Cine File: The Bystanders
Dec 17, 2021 | Linda Marric
Director: Luke Holland
94 mins; available to view on Amazon Prime for A$6.99
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
These words from Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi ring truer than ever as they act as an opener to Luke Holland’s harrowing Shoah documentary Final Account. In it, the British filmmaker, who has subsequently died, travelled to Germany in the hope of understanding the collective psyche that resulted in the murder of millions.
In 2008, Holland began interviewing the last living generation of Germans who had lived and even participated in Hitler’s barbaric persecution of Jews. These weren’t the infamous names we all grew up knowing, but everyday men and women who stood by and watched it all happen. These were also the young men and women who became members of Hitler Youth, Wehrmacht fighters and concentration camp guards who enabled the slaughter of innocent lives. A decade and 250 interviews later, Holland created a damning document of denial and collective amnesia.
He mixes in-depth witness statements and previously unseen archival material that goes some way into explaining the shift in moral norms that allowed for the unimaginable to happen. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of his film is the nonchalance with which some of his subjects recount those events.
Quite beside the willingness to hop on Hitler’s destructive bandwagon out of nationalist pride, one must also remember that these people watched their neighbours, former school friends, family doctors and local shop owners rounded up and sent to their death without so much as lifting a finger to help. What’s even more shocking is while some come across as genuinely remorseful and ashamed of that chapter of German history, others still refuse to accept accountability, and in some cases go as far as to make excuses for Hitler’s actions.
As we observe interviewee after interviewee swear blind that they either didn’t know or were just following orders, it falls upon characters such as Heinrich Schulze to truly demonstrate how casual it all felt. Returning to an old family farmhouse near Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the old man tells a story about finding starving Jewish camp escapees hiding in the outhouses and calling the guards on them. Elsewhere a visibly frail Karl Hollander admits to still honouring Hitler’s memory and point-blank refuses to blame him for what happened.
This is a troubling and arresting account of the dangers of conformity within societal norms. There are some clear parallels being drawn here with the current wave of nationalist fervour flourishing all around the world. This is further cemented by Hans Wierk, one of Holland’s more remorseful interviewees, as he addresses a group of students, who seem to hold worryingly right-wing views. “I ask only this of you,” he tells them. “Do not let yourself be blinded.”