DEFA Film Library
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Cinema of East Germany
press praises the German documentary
January 16, 2007
The release of Verdict on Auschwitz with English subtitles was initiated and carried out by the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The Library offers a 2-DVD set with accompanying educational materials to schools, colleges and universities, as well as public libraries and cultural institutions; it includes the full 180-minute documentary, as well as a shorter one-hour version. The Library teamed up with New York distributor First Run Features for the current limited theatrical and home video release to make the film available to a wider audience.
Contact: Hiltrud Schulz, (413) 545-3656, firstname.lastname@example.org
AM New York
Verdict on Auschwitz
by Jay Carr
January 11, 2007, 3:32 PM EST
Less well-known than the
Nuremberg War Crimes Trials is the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial that began in 1963
and lasted until 1965. But it's just as essential to understanding the enormity
of the Nazi crimes.
A court is a place of reason and order where reverence is given to historical precedent and a persuasive closing argument. A hallowed, musty, polished wood hall where attorneys provide zealous advocacy while wearing tailored suits, and strive to find favor in the eyes of old judges and a jury of common men and women. The death center called Auschwitz was a place of maniacal chaos where waste matter soaked the floorboards of cramped pens upon which petrified people slept, and diseased children were experimented on by their physicians, and rail thin humans purposely walked into barbed wire electric fences to escape the torture of a living hell, and bodies were burned in ovens after their inhabitants had been gassed to death inside sealed cement coffins with the screams of shock and terror rising up to a deaf gray sky.
Verdict on Auschwitz is a three part documentary which painstakingly recreates the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial which took place between 1963 and 1965 in Germany using archival audio, video, and more recent interviews. The film is tough to get through without becoming rather enraged – enraged to the brink of insanity. Beyond the natural emotional reaction to the merciless mass killing of your people by a hideous group of psychotic, calculated animals, and beyond the anger and shame that they managed to kill six million of us without more of a fight, it really sickened me that in 1963, approximately fifteen YEARS after the war had ended, Nazi murderers with the innocent blood of so many on their hands, finally stood trial. These men, living under the same names used when they stalked their helpless prey at Auschwitz, were citizens raising families, running businesses, breathing freely as if there never was a Holocaust. And as the trial proved unequivocally, they lived without regret or heavy conscience, merely pleased to go about the rest of their existences. I used to slaughter people as they plead for their lives, now I sell auto parts. Oh me? Back then I dropped poison gas canisters into a room of naked shivering Jews, now I teach Math.
Whether you can stand this type of material in general will affect your ability to stomach this documentary– it is on the heavy side, even as far as Holocaust films go. And the fact that the film is in German (with subtitles) adds to the difficulty, as it is a language that seems now to instinctively appall and grate on Jewish ears. On many levels I am just happy that the film exists – as a concise, cumulative record of what occurred. I must thank and commend German filmmaker Rolf Bickel for compiling all the documents, photographs, recordings, and footage which he puts together rather astutely in order to give his audience not only a sense of the trial, but a sense of what a Nazi was (the psychological formation), and what Auschwitz-Birkenau was like (the demonic science). Because the Nazis were such obsessive compulsive pragmatists, their records of the death camps are detailed and voluminous, and Bickel got his hands on all of them. Bickel cleverly allows us to hear the testimony using authentic audio recordings from the trial, while he cuts between shots of the room in which the trial took place, the faces of the individuals involved, and, most chillingly, the camp itself, down to the torture chambers, stand up cells, crematoria, and medical facilities. If you are not able or cannot stand to travel to Poland and visit the place where our people suffered hideously and died by the millions, this film takes you there – in straightforward, undramatic fashion - as best a film could.
Verdict on Auschwitz
Guilty of more than obedience
by John P. McCarthy
“The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965,” this tri-part German documentary was begun in 1993 after the filmmakers discovered 430 hours of audiotapes of the proceedings in a state archive. The engrossing movie has immense value if only because it preserves a fraction of them in its narrative about Auschwitz-Birkenau’s role in the war and the so-called “Final Solution.” And, though not the most polished nonfiction Holocaust film, its deficiencies raise important questions.
Divided into three hour-long parts (“The Investigation,” “The Trial” and “The Verdict”), it has a meandering quality, often circling back to include information previously covered or embarking on background tangents. There’s a painful irony in this seeming lack of organization given the Nazi’s emphasis on efficiency. Much of the evidence against the 22 defendants, all SS officers or functionaries stationed at the camp, came from the regime’s own meticulous paper trail. Along with the audiotapes, the journalist-filmmakers use a trove of photos, interviews and footage to provide a comprehensive blueprint for research. They’re interested in the big picture, but it’s not always clear why a particular detail is included or how it fits into the legal case. Their tone is dispassionate, leaving eloquence to the recorded witnesses and the presiding judge, and they shy away from exploring the roots of anti-Semitism. Highlighting the pecuniary motives behind the mass extermination is one of the movie’s strengths. “No one was murdered without first being robbed,” observes a survivor.
Although the Allies conducted the Nuremberg trials in 1946, and Israel prosecuted Adolph Eichmann in 1963, this was Germany’s first major attempt to reckon with its National Socialist past. Apparently the defendants simply argued they were following orders, a familiar claim exposed as hollow in the case of these men by the movie’s very discussion of the SS mindset and its motto “Obedience Unto Death.” But, overall, there’s a reluctance to delve into moral issues, including the concept of culpability. The filmmakers might argue this is necessary both for doing history and pursuing justice; not until the facts are detailed can causes be delineated, blame be apportioned and the crimes begun to be fathomed. By that measure, this informative chronicle represents another step toward rendering the Holocaust less unspeakable and less indescribable.
