2021, NR, 90 min. Directed by Luke Holland.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., May 21, 2021
For over a decade, filmmaker Luke Holland collected interviews with men and women who served the Nazi Party. Final Account, the resulting documentary, notes that Holland conducted interviews with over 300 people, and the film does its best to spotlight them all. We hear stories across sociopolitical and geographic lines, learning from men who sought fame in the Waffen-SS, and women who managed the books at the concentration camp at Dachau. And as these stories intertwine, they paint a compelling – and complicated – picture of a generation struggling to come to terms with their own complicity and crimes.
Countless documentaries have been made about the events of World War II, and even with a bounty of first-hand testimonies, Final Account takes a while to distinguish itself. Most of Holland’s subjects grew up in communities bordering concentration camps, and the film carefully establishes in the words of the men and women who were there how the Nazi party infiltrated every aspect of their lives. Children were indoctrinated in elementary school and brought their enthusiasm into the Hitler Youth. Villages without electricity became targets for Nazi recruiters and propagandists. Slowly, the story of the war unfolds through the adolescences of those who were there.
Some men are candid, describing the atrocities that occurred around them with a note of horror not even a century can remove. Others are more guarded in their recollections, slipping into passive verbs and downplaying their own presence in the acts of mass murder. Face after face flashes across the screen, each a former member or employee of the Nazi party, and their stories weave together an image of the war that is horrifying - and yet not entirely unfamiliar. We’ve heard stories like these before, and we think we know where the documentary is headed.
Perhaps this was Holland’s plan: for his audience to become complacent, to retreat into the notion that this film will ultimately uphold the universal truth that Nazis are evil and that present-day Germany is honored to atone for the sins of its predecessors. Then one former member of the Waffen-SS holds an intervention for a group of young white nationalists, who sneer at him for letting down the memories of his brothers in arms in search of political correctness. We are still reeling from that moment when Holland asks his subjects, pointedly, if they believe they were perpetrators of acts of genocide. The responses are far more varied than we might have hoped – or feared.
And so, the beating heart of Final Account is revealed. This is not a story about how a country atoned for its sins. This is a story about how time can soften even the most violent truths, allowing former members of the Nazi party to look back on their actions without recrimination – and sometimes with genuine pride. And when that doubt falls into the hand of a new generation of white supremacists, the cycle of hatred breathes anew. Final Account is about today as much as yesterday, and that makes it perhaps the most urgent World War II documentary of them all.