weren’t intimately involved in one of the worst eras in history. Members of the military make spurious distinctions between frontline soldiers and those in charge of the concentration camps, while witnesses say they didn’t know what exactly was going on when their recounting of their memories often says otherwise.
It’s unclear what those interviewed for Final Account may have thought their participation would yield, but many of them wind up being victims of their own words. The film itself demonstrates the never-ending need for people to stand up to evil in all its forms.
Final Account is now showing in theaters.