“Final Account”: Minutes from the Nazi-Occupied Neighborhood Association Meeting

"Final Account" movie poster.

A relic of the Before Times: a movie poster made of actual paper. I remember those!

Anne and I saw the new documentary Final Account in a county where masks were required of all patrons regardless of inoculation levels, in an auditorium where the A/C was on the fritz. Posted signs and the clerk warned us, but we insisted on proceeding anyway despite any consequences ahead. The environment was livable at first, but our comfort levels fluctuated as time went on and the air quality went from breathable to stifling and back again. Eventually we convinced ourselves to overlook our nagging concerns, but at no point could we simply sit back and pretend everything was fine.

Regarding the object of our focus: Final Account is deceptively simple in format yet deep in scope. Between 2008 and 2020 British filmmaker Luke Holland (who died in 2020 after five years with cancer, before this could see the light of day) conducted a series of interviews with numerous German elderly who’d been alive during World War II — some of them former Hitler Youth — and asked them about life before and during the Third Reich. Those interviews compose the entire running time. At face value it sounds like a lengthy DVD extra, and is easily taken for granted at first as the initial prewar impressions recall happier, nearly idyllic childhood and teenage times for some. A smile floats to the surface here and there.

The recollections are shrewdly edited into an increasingly disturbing progression. As with any horror film, little disturbances begin poking holes in the ordinary scenes from the good ol’ days. “Ah, yes, I kind of remember our Jewish neighbors” is a familiar refrain. After a bit, smiles recede as their timelines fracture into divergent impressions of The Way Things Were. The spectrum of culpability versus denial is broad across the darkly quotidian tapestry of their summed experiences.

Some say they didn’t notice a thing. Some claim they had no idea there was a concentration camp right down the street. Some are pretty sure they would’ve noticed if wide-scale brutality were going on in their neighborhood. Some knew bad things were going down, but weren’t exactly in a position to take up arms and foment righteous rebellion. Some were kindasorta aware, but it didn’t affect them directly, so they went on about their business even as millions of victims couldn’t do the same.

One group of women — a nursing home clique? a bridge club? — bicker back and forth about their comparisons and don’t quite come to a consensus. It isn’t a subject that comes up every day. Perhaps they’d hashed it out long ago and were tired of revisiting it. Perhaps they’d mutually and silently agreed never to speak of it again until this interloper showed up with cameras and curiosity.

One man, shamed by what happened in his homeland and the prevailing evil that enabled some of the worst excesses in history, felt convicted to make regular speaking engagements with today’s youngsters about the era and its horrors to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Some of his listeners get it without trouble. Others are bored of hearing it. Some can’t be bothered to wrap their heads around it. One kid’s particularly willful obtuseness nearly brings the lecturer to tears.

Another old-schooler remembers life in his old village where they knew of a Jewish farmer hiding out in the area, who was by all accounts a nice guy they liked. But, y’know, of course they reported him. After he was taken away, they never found out what happened to him. The man punctuates his memory with a virtual shrug to all the questions he’s just casually begged.

Holland and his crew interview a few former military men as well, all lower-echelon and not quite at Nuremberg levels of accountability. The attitudes range predictably from regret to “it was just a job” to “how exactly was I supposed to refuse orders?”

One of those gents is among the oldest interviewees, a shriveled fanboy who to this day prizes his collection of Nazi memorabilia. Some of it is maintained in nice displays, no doubt dusted diligently. For all we know some of it could’ve been junk he keeps in his kitchen drawers because what if it comes in handy again someday, such as for this very moment of fleeting attention. He offers no guilt, little shame, no small amount of German pride. And he muses unequivocally, nearly verbatim, that six million Jews wouldn’t have had to die if only they’d just deported all six million of them instead. The camera lingers in vain, waiting for some sign that the flaws in his line of thought might bubble up from his conscience to the surface.

And so it goes. From a visual perspective, dozens of old folks lined up in a row doesn’t quite add up to a theatrical must-see, especially if none of your local theaters ever screen documentaries. But if you find yourself musing over your social media feeds one day and wondering in despondence how the seemingly normal users around you — up to and including your own family — can so carelessly and so shallowly repress basic facts, embrace obliviousness, keep their blinders firmly strapped on, cling unconditionally to their biased input streams and to any perceived, unaccredited speaker who shares a label with them without the smallest trace of discernment, you’d do well to check out Final Account when you can. You can feel your incredulous outrage rising at firsthand testimonies from those who pioneered head-in-the-sand bliss and implausible deniability 60-70 years ago and have yet to accept a cure from basic educational tools.

Theirs was no instant mental conversion, no switch that was flipped from “treat all human life as sacred” to “walk away whistling innocently”. Those mental shields took years to craft one excuse at a time, decades to fortify one rationalization at a time, and entire lifetimes to burnish as they simply sit back and pretend everything is fine.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: No, this isn’t that kind of film. No German celebrities drop by with hot takes, not even the wacky German guy from Army of the Dead.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Final Account end credits, but Special Thanks are offered to a number of institutions including nearly every major Jewish organization you can think of and many, many Holocaust museums worldwide. It would be great if humanity were to sufficiently advance to a point where the terms of good and evil were swiftly agreed upon without inane and heartless debate, and if we therefore no longer needed Holocaust museums in so many major cities. Until and unless that miracle ever occurs, here they stand.

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