Friday, November 11, 2011

A Nazi Story That Still Surprises

A Nazi Story That Still Surprises
Wall Street Journal

With every passing year, every new model of portentous drivel about the Nazi era rolled out by the film industry—"The Reader," about the travails of a concentration camp guard, comes to mind—the more indispensable the facts of history become. The clearer it is, too, how flimsy these film fantasies are as vehicles for drama, compared with that history. The latest reminder of this truth comes with a PBS documentary extraordinary in its detail and revelatory power. It's title, "Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals," may be informative, but it's far from adequate for a work that yields so many surprises, the greatest of which is its freshness. Moving in unexpected directions at every turn, Jonathan Silvers's film averts the burden of predictability—no small accomplishment for work on so familiar a theme.

The Nuremberg trials and their drama are familiar enough to the world, but not the face and the work of the 27-year-old American Army lawyer and investigator Benjamin Ferencz, charged with the task of collecting evidence for the Nuremberg prosecutions. The terrors of entering the just-liberated camps with their hellish scenes—the film provides striking footage, more extensive than the usual documentary clips, of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower doing just that, with Gen. Omar Bradley just behind him—caused him, he tells the filmmakers, to create a self-defense mechanism. The whole scene wasn't real, he told himself—it was "just a case," one of many to get through, in camp after camp. He would become chief prosecutor of a special German unit, the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units operating on the Eastern front. He found the report of their daily accomplishments, which Germans meticulously recorded—a typical page of which is shown on screen, detailing how many Jewish children were killed, how many men and women had been murdered on a particular date. He counted. "When I got to over a million I stopped counting."
Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals

Tuesday, Nov. 15, 9-11 p.m. EST on PBS, whose dates and times vary; check local listings.

The Contenders

Fridays, 8-9:30 p.m. EST on C-Span

The film offers barely a touch of atrocity footage. Its subject is justice, or as the principals in the first part of the film, the liberated survivors of the camps thought of it, revenge—this documentary's only strained, largely forgettable moments. Far more dramatic testimony—and a startling vision of justice—comes in an interview with the middle-aged son of Hans Frank, governor of occupied Poland, one of the Germans hanged for crimes against humanity. "My father was a murderer," Nicholas Frank declares, "one who sanctioned the acts of all the other criminals who got away." One memory from his childhood stands out—the time a drunken American soldier showed up at the Frank house and lined the family up outside, threatening to shoot them all. His younger brothers and sisters cried piteously, he recalls, "but I had the feeling the soldier was correct—I belonged to a criminal family."

Enlarge Image
Harry Dreifuss/PBS

Nazi war criminal Kurt Lishka in Germany in 1971.

Scene after scene brings the struggle for justice to life, in obscure cases as in the ones best known to history. A middle-aged journalist in Cologne, Germany, has discovered by chance, long years after the war, the name and location of the SS officer who had beaten his grandfather to death upon his arrival in Theresienstadt, a transit camp for Czech Jews and others destined for Auschwitz. The journalist had come upon a 1988 news article about a former member of the SS deported from Italy. He recounts his stubborn effort to get a German court to take action—a story this sophisticated professional tells with ease and eloquence, none of which can conceal the rage that had driven him. His grandfather had been murdered, the killer was in Germany, a democratic state now, and the appropriate prosecutor refused to take action—this could not be the end of the story. It was not.

Candice Bergen, the documentary's excellent narrator, doesn't come to the subject of this film as a stranger. She is the widow of Louis Malle, whose haunting "Au Revoir Les Enfants" (1987) was based on Malle's memory of the French Catholic boys' school he attended during the war. The school had sheltered Jewish students who were ultimately betrayed and dragged off to Auschwitz, where they were gassed upon arrival. The headmaster, Lucien Bunel—Père Jacques de Jésus—was arrested and sent to Mauthausen, one of the deadliest camps in the Nazi system. The Malle film's title quotes his last words to the assembled students as he is taken away.

The film Ms. Bergen narrates covers remarkably extensive territory—including a riveting commentary provided by Willam Gowan, a former U.S. Army counter-intelligence agent, on the so-called Rat Line through which Nazi war criminals of high and low rank escaped punishment by fleeing to Argentina, with help from sympathetic Vatican priests. Characteristically, the film enlarges on a familiar fact, taking it to a deeper level. The arrival of this considerable population of war criminals, an Argentinian journalist attests, had its poisonous effect on the nation as a whole. Most of them, he points out, were experts in exactly the kind of merciless repression and terrorization that the dictatorship in Argentina found useful.

Section after section of the narrative is made rich in the same way—by taking the familiar in this history to newer and deeper levels. This is true no less of the final part on the complicated efforts to deport war criminals living in America. Altogether a rare achievement and a spellbinding one.

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