British director Luke Holland died in June after the completion of Final Account, for which he interviewed the last generation of Germans – from Waffen SS to non-military citizens – who, one way or another, played a role in the Holocaust.
The testimonies within Final Account may be presented chronologically, from life in the Hitler Youth to observing Kristallnacht to living in the shadow of the concentration camps to recollection of the scorched earth policy of destruction to slow the Russia advance, but at all times these testimonies are terrifying, not least because they are given in sober and measured terms – and with varying degrees of regret or admission of culpability.
At one end of the spectrum is Hans Wierk who admits to a sense of guilt and remorse as he addresses the new youth of Germany in a seminar at the Wannsee villa in Berlin where legislation for the Final Solution was officially signed off in 1942. At the other end is Kurt Hollander who remains intensely proud of his “elite” status within the SS, an organisation which he refuses to concede acted in any way criminally (“I would dirty myself if I were to admit that”). Was Hitler guilty? “I will not blame him,” he answers. Does he still honour him? “I certainly do. The idea was correct.”
Between these extremes come the swathes of people to whom Primo Levi’s observation, which we read in a caption at the film’s beginning, applies. “More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without questions.”
Almost without exception we encounter the triumvirate of excuses, that they didn’t know, that they didn’t take part or, if they had known, that they would have acted differently. All this despite, their geographical proximity to the Nazi activities and atrocities. We hear how, as Hitler Youth, kids would link arms to stop people entering shops owned by Jews, and how they would bait mourners in Jewish cemeteries. Songs were sung by kids about sharpening knives easier to insert into Jewish bellies, and on the day following Kristallnacht (November 9/10 1938) during which 1400 synagogues were destroyed by fire, the kids were invited to rejoice in the carnage. (Fire engines were there, we are told, but to put out fires on neighbouring buildings.)
Witnesses would talk about the smells of cremated flesh that they would systematically encounter from nearby concentration camps. A nanny to a German family tells how she would visit a camp to have her teeth fixed by Jewish dentists despite her knowing that many of their comrades were being exterminated on arrival. A wages clerk at the Valentin submarine factory would observe how the Kapo would make sure the same number of prisoners returned from a shift. Whether they were dead or alive, was immaterial. The books had to balance.
Likewise at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, Oranienburg, Dachau – people knew of the wholesale massacre that was happening within their midst. “Everybody knew,” says Kurt Sametreiter, one of the few Waffen SS operatives who show contrition.
Producer John Battsek, whose first film was the Academy Award-winning One Day in September (1999), was invited to join the project by Participant Media’s Diane Weyermann in Summer 2017. “Diane is someone I have a huge amount of respect for. She is a brilliant financier, producer, exec of many, many really important and brilliant feature films over a great number of years, decades in fact,” says Battsek.
“I looked at the material they sent me, and immediately, it was one of those things. I personally, and I think many people, never cease to be completely bowled over by these kinds of stories connected to the Holocaust,” he stresses. “You may think there have been a lot of them and enough of them, and then somebody approaches with something new and you just think this is a story we can never stop telling.”
“The thing that struck me so much – the power of denial,” he continues. “What was extraordinary are the people who sort of try and tell themselves [and Luke] that they didn’t really know what was going on, and in so doing reveal that they knew exactly what was going on.”
One such example is Heinrich Schulze who, after persistent but calm probing by Holland, eventually admits that it was indeed he who revealed to the authorities that there were prisoners hiding out in the barn on his family farm, and had pleaded for food. When asked what may have subsequently happened to them, he shrugs and answers with pure disingenuousness, “oh, nobody knows that.”
Battsek remarks on this scene (and others similar) when discussing the modus operandi of director Holland, whom he didn’t know before the production.
“I like to think that as much as they [the interviewees] were backed into a corner, he didn’t bully anyone, he gently led them down a path where they put themselves into that corner,” says Battsek. “Luke was incredibly welcoming and charming and super bright and multi-lingual and very intense and incredibly passionate about this subject, and he was tenacious and, dare I say, he could be extremely stubborn.”
“You know what, the great thing about Luke, what was great about working with him was that I knew I didn’t have to tread carefully at all,” Battsek continues. “When stuff needed to be said, I could absolutely say it, no matter how harsh, critical whatever. It would always be constructive and with a point to it, but it’s a great relief when you work with a filmmaker who you just know you can be straight up with. And you don’t have to worry about ego, you don’t have to worry about any of that stuff – and with Luke you absolutely didn’t.”
Unsurprisingly, Final Account is a film that Battsek is “extremely” proud of. “I was very happy that we were able to work with Luke to make a film that is a true testimony to him, to his incredibly hard work, to the subject he felt so passionately about, that I think will stand the test of time and is getting the kind of high level attention that, if I’m perfectly honest, Luke’s previous work didn’t get.
“I’m happy given how much effort he put into it that we have been able to help him craft a film that gets selected for Venice and is being talked about by the kind of partners now that he wouldn’t have dreamt of having interest in his films, and because I think it is an important and powerful film.
“Also for me, I work across such a diverse range of subjects that to be on the one hand making a film about the Paralympics (Rising Phoenix, 2020) and then on the other hand to be making a film about by-standers to the Holocaust, they are gratifying in completely different ways. This feels like a really important film and I’m really happy that all the work that everyone put into it is paying off.”
Battsek came to documentary by chance, he explains. After producing his first film, a scripted feature, which he describes as the “most miserable experience of my life,” he walked into a cinema on the Fulham Road in London (“in a state of deep depression”) and watched Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings (1997). “Halfway through watching it I thought ‘shit, I want to do this, I want to make films like this’, and straight off the back of watching it I had the idea for the Munich Olympics which came out of nowhere.”
“I knew nothing about [documentaries] and yet it completely changed my life in terms of my professional life but also my personal life – the process of immersing myself in to the world of truth telling documentary making as I did One Day in September…From that moment on that was all I wanted to do.”
He further reflects on the observation that, for many audiences, greater satisfaction is derived from documentary than from fictional feature films.
“I think the truth is, as scripted movies got less and less gratifying [emotionally], so documentaries have got more cinematic and more gratifying because it’s real people telling you real stories with real emotions. And more often than not, if they are being made as a feature doc it’s because they are either tragic or shocking or inspiring or breath-taking, and the experience of watching that is just phenomenal.”