SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The film “Final Account” begins with an older man who sings a song from his youth.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “FINAL ACCOUNT”)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (sings in German).
SIMON: The melody sounds happy, but then you see the translated words with subtitles from Germany in the 1930s. The lyrics are violent fantasies about sharpening knives to kill Jews. “Final Account” is the last film by Luke Holland, a respected British documentary filmmaker who passed away last year. For more than a decade he searched and spoke to dozens of older Germans who were part of the Third Reich, some in the Hitler Youth, some in the Waffen SS, some as concentration camp guards, some as children and citizens who saw and smelled the Smoke the camp and was silent. Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, worked with Luke Holland on the film and is joining us from Los Angeles.
Dr. Smith, thank you for being with us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Hello Scott. Hello.
SIMON: And Sam Pope, an associate producer on Final Account, is from Ditchling, England.
And Mr. Pope, thank you for being with us.
SAM POPE: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks Scott.
SIMON: Dr. Smith, in a way, this is a movie that Luke Holland has been working towards for much of his career, isn’t it?
SMITH: Yeah, it’s really an extension of his life, Scott. You know, his mother and father left Germany to escape the Third Reich. He didn’t know he was Jewish until he was in his youth. And then, I think, he was always looking to really discover that story and why his family had gone through it, what the origins of it were. And you know, it was no surprise to me in 2008 when he said I wanted to go to Germany and interview Nazis. If it had come from someone else, I would have been surprised, but not really from him.
SIMON: Sam Pope, was it difficult to find people to talk to? Or should I maybe say people who would talk?
POPE: In some cases, incredibly difficult. Luke spent much of his time finding people, knocking on doors, and convincing people to keep records. As the film in the archive shows, on occasion there were those who were willing to open up and reflect on their past.
SIMON: It’s hard to see documentaries made by smiling little children who are laughing, playing and dancing and decorated with swastikas. Dr. Smith, does this give us any insight into the kind of life they lived?
SMITH: Well, I think the documentary itself is really an amazing glimpse into the development of the Third Reich and how successfully the Nazis persuaded the German people to join their project. I mean, we still see these young people in the documentary with great joy as they ponder the songs they learned, the camps they went to, and the activities they took part in. It was exciting what the Nazis understood. Take a 10 year old. It only takes you a few years to pick up a rifle and you will be completely indoctrinated.
SIMON: You know, Sam Pope, when a woman says we didn’t like the party, but we liked the uniform, on the one hand you tend to think, okay, at least it’s honest. On the other hand you think, wow; She is not at all honest with herself.
POPE: And that is very true for many of these respondents. Are you honest with us? That was one of the questions we wanted to address and which we wanted to leave open to the public.
SIMON: Well, it would not have been difficult for anyone, I dare to say, but especially difficult for the son of people involved in the Holocaust to sit with people who said we didn’t just know what was going on, we smelled the smoke. It was like burning tires.
SMITH: I think Luke Holland’s courage to go into these houses and stand judgment, even though, as you know, he could make a lot of judgment – he really did this for all of us. These are questions we need to know the answers to. We owe him great thanks, painful as it must have been at times.
SIMON: Sam Pope, there is a moment in the film when a man who was a former Waffen-SS speaks without apology in front of his wife. You look at her face. And at least I told myself that she must have wondered, is this the man I was married to?
POPE: Part of the challenge with the interviews was including spouses – spouses who were sitting next door. One wonders how much they know, how much they wanted to know. In some cases, husbands and wives came in during these interviews and said, I think that’s enough for today. They don’t want to say it anymore just as we get into dangerous territory or start to uncover something – something interesting, something damned.
SIMON: There’s a group of women in – talk to Luke Holland. It looked like some kind of assisted living. And they say at some point that people would talk quietly about what was really going on, but no one would say it out loud because they were afraid of being shot. And then it is probably Luke Holland in German who challenges her and says: Do you know that someone has ever been shot for talking? Did that ever really happen?
SMITH: Yes, it’s a very good question he asked because the general urban myth is that those who try to defy orders were sent to the Eastern Front, to the front, and became cannon fodder for the Wehrmacht or other units. So we know that this type of reallocation has taken place. But he is right to ask this question to this group, because one of the justifications is of course that we could not do anything because it would have cost us our lives. But there is actually no evidence for this.
SIMON: Sam Pope, what do you think of the camp guards who say I haven’t locked anyone up?
POPE: As a man he was very, very young. He was a teenager when he was signed to the SS.
SIMON: Sixteen, as I remember.
POPE: Sixteen years old, yes – I think he says he should avoid his labor service. They said, well, join the SS. That gets you out. Now, I’m not necessarily doing this – which its motives necessarily were, but I think that’s in part, I mean, what the end of this film does – this reflection on exercising one’s own participation. He seems, yes, slowly but surely to be getting around a bit. He is beginning to see his own commitment, but is always ready to apologize.
SMITH: And I think, Scott, one of the things that came to mind while watching this person is the complete lack of any apology. And so it is very revealing what Luke Holland was able to get out of him there.
SIMON: There are people today who say, even in the course of this film, oh yes, Jews were killed, but not nearly as many as people think. It’s wildly over the top. Or yes, it happened, but it’s time to get over it. What’s the answer to that in 2021?
POPE: It is part of our history that is so new, so urgent and so important. There are so many aspects that reflect our own current moment. There is a reckoning – a reckoning for ourselves, for human commitment. As a great crime against humanity, modern deniers – it’s a denial and one that is deeply rooted in anti-Semitism.
SMITH: And I actually think Scott, I would add that it doesn’t – it’s not about saying it didn’t happen, it’s also about trivializing, minimizing, and relativizing this story, so that it does not effectively challenge our own lives and do not face its gravity and its consequences. We don’t have to deal with it in such a way that we become voyeuristic or in some way intrigued by its horrific dimensions, but we need to be reminded of it. And when you add up all of these books and films, including this new book “Final Account,” which is going to add a new dimension to our view of this time span, now it is undeniable, including those who try to avoid, you know, their own Fault. With this they confirm that it happened. That is another defense against denial that we must have available.
SIMON: These are the last people on earth to speak about these events, not just as witnesses, but as part of the machine that committed the crimes.
SMITH: And of course not only Luke Holland, the filmmaker, died, but many of those interviewed also died at that point. So he really did it on time.
SIMON: Dr. Stephen Smith is executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation – and Sam Pope, associate producer of “Final Account,” a film by the late Luke Holland, is in theaters this weekend.
Thank you for being with us, gentlemen.
POPE: Thank you very much.
SMITH: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE BY COMORIAN SONG, “BANDITS DO BAD DEEDS”)
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