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The Documentary Final Account Is a Rare Trove of Unfiltered Interviews With Former Nazis—Too Unfiltered, Some Historians Say

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

In 2008, documentary filmmaker Luke Holland was looking for a sense of closure. His Viennese maternal grandparents had perished in the Holocaust and, more than six decades later, he wanted to better understand what had happened.

So he decided to ask the people who would know: SS members, Wehrmacht fighters, concentration-camp guards and civilian witnesses.

“At first, I embarked on a project with the completely improbable aim of trying to find the people who had killed [my grandparents]. It was quickly clear that I was not going to achieve that,” Holland wrote in a statement about the project. “But I realized I could actually meet their peers. I could meet people who had also raised their arms and their guns for Hitler, people who had committed atrocious crimes. And maybe through them, I might better understand the context in which the Holocaust played out in the heart of a supposedly civilized Europe.”

Holland did more than 250 interviews, but died of cancer in June 2020 before he could finish turning that material into a film. Other filmmakers carried it over the finish line, and now Final Account, a rare look at how former Nazis feel today about their roles in the Holocaust, will be released May 21. An archive of Holland’s full interviews is also being set up at University College London (UCL), London’s Wiener Holocaust Library and Paris’ Institut National de l’audiovisuel. The UCL-affiliated online exhibition “Compromised Identities” features excerpts of Holland’s interviews.

While these archives are of real historical value, the film’s release is also raising questions about what it means to tell these stories.

Memory on film

Those questions dogged the project from the beginning. Producer Sam Pope tells TIME that the creators struggled to get funding throughout the filmmaking process.

“This project was never an easy one to get off the ground,” Pope says. “Luke approached, at first, Jewish organizations to seek funding to this project, and their response was, ‘We think the Germans should pay for this one.’ Then he approached German organizations, and the German organization said, ‘Well, how would it look if we gave him money to record interviews with old Nazis?'”

So, working on a shoestring budget, Holland found interviewees in senior homes in the towns where concentration camps existed. Finding that many people remained in such places their whole lives, he’d chat up people he saw walking down the street or on the side of a country road.

In the resulting 90-minute feature, there are interviewees who express regret for their participation in the Nazi enterprise, but others strike a more troubling tone. One interviewee argues that Jewish people shouldn’t have been killed, but should have been moved away to a new country. As the film eschews the typical talking heads, those views are presented largely without context.

Some historians say that approach is problematic, as it may encourage viewers to take the interviewees’ opinions as fact.

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Mary Fulbrook, a professor of German History at UCL who is working with the archive of Holland’s interviews at UCL, says she was disappointed watching Final Account, especially after having talked to Holland when he was embarking on the project.

“I’ve watched it through several times now, and the first time I watched it, I felt extremely unsettled because I thought the naive viewer could think from watching it, ‘We’ve seen authentic eyewitness testimony. We’ve seen how it really was.’ And that is not the case at all. It could even, in some places, elicit a degree of sympathy [for] these poor young people that were blinded by the ideology,” she says. “It’s not a historical documentary in the sense of telling you the history. It really isn’t.”

Fulbrook says a more balanced historical picture would leave viewers with no doubt that, even in the early moments when prejudice was expressed via “those little microaggressions in everyday life,” Nazis knew what they were doing.

“It is a very specific group that he’s interviewing here. It’s not Germany as a whole by any means,” she says. “I’m still surprised at the way this came out, because it doesn’t betray the kind of conflicted feelings I would have expected it to, or the difficulties we have in understanding Germany at the time.”

An invaluable teaching tool

Stephen D. Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation, says the documentary will be an invaluable teaching tool, and will benefit from the kind of screenings that include a panel of experts to put it in context afterwards. The USC Shoah Foundation is producing a curriculum for teaching from the interviews, and there will be more resources on the film’s site.

“It does raise questions that I think are better suited to a learning environment,” says Smith. “I think one needs to be very responsible with this content because, first of all, we see in the mindset of some of the former Nazis that they still strongly believe in the ideology of National Socialism and are loyal to it and want to explain it. In capturing and sharing this content, we inadvertently become sort of mouthpieces for the narcissists themselves, and I don’t think the filmmaker intended that. I think he really wanted us to see what is in the minds of these people 75 years on.”

Smith adds that the film is a good way to start a conversation about how easy it is for fascists to lure people in; discussing that topic can help ensure that future generations can spot warning signs of despots. That said, as the Executive Director of a foundation that is known for gathering testimonies from Holocaust survivors, Smith admits that after listening to some of the raw interviews, he wished some of the questioning was harsher.

“If you don’t spell out just how dangerous what they did was, you could come away feeling like they’re a nice group of elderly people who are like anybody’s grandma or grandpa, which is partly the point here,” Smith says. “For an uninitiated audience, it possibly lacks a little bit of spelling out precisely what they were a part of, what their unit did, how the organization they were a part of contributed to the Holocaust.”

So in the end, Final Account is not the final account of Nazi perpetrators, bystanders or collaborators. Holland’s quest is yet to be fully realized, for it remains to be seen what books, exhibitions, videos or documentaries will come out of the hundreds of interviews he conducted. Final Account, therefore, may be more of a beginning than an end.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com