Verdict on Auschwitz

"Excellent"

Verdict on Auschwitz Review


It would always be important, but in the wake of the sectarian lynching that was the execution of Saddam Hussein, a film document like Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965 takes on a particularly strident aura of necessity. Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner's monumental documentary on Germany's biggest war crimes trial after Nuremberg covers a broad swath of material and issues with a dispassionate candor, providing a roadmap to how societies should go about prosecuting the war criminals in their midst.

When the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial began in late 1963, many of the defendants were living quiet German lives. Shopkeepers and tradesmen before joining the SS, these men often returned to those occupations, some even becoming quite wealthy in the interim. Twenty-two of them were rounded up and made to answer for their part in the death machinery that was the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. The West German state, along with help from the Polish government (this was unprecedented, given that the trial took place at the height of the Cold War), marshaled an impressive battery of evidence against the SS defendants -- all the more impressive, seeing as how, 18 years after the war, most of the German populace was eager to put this episode behind them.

From 19 countries came 360 witnesses, including 210 Auschwitz survivors, to provide vivid testimony about what they saw or what was done to them and their friends and family, in order to buttress the already overwhelming paper trail of evidence. The defendants are mostly quiet and contemptuous; when they speak they invoke the "I was just doing my job" defense invoked by Adolph Eichmann, who had been located by Mossad agents in South America, brought to Jerusalem for trial, and executed in 1962. One after another the witnesses come forward to tell in precise detail how the SS tried to carry out Hitler's final solution, how the gas chambers and crematoriums operated, how prisoners were brutalized by drunken guards (many of whom were hardened criminals back in Germany), the punishments meted out almost at random, and the filthy evil of Mengele's insane medical experiments.

Verdict on Auschwitz was originally broadcast on German TV in 1993 in three one-hour segments ("The Investigation," "The Trial," "The Verdict"), all of which are presented here together. While seeing the individual segments separated by time may have given viewers more time to process what they were seeing, an omnibus viewing has its advantages as well. The cumulative effect is nothing short of devastating, all the more so given the filmmakers' rather stoic presentation of the material. Cameras were not allowed in for almost all of the trial, so the film makes use of original tape recordings from the trial itself, played over images of the empty courtroom or black-and-white photographs and film from the camps themselves. The archival evidence presented is astonishing and often horrific, including footage shot by the shocked Russian troops who liberated the camp and nearly unwatchable film shot by SS troops as they gunned down helpless prisoners. The film is steady and relentless, though never rubbing one's nose in degradation -- this is a trial, not a horror show.

While some of the sentences that were ultimately given out may seem light, especially when compared to the magnitude of the crimes committed by these men, the trial gave a voice to the survivors that they had not had before (not to mention allowing them to face their tormentors for the first time), and a way of entering the whole sordid patch of history into the record, as it were -- the Kurdish victims of Hussein's genocidal Anfal campaign deserved at least as much.

Bad tracks.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 180 mins

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

IMDB: 7.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Rolf Bickel, Dietrich Wagner

Producer: Gerhard Hehrleine

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