Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex 2 /Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God.
You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made; you have brought your day near, the appointed time of your years has come. Therefore I have made you a disgrace before the nations, and a mockery to all the countries.
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
While researching the historical background of the biographical film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, I learned that during the early postwar years in Germany Sophie was regarded by most of the public as a traitor, and only years later viewed as the courageous martyr who dared to oppose the Hitler regime. Director Giulio Ricciarelli’s new film reveals in his story, set in the pivotal years of 1958-65, how this change in attitude came about. As we will see, the film is the story of two generations—that of the War years generation, anxious to forget and cover up their guilt over perpetrating history’s worst atrocities; and that of their children, growing up ignorant of their fathers’ misdeed because the guilty never spoke of their war time experiences.
There is a great amount of fictionalization: Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is a composite of three public prosecutors, and his love affair is no doubt added to add interest to an otherwise grim tale—but the account of the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials and how they transformed the nation is largely true.
The film begins in 1958 when artist Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), an Auschwitz survivor, spots one of his concentration camp captors teaching at a school. He tells his friend Thomas Gneilka (Andre Szymanski), a crusading journalist, who goes to the prosecutors’ office to seek justice for his friend. However, no one, from the chief prosecutor on down, evinces the slightest interest in taking up the case. They share the national sentiment of leaving the past alone and pressing on with the task of rebuilding German society. However, the newly hired Johann Radmann, bored with handling routine traffic court cases, does look into the matter, his interest and his ambition fired up by what he learns. The older Kirsch and Gneilka are astonished at the young man’s naivite and lack of knowledge—Radmann had not even heard of Auschwitz where the Nazi teacher had been a guard.
Although his colleagues and boss remain opposed to dealing with the case, Attorney General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss, to whom this film is dedicated following his death) is impressed by the young man’s earnest work, sensing that this is one whom he can trust.
Given permission to pursue the case, Radmann visits the U.S. Army Document Center, where the colonol in charge, not realizing how serious Radmann is, cynically expresses his contempt for Germans denying they had ever been Nazis. Radmann is left in the bowels of the center, with shelves full of yellowing documents towering over him. He discovers that, except for the few top criminals tried at Nuremburg, thousands of Nazis had been allowed to return to civilian life. They held no fear of consequences for their barbaric deeds because most of their fellow citizens wanted to return to normalcy and benefit from the economic miracle that was sweeping through the country (at least the western portion of it).
Radmann finds the records of the teacher, proving that he was a meber of Waffen SS in Auschwitz, but because of the statute of limitations on non-capital war crimes, he must prosecute the man for murder. His boss remains opposed to pursuing the case, asking, “Do you want every young man in this country to wonder whether his father was a murderer?” Radmann, realizing the domestic turmoil this would cause, replies, “Yes.” Fortunately, the Attorney General backs him up, telling him that thus far he in turn has the support of the national Minister of Justice.
The investigation expands from that of one man to that of thousands of the guilty. We see a parade of witnesses testifying, though we usually do not hear their words. The latter proves unnecessary because on the face of Radmann’s hard-working Sekretärin Schmittchen (Hansi Jochmann) we see her growing sense of shock and horror as she makes a record of the interviews. Radmann becomes obsessed with nailing the infamous “Doctor of Death” at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, but discovers that there are those high up in the government obstructing his efforts to capture him. He even confronts the past of the father of his girlfriend Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht), and eventually that of his own father, leading to his sense of frustration and to almost giving up his work.
The film might not be as powerful as Stanley Kramer’s classic Judgment at Nuremburg, but it nonetheless provides us with a Fascinating window into a little known era in which a few determined seekers for justice dared to go against their society on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of victims who could no longer speak for themselves.
Not emphasized in the film is the fact that the US authorities had largely ignored the unrepentant ex-Nazis now working in all sectors of society because they wanted their skills in rebuilding a Germany strong enough to join the US in opposing Communism. Thus one might raise the issue of the recent use of torture by American military and CIA interrogators perpetrated against terrorist suspects in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo. There are many Americans who prefer to ignore this and to go on as if nothing untoward had happened. Apparently admitting the dark deeds might lead to holding the torturers, and those who gave them the permission to do so, accountable. Today terrorists have replaced Communists as our chief enemies, and any admission that we too went over to the dark side might weaken our stance against them.
Though Johann Radmann is the film’s main protagonist, credit must be given to the real-life man who chose and supported him throughout the difficult days when the other prosecutors and important members of the government opposed the investigation, Attorney General Fritz Bauer. It is fitting that the film is dedicated to this brave man, one whose sense of justice led him to follow in the footsteps of the Hebrew prophets.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.