Under Orders

Ex-Nazi seniors give their ‘Final Account’ of life in Hitler’s Germany

It must have seemed like a good idea, when filmmaker Luke Holland was preparing his penetrating World War II documentary Final Account, to hurry up and interview as many German first-hand witnesses to the Hitler regime’s war crimes as possible, while they were still alive and able to talk. 

And indeed it’s gratifying at first, to see nearly 300 former subjects of the Third Reich—the doc’s elderly talking heads—come forward to openly discuss their roles in their nation’s mass willingness to follow such a debased leadership into the valley of death. At best, we might have hoped that one or two of these former Nazis would tearfully break down and acknowledge their terrible error, admitting that their complicity made them accessories to unimaginable offenses against humanity.

That does not happen, of course. We were secretly hoping to hear something different than “I was only following orders,” or “We didn’t know,” or any of the other 76-year-old excuses that invariably get repeated in most WWII/Holocaust films. But realistically, what made us think that even now, these former Hitler Youth members and ruthless conquerors would ever admit their own guilt—to a descendant of murdered Jewish Austrians yet, for an American-British film production?

So, Holland’s earnest attempt at reckoning predictably falls short in the “justice at last” category. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t derive a smidgeon of moral gratification in seeing a group of our former enemies talk about how it all happened, now that time’s window has almost closed. And it’s perversely fascinating to compare these feeble, sheepish seniors to the frolicking children in old Nazi propaganda reels, with their swastika-branded daggers and their kerchiefs, overjoyed to salute their Führer while exercising.

Listen to the way they frame their experiences. Some of them may be convinced that what they collectively did in the past was immoral—at least one man remains proud of his Death’s-Head SS exploits—but it’s all so very complicated to explain. They liked the smart uniforms and the outdoor games and the campfire songs. And besides, all their friends were there. And remember, it was compulsory. No one could refuse to join in, for fear of ending up in Dachau themselves. Entire platoons of blitzkrieg combatants and home-front cheerleaders step up to Holland’s camera and make their cases.

Interspersed with eerie, antique footage of young athletes with squared-off haircuts and pigtailed blond coeds, the seniors tell their tales. A voice quotes a schoolboy song about sharpening knives and sticking them into Jewish bellies. One man’s parents bought his SS uniform at a Jewish-owned shop. Another proudly displays his Nazi Political Academy documents, absolute proof that he is an Aryan. A one-time storm trooper talks about standing guard in front of a ransacked Jewish business at age nine. Recalls a former camp guard: “I still have the smell of the crematorium in my nose.” One particularly candid codger can’t exactly recall why the Jews were so unpopular, other than that “they made deals” and “had hooked noses.” A surprising number of the ex-master-race warriors still have their photo albums, with pictures of their families. The Jews and political prisoners whose bodies we see stacked in piles naturally lost their photo albums, along with everything else.

Ironic and unflinching as it may be, in the long run Final Account is immensely disheartening, not so much for what demonstrates about its German survivors, but for what it reveals about human nature. The sweet-faced old ladies and thoughtful grandfathers are finally at a loss to explain what happened, other than to admit that “nobody walked away” from obeying Hitler. When asked whom to blame, one granny snaps: “God will be the judge of that.” God doesn’t need to see the late Holland’s doc—Holland died in 2020 just after it finished production. But maybe we should. There can never be too much righteous outrage.

In theaters beginning May 21.

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