Much effort has gone into capturing the living testimony of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust so that what they endured can never be forgotten or disputed. Following the tradition of Shoah, Holland aims to turn this lens back on the Germans.
The film is spare and straightforward, relying on interviews with ordinary Germans, many of whom were children or teenagers during the Holocaust. Their testimonies are spliced with archival footage of German marches and summer camps, the tapestry of typical German life under Nazism and then further contrasted with portraits of the countryside today; extermination camps alongside pastures, grass quivering in the wind, killing fields haunted with a melancholy beauty. Title cards occasionally provide numbers to go along with the atrocities, but the real focus here is on the Germans themselves as they grapple with what they’ve done, or in some cases didn’t do.
Here the devil is in the details. Many of the Germans interviewed have preserved their Nazi papers -- tangible proof of their participation. Most of the men interviewed were members of the Hitler Youth and then the SS. How they feel about their membership runs the gamut. Many admit that to join the SS was essentially to become part of an elite strata. One man explains that from the moment you joined the Hitler Youth, you were in uniform day and night, there was no time for you to be a civilian. The Waffen SS then awaited you. Many of the men still bear the tattoo of the SS, indicating their belonging in an elite blood group.
The first half of the film slowly builds a tapestry of what German life was like under Hitler. If the boys had the Hitler Youth, then young women had the Association of German Girls. They reminisce warmly of the uniform, the marching, the singing. Many can still recite the songs. One even remarks how it was all so “lovely.” Another recounts being taken on a tour to see the destruction after Kristallnacht, accompanied by images of children laughing. Her explanation: “They were not of our ethnic group.”
Soon the events leading to the Holocaust come into focus and the narrative shifts to the disappearance and eventual murder of most of Germany’s Jewish population. Here, the German men and women interviewed give their rationale for what they saw, what they did, and why they remained silent. One woman, a bookkeeper at a steel works where submarines were manufactured, remembers seeing Jewish prisoners brought there for labor. She tells us how she saw them carry their own dead comrades from the steel works at the end of the day, spent from malnourishment and sickness. She says, “but as a bookkeeper, I had nothing to do with it.”
Later, a man summarizes another factor that may have led to people’s complicity; like a layman economist he flatly declares, “most people benefited from it.” Those who were employed by the camps could earn money. Local shops benefited too: the bakeries, the butchers, the grocers. In his estimation, genocide was good for the economy.
The cascade of talking heads and their impressions of the past eventually create a kind of numbing picture of the culture surrounding Nazism. It’s easy to blame the individual, but we see a whole society at work, grinding out a machine of complicity, fear, and silence. Over and over, Germans say to the camera, we knew, but nobody said anything, or we only spoke quietly.
In the final third of the film, the camera tries to capture what it means to know and stay quiet. The prevarications that ensue provide wild fireworks to what until then is a fairly subdued narrative.
Many ordinary Americans have asked themselves what would I do if I had lived through Nazism in Germany? Most would like to think they would have done something to counter it. But experiments like the Stanley Milgram study and others that have replicated its results indicate that most people, when pressed, will bend to the will of authority.
In Final Account, we witness the shame and denial of a generation who simply went along with things. In the end, there were few heroes, most were simply accomplices.