In the cloying dramatic comedy Jojo Rabbit, a Jewish teenage girl tells the hero – a member of the Hitler Youth – that, “You’re not a Nazi… You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” It is a moral failing of this “anti-hate satire” that writer-director Taika Waititi believes this to be true, and leaves little room to depict Nazism at its ugliest. The new documentary Final Account has a somewhat similar subject, but does not make the same mistake. It insists on exploring the line between participator and perpetrator, and while it has no answers, it ultimately serves as an important historical record. Composed almost entirely of interviews, director Luke Holland focuses on elderly Germans who were once like Jojo: eager to belong, happy to participate in Nazi songs and marches. The interviews mostly happened around 2008, so his subjects have the added bonus of history, wisdom, and experience.

The film raises important questions about the line between participation and perpetration. Were these interviewees – former members of Hitler Youth, and the SS – just following orders? To what extent did they perceive Nazism at its most monstrous? Why didn’t they intervene? There are no easy answers, of course, and the varied responses reflect the complexity of human nature. This is a film that includes brutal moral reckonings, and frightening cognitive dissonance.

Holland starts with Hitler’s rise, and the generation of children he influenced. There is an eerie montage where his subjects sing Nazi songs from their childhood, and it is unclear whether they do it with regret or reverence. At first, Holland is slow to prod these men and women. They are old, for one thing, and the implication is he must ease them into reflection before they might admit something painful. While Nazism is the general topic, Holland starts to focus on how they treated Jews. It is unclear how long he spent with his interviewees, although archival footage and photographs reveal what is on his mind. Many of interviewees are sad as they recall a Jewish friend, neighbor, or pillar from their community. Few of them are willing to acknowledge that almost every exterminated Jew was a friend or neighbor for someone else.

Toward the end of the film, after the men and women recall their personal experience, is where Final Account finds its significance. All the subjects are capable of adding a human dimension to a dark strain in human history (one of the more memorable stories is about how a live-in nanny got her teeth fixed by prisoners in a concentration camp). Beyond all that, however, is how these octogenarians feel about what happened. Some look at the past with more courage than others, while a couple are True Believers who still defend Hitler.

Final Account is thorough in its reckoning: there is a long, intense scene where a former SS officer tries to educate some German teenagers about the mistakes he made (one kid cannot see the difference between patriotism and nationalism). Then there is a mild-mannered German in a bespoke suit whose only regret is the method of how Nazi Germany handled the Jews. He displays his Nazi medals proudly, and it is a wonder Holland got him to open up this way.

This is not a film that intends to document the Holocaust and all its monstrous failings. It is not Shoah, and Holland has no aspirations to depict anything complete. Instead, Final Account is more about people, and all the facets the term “Good German” can possibly take. Many modern documentaries deploy drone footage, and this one is no different. Holland shoots concentration camps in an obligatory way, with mournful music in the background. In one moment, however, he finds a drone shot that neatly summarizes everything said by former Nazis, no matter their involvement or complacency. He starts at an abandoned train station, one that took Jews to the camps. The drone flies upward, then pans away from the tracks. There is a normal suburb, complete with sensible station wagons, then we see modern Berlin – Merkel’s Berlin – and all that represents.

No doubt that the Germans in Final Account have died since their interviews, so this film is more than a reminder that we must never forget. Sometimes it is also important we never forgive.

This documentary about former Nazis is an uncompromising look at why the “just following orders” defense holds no moral weight.
80 %
Never Forgive
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