“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous.” The novelist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi is quoted at the beginning of British filmmaker Luke Holland’s somber, chilling documentary “Final Account” (2020). “More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
For 10 years Holland searched for these common men and women, the last living active and passive participants in the crimes of the Third Reich. He located more than 300 in all and asked them about what they did, what they didn’t do, and why. They range from SS officers still proud of their membership in the murderous corps to civilians who deny knowing what was happening.
Many of those interviewed were indoctrinated into Nazi ideology from childhood, beginning with their obligatory membership in the Hitler Youth and similar organizations. It is disconcerting to watch an old man sing the lyrics to a song about sharpening knives to plunge into Jews’ bellies, and perhaps more so to learn that he and his pals learned it as kids and had a great time singing it without really comprehending its meaning.
But others were easy converts. Some of the SS men say they were drawn to the outfit because it was the most elite. One says he joined because he “liked it tough,” and another waxes nostalgic as he recalls the camaraderie. A distinguished old-timer leads Holland up to his attic where he shows him his collection of regalia, medals, and photos. He admits he still admires Hitler. “The idea was right,” he says.
Not all those interviewed wore uniforms. A farmer whose fields neighbored the Bergen-Belsen camp talks about how escaped prisoners would show up at his door begging for food. “Of course they were picked up,” he says with a laugh. How did the authorities know they were there? Holland asks. The man admits he informed on them. And what happened to them? Holland persists. “No one knows,” the farmer says.
“Everybody knew,” says a woman at an old-age home in another scene. She scoffs at such disingenuous ignorance.
Holland’s film is a kind of coda to Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour “Shoah” (1985), one difference being that those he interviews are elderly and not middle-aged as in Lanzmann’s film; perhaps because of this proximity to mortality they may have been more likely to be honest about their past (Holland himself died, at 71, shortly after the film was finished). Another difference is the audience; for some the Holocaust might seem a distant, even spurious, historical event not worth worrying about today.
In fact new monsters and their “common man” followers have since sprung up. A confrontation between a repentant ex-SS member and German students (who, unlike the soldier, insisted on anonymity) takes place at the location of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where plans for Jewish genocide were drawn up by Nazi leaders. Seeing it suggests that this final account might not be the last.
“Final Account” is showing at the Kendall Square Cinema. Go to www.landmarktheatres.com/boston/kendall-square-cinema/film-info/final-account.
Terrible truths revealed
On March 26, 2018, an SUV was found at the bottom of a 100-foot cliff off a coastal section of highway in Mendocino County, Calif. Five bodies were recovered — the married couple Jen and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children. Three other adopted children were missing and presumed dead (their bodies would be recovered later).
The media bemoaned the tragedy, depicting the Harts as an ideal family, with the gregarious and socially committed women providing a loving home for two sets of Black siblings from troubled backgrounds. The family was active in the community, making appearances at political and other events, all splashed on social media. The kids and parents were always smiling and having fun. In a touching image, one of the boys is seen hugging a police officer at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Portland in 2014. The boy is in tears.
But as Gregory Palmer’s “Broken Harts” shows, all was not as it seemed. The accident scene was suspicious — the cliff was some distance from the highway with no sign of skid marks. Troubling stories about the family surfaced. Their neighbors in Oregon were disturbed late one night when one of the kids came by begging to be hidden away because her parents beat her and her siblings. The incident was reported but no action was taken. Numerous other reports of possible abuse came to light, all evaded or explained away by the agencies who were responsible for protecting the children.
Palmer pursues the story in part as a true crime investigation and in part as a critique of social services. He doesn’t dwell much on the motivations of the alleged perpetrators or their background. Maybe that’s where the real mystery lies.
“Broken Harts” can be streamed at discovery+. Go to www.discoveryplus.com.
An atrocity in Tulsa
A hundred years ago on May 31 one of the worst instances of racial violence in American history erupted. For generations it was hushed up.
By 1921 the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, in Tulsa, Okla., had developed into a prosperous and independent community, earning it the nickname “the Black Wall Street.” But when a Black youth was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman the white populace — abetted by the police and authorities and spurred on by the local press — rose in outrage. In a day-long spree of violence an armed mob torched blocks of homes and businesses and killed as many as 300 Black citizens. They left 10,000 homeless and reduced Greenwood to ashes.
In “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” Jonathan Silvers follows The Washington Post’s DeNeen L. Brown as she goes to the scene of the crime and interviews survivors, who experienced the horrors as children. Descendants of victims recall how the events were never spoken about in their families. The city covered up the story — though postcards of smoking ruins and charred corpses sold well in KKK enclaves — and it is believed many of the victims were buried in unmarked mass graves. Brown visits sites where forensic archeologists and human rights workers search for the dead still unaccounted for, making sure that these lives and the violence that claimed them are not forgotten.
“Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” premieres May 31 at 9 p.m. on GBH 2. Go to www.pbs.org/show/tulsa-fire-and-forgotten.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.