Director Matthew Shoychet’s The Accountant of Auschwitz, an unsettling, but comprehensive look at what’s destined to be one of the last high profile trials of Nazi war criminals, asks viewers to contemplate what justice entails when talking about horrific, massive large scale human rights atrocities. More than just another documentary about a low ranking fascist who was put on trial for “following orders” as a member of the S.S. in World War II, The Accountant of Auschwitz offers an important look into German’s flawed attempts to reconcile with the darkest period in their country’s history and what those attempts mean to the victims, survivors, and families of those impacted by the holocaust.
In 2015, 93-year old Oskar Gröning was arrested and made to stand trial in his hometown of Lüneburg, charged with the murder of 300,000 Jews at the infamous Auschwitz prison camp during World War II. Gröning, like many Nazis, wasn’t the one pulling the trigger or marching innocent human beings to their deaths. He was the person tasked with taking the money of every Jew that entered the camp. He was a witness to mass murder, he was complacent in the genocide, and he was certainly an accomplice to it in some ways. But is Gröning, by legal definition, a murderer if he never pulled a trigger or a lever? And with so few Nazi war criminals left to try and convict still alive, are trials like Gröning’s about compensation and justice or are they more about sending a message for future generations?
In order to understand the Gröning case and what it means to the holocaust survivors who come to bear witness at his trial, Shoychet (making his feature length directorial debut), writer Ricki Gurwitz, and producer Ric Esther Bienstock have to first outline the positives and negatives of the German legal system as it pertains to the prosecution of Nazi war crimes. The Accountant of Auschwitz eloquently outlines what many see to be widespread miscarriages of justice across decades, while others shrug it off as simply a by-product of a country that was once home to so many fascists that prosecuting them all would be virtually impossible and take a lifetime to accomplish.
Speaking with many survivors, historians, and legal experts who were involved in war crime prosecution, Shoychet outlines a system where justice was both fleeting and hard to come by, and closure was nonexistent. Since many judges in Germany had previously aligned themselves with the Nazi party, strong prosecution of people who worked in the death camps was unlikely, with many subscribing to the “they were just following orders” defense of lower ranking S.S. workers (despite the fact that not once in the history of Nazi Germany was there ever evidence that anyone was punished for disobeying orders, making the threat of retaliation used as a defence into a complete fallacy). When criminals were prosecuted for their acts during the Holocaust – no small task since many escape the country or lived under new identities – the sentences issued were a pittance; a handful of years in prison, with most getting an early release. The sentences in the dwindling number of these cases today continue to be miniscule, but the trials continue into the modern era to serve as an example of why humanity can never afford the cost of such unconscionable ethnic cleansing ever again.
There’s catharsis in “nailing a few bad apples to the wall” as one interview subject points out in The Accountant of Auschwitz, but does this type of justice mean anything when so many of the highest ranking Nazis – who actually did murder hundreds of thousands of Jews – either escape prosecution or emerged with little more than a slap on the wrist? Is a symbolic victory still a victory? Through an in-depth, but well paced and constructed examination of history, the true meaning behind the Gröning trial comes to light. Not even the survivors brought in as witnesses to the horrors of Auschwitz – which was such a large place that most of them admit to never meeting or remembering Gröning – can fully agree about what kind of justice they want from the trial.
There’s no footage of Gröning’s trial available, but the transcripts suggest a man who remains unapologetic about his role during World War II. Clearly, he’s guilty of something, and he admits as much, but the frustration of watching his cavalier responses and occasional smugness rankles. Gröning isn’t a likable person, but he also purposefully put himself into this position, via conducting brutally honest interviews with the BBC and Der Spiegel. When holocaust deniers show up to protest the trial as being a sham, Gröning is one of the first people to call them out for being idiots. Is the trial of The Accountant of Auschwitz just another bit of lip service being paid to the families of holocaust survivors, or is it a case where a man is purposefully making an example of himself?
None of these questions are easy to answer, and Shoychet doesn’t need an abundance of style to let them simmer in the minds of the audience, ending The Accountant of Auschwitz with perhaps the most important and chilling question at the heart of these dwindling trials: if the world stood up and said “never again” following the holocaust, why are we living in an age where wide-spread religious persecution, and ethnic genocides are occurring at the largest rate ever? For calling out the ineffectiveness of trial’s like Gröning’s while delivering a look at how the definition of justice changes from person to person, The Accountant of Auschwitz deserves to be commended for such a multi-layered and well researched approach to such a fraught subject that extends beyond historical footnote. While Shoychet and company don’t have any easy or clear answers to any of their questions, they do offer the viewer a lot of different ways to draw their own moral conclusions.
The Accountant of Auschwitz opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, June 8, 2018.
Check out the trailer for The Accountant of Auschwitz:
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