As one of the introductory title cards in Final Account reads, “Perpetrators are not born, they are made.” Filmmaker Luke Holland’s documentary focuses not on Hitler and his generals, but on lower-ranking officers and civilians who were also part of the Third Reich. Holland, whose mother was murdered by the Nazis, profiles the generation that was born in the 1920s and were children when Hitler came to power. They were undeniably shaped by the Nazi propaganda machine to become ideal soldiers or mothers for the Reich, but does that let them off the hook?
Holland rushed to document the experiences before these people, who would now be in their 90s, passed away. (The interviews took place over more than 10 years, so it’s likely that several people in the film have since died.) He was also rushing against time himself: He was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015 and kept filming until his death in 2020. The idea of a final reckoning is threaded through each interview, even if it’s not explicitly stated. All these years later, how do these senior citizens feel about their participation in, as one former SS officer phrases it, “a murderous organization?”
Some express deep remorse, others none at all. Others point out their justifications: A common refrain is that, if they had said something, they too would have been sent to the camps. As one man sums up, those Germans who were alive during WWII will first say, “I didn’t know [about the camps],” secondly, “I didn’t take part,” and thirdly, “If I’d known, I’d have acted differently.”
The term “Mitläufer,” which means someone who passively supported the Nazis, could be applied to most of the men and women interviewed here. None of them seem to have committed any specific war crimes, but none of them defied the regime either. As one man tells Holland, “These heroes, you expect to find. There weren’t many of them.” He adds, “When Hitler came to power, all those who opposed him were arrested overnight. Put into concentration camps…Anyone who still protested was promptly killed. Killed. And people were scared. I can’t explain it any other way.”
The film’s timeline follows the rise of the Reich. First we hear about the subjects’ participation in such mandatory groups as the Hitler Youth. Archival footage shows happy children hiking, waving flags, dancing and picnicking, stopping only to smile at the camera. Several senior citizens still recall every word of the songs they learned as children. Even taking into account that they were children, the gusto with which some of them sing the old songs is still disturbing. One man comments on how he never gave any thought as a boy to a lyric about sharpening knives (the better to “go into Jewish bellies”), adding with a shake of his head, “Can you believe we used to sing that?
Another man, who was considered “too soft” to be a Hitler Youth leader, shares how his gung-ho older brother began to “rethink” his beliefs after realizing that their own father was Jewish. Sadly, we don’t learn much more about this man and his brother’s moral conflict, which could easily have been an entire documentary by itself.
Hans Werk—one of the only interviewees to express deep regret over his complicity—shares that he couldn’t wait to join the Hitler Youth. In elementary school, his teacher was a local party operative who “raised us according to the Nazi doctrine.” As a young boy, he trusted his teacher more than his own family and later volunteered to be an SS officer. Towards the end of the film, Werk addresses a group of young Germans, begging them not to be as blind as he was at their age. Even as he tries to differentiate between certain people’s actions during the war, he stops himself and says, “Actually, they all were perpetrators…I feel like a perpetrator.” Like most of his peers, he still has his Hitler Youth card, although he is now ashamed of his Nazi past. But others who held onto their Nazi mementos did so with pride, not shame.
One of the most chilling moments comes when a man who was in the SS says he’s not sorry about the local synagogue being burned on Kristallnacht. When the filmmaker asks him if he considers that a crime, he stops and says that yes, from a legal standpoint, this was a crime, because property was destroyed. He then adds, “But I didn’t feel that way.” Another former SS officer claims he had no idea Jews were being interned or killed at Dachau. But the next interviewee, who was also stationed at Dachau, disputes that, saying that everyone saw the prisoners. But then that same man goes on to declare that the SS had nothing to do with killing Jews and that they were only frontline soldiers. He goes on to rhapsodize about the camaraderie of the SS and dispute the statistics about how many Jews were killed in Germany during the war.
To know that such rapturous love of Nazidom still runs deep in the Germany of that generation, at least among a few, is deeply troubling, if not exactly shocking. Perhaps some of the participants are merely telling Holland what he wants to hear, like the former bookkeeper who tells him, “I am ashamed to this day that humans could do this to other humans.”
The subjects in the film might be the last generation who was there at the dawn of the Third Reich, but each generation since has argued about who to blame and to what degree. It’s a broader question that isn’t limited to Nazi Germany, of course. The hateful stance that property is more valuable than certain people’s lives, for example, is still very much with us. And Final Account demonstrates that it takes all levels of cooperation—including the most passive—for tyranny to thrive. Are all these people responsible to the same extent? By including them all here, the film seems to lean toward a “yes.” But thanks to those who renounce their past, like Werk, it also offers a ray of hope that change can come from regret.
Director: Luke Holland
Release Date: May 21, 2021
Sharon Knolle is a film noir buff, dog lover and founder of Moviepaws.com. You can follow her on Twitter.