The decision of the regional court in Munich in 2011 against John Demjanjuk, a former guard of the concentration camp in Sobibor, marked a new beginning in dealing with Nazi crimes. Hundreds of already closed proceedings were retrieved from the archives to search for the last living Nazi criminals. The two-part TV documentary by Akademie fellows Astrid Schult and Gunther Merz Das letzte Kapitel I + II (The Last Chapter I+ II, 2014) reports on the late search for justice.
Marte Kräher: The starting point of the film Das letzte Kapitel was a new »investigation wave« against around 50 former Auschwitz guards in Germany in 2013. How did you proceed from there to approach and develop the topic?
Astrid Schult: Both of us studied in Ludwigsburg, and therefore I knew about the Zentrale Stelle and their work. Here was my first approach, and I started the research and met Kurt Schrimm, the head of the institution. The Zentrale Stelle led by Andreas Brendel in Dortmund was another starting point. Here, the investigators focused mainly on the massacre in Oradour-sur-Glane, France. These two storylines became essential for our film. The next step was visiting Auschwitz and Oradour and talking with victims of the NS Regime. But the film got its final form in the editing process. It was a great benefit to us that we could quickly start with the filming and the Redaktion (editorial office) gave us the freedom to develop our story during the filming.
MK: When you filmed the work of the investigators, was it difficult to film in these official locations and to make the protagonist comfortable with the camera?
Gunther Merz: The prosecutors were very cooperative. At the same time, they have a role in society and also an obligation to confidentiality concerning their investigations. That made it difficult for us to gain insight in their work. But still, they begun to trust us after a while.
AS: We filmed for nearly a whole year and visited the protagonists time and again. The time factor definitely played a roll with building trust, but so did the lasting interest for the work on the part of the investigators.
MK: Their investigations and the ensuing prosecutions evoke very different – and not only approving – reactions among the people you talk to, among them several Holocaust victims. How did you get in touch with them and how did you approach the interviews?
AS: I got to know the contemporary witnesses/victims of the NS Regime through different institutions and contacts. The interviews were very challenging because we are the descendants of the nation of the perpetrators, and that had an impact on me and my questions. The interviews were all very intense, and confronting the victims with my questions was not easy. These encounters were very important for me, not only in the context of the film.
MK: One of the investigators explained the fairly large amount of investigations with a change of the legal concept caused by the prosecution of John Demjanjuk in 2011. Did you try to ask the responsible Federal Court of Justice (BGH) for a statement?
AS: We had to limit ourselves to a certain number of people and institutions and make a choice which information we were going to convey in the film in the time available. I find the questions about justice, morals, fault, and the deeper layers of the history interesting. In post-war Germany, there were various reasons which led to the suppression and delay of these proceedings. The role of justice in the Third Reich is also a topic for itself.
MK: In the film, you visit the crime scene in Oradour-sur-Glane, France, with one of the witnesses, Renée Maneuff. Can you tell a little bit more about this moving encounter?
GM: In the forefront, we asked ourselves: How will the victims of Oradour look at us Germans today? Because of these thoughts, it was very moving how warm, open and humorous Mme. Maneuff was to us. She offered us a Bordeaux for breakfast. She called our sound man »my big little one.« She hugged us many times and was very happy about our visit and interest in her personal story.
AS: A protagonist who is so honest and warm as Mme. Maneuff is a sort of gift for a film maker. There are people who simply instinctively know exactly when the point has come to tell a certain person their whole personal story.
MK: You’ve also talked to a former Nazi perpetrator, who remains anonymous in the film. How did you feel when you contacted him and how was his reaction when you confronted him with his past?
AS: It did not feel very good to meet a person that you have a deep distrust of. I didn’t want to shake his hand and I was glad he did not ask for it. Of course it was an old grandpa in his nineties and physically handicapped. Despite that, he was very alert, clever and asked me to keep his words anonymous. I spoke with him twice for about 4 hours. Even if he tried to justify himself, you could still tell that he did not feel guilty. That does not mean that he had a happy life though, but rather that he probably had just found a way over many decades to suppress his feelings of guilt, if he ever had any. I didn’t encounter any signs of remorse from him.
MK: Many of the lawsuits have been rejected. You show that in the example of the trial against the former SS man Siert B. in Hagen …
GM: Most of the lawsuits have been abandoned by the courts because of lack of evidence and the inability of the accused to go to trial. Many of the accused have died in the meantime. Many courts don’t like to accept the lawsuit. On the one hand there’s the lack of evidence, on the other the trials receive a lot of media interest. Some lawsuits like the one against the former SS member Siert. B. seem to have strange reasons why they have been abandoned. In the near future, we will focus on other lawsuits against several former Auschwitz guards.
MK: In the film the investigators mentioned that it’s not only an obligation, but also a moral responsibility to take former Nazi criminals to court especially by taking into account the perspective of the victims. Did you feel a similar responsibility in making this film?
AS: Of course I wanted to find out why there are suddenly investigations against NS criminals. I could not understand why so many escaped justice. It took Germany decades to accept the massacre of Oradour as a war crime. In the meantime, the main people responsible have died. It is a delayed heritage that my generation bears. You can’t push away the past. One day it will come back and get you.
MK: Have the experiences which you gained in the context of the film changed your work and thinking as a filmmaker? And how is the film related to the projects on which you are working at Solitude?
AS: For me, it was the first time dealing with a historic topic. New questions came up: How do you speak about the past interestingly enough with the known pictures everyone has in mind? How do you distinguish levels of time? It was a challenge to tell the story with no historic footage and limited budget. It was very interesting for me to deal with the image of society and the image of humanity during the Nazi era. The human psyche appears here in all its dark facets, as if under a magnifying glass. Furthermore, it was an unique opportunity to speak with contemporary witnesses. When I was ready to ask my grandparents questions, they were already long dead. In this film, we also wanted to know what type of imprints a person, society and epoch has left behind in the here and now. Here at Solitude, I want to find out with my project what imprints others as well as I myself will leave behind one day.