Verdict on Auschwitz (Not Rated)
by Peter Rainer
Directors: Rolf Bickel,
Dietrich Wagner. With survivors of the Holocaust. (180 min.)
Review: Verdict On Auschwitz
by Ryan Stewart
Filed under: Documentary, New Releases, Theatrical Reviews, New in Theaters, Politics
"Species shame" is the phrase Martin Amis selects in his book Koba the Dread, to describe the feeling that washes over someone who considers the horrors and the outright insanity of Nazism. It's the insanity part that's most successfully captured in 1993's three-part documentary Verdict on Auschwitz, which is being given a stateside release on January 12. The film chronicles the happenings at the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, Germany, which took place in 1963-1965, around the time of the Eichmann trial in Israel. Pieced together from 430 hours of audio tapes from 211 Auschwitz survivors, the resulting film will make you believe that some sort of tangible virus must have swept through the Nazi ranks, causing an outbreak of sheer lunacy that culminated in the most random nightmare scenarios imaginable at the Auschwitz camp. At one point, we are told of a deranged SS guard named Stark, who had the habit of naming Jewish women who arrived at Auschwitz "Sarah," and then shooting his Sarahs at random, unprovoked. That's one of dozens of similar memories dredged up in the film.
The huge cache of audio tapes was discovered by directors Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner in the basement of the State Archives in Frankfurt, and when watching the film the first thing that strikes you is the challenge faced by the filmmakers in finding three hours worth of archival footage to match with the endless audio snippets. Long stretches of the film rely on a single camera set-up in a deserted courtroom. With an empty witness chair filling the frame, we are expected to let imagination fill in the missing pieces. This is sometimes successful, sometimes not, but there's no question that the audio is never less than compelling, and sometimes stunning. To hear the story of a Jewish artist who determined to draw the gas chambers in his mind and made the discovery that the shower heads were actually phony shower heads, with only indentations in the heads instead of holes, sends the mind reeling. The Nazi project to liquidate "all attainable Jews" is aptly described as something that has no comparison even in the Middle Ages.
One of the most chilling figures to emerge in the film is Dr. Victor Capesius, who worked with Joseph Mengele on the selection platform at Auschwitz. A former employee of IG Farben, Capesius excelled at leading a double life. Video of his former acquaintances are reminiscent of the neighbor who tells the news camera that he never knew the guy next door was a serial killer. In his closing statement, Capesius said "I did not cause anyone to suffer in Auschwitz. I was polite, friendly and helpful to everyone whenever I could. I am guilty of no crimes in Auschwitz. I ask the court for an acquittal." The lunatic Stark arguably one-ups that closing statement with his own: "Esteemed court, I participated in many people's deaths. I was totally honest about this fact from the very beginning. Following the war, I often asked myself if this made me a criminal, but I have failed to find a valid answer for myself." Watching the film, you can almost feel the court members throwing up their hands in frustration at statements like that.
Fritz Bauer, seen in the photo above, was the attorney general in Hesse and is the man most directly responsible for making the Auschwitz trials go forward. It was in 1958 that he secured a class action lawsuit to bring the former Nazis to trial. He also played a major role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann. He is viewed in archival interview footage throughout the film, cigarette always in hand. He appears as a man somewhat beaten down by the exhausting process of going against the grain in postwar-Germany and once famously referred to himself as an exile in the judicial system because of his insistence on dredging up the horrors of Nazism in a country that so desperately wanted to forget. One of the few supportive figures of his quest is presiding judge Hans Hofmeyer, who would eventually sentence the Nazis and make the statement: "If all the defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, it still wouldn't be sufficient to expiate the deeds perpetrated at Auschwitz. For this human life is too short."
Verdict on Auschwitz is a film most valuable for the small, unexpected details it contains, like the mousy, girlish voice of Rudolph Hess, which we hear momentarily in an archival clip. Like the sexual deviant Stark, he seems to be telling us unconsciously that his evil proceeds from some kind of fundamental human weakness. Were the Nazis nothing more than bullies who were given God-like power in a schoolyard? Maybe, but the film tries to give a more thoughtful explanation, going into details about the susceptibility of German Heroic Realism to misuse, and the perils of following a romantic ideology in which all depends upon the force of will. Other details contained in the film are of the type that you don't want to know, but are told anyway -- for example, that the Nazis had a mechanism for tattooing newborn babies in the women's camp. This film would likely find its most receptive audience in schools, where it's three-part structure would make it workable and where young people could get a glimpse of the depths to which humanity can sink.
Verdict on Auschwitz
JUSTICE SERVED Fritz Bauer, the German Attorney
General who pushed for the 1963 trial documented in Verdict on Auschwitz
Scott Brown is a senior writer for EW and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.)
#918/919 February 2, 2007
Limited Release: Jan 12, 2007; Rated: Unrated; Length: 180 Minutes; Genre: Documentary
For the average, passive consumer of history, the crimes of the Nazi regime were answered at Nuremberg — case closed. Not so in Germany, where, in 1963, 22 members of the SS were belatedly brought to trial for horrors perpetrated at Auschwitz. In three hours of discursive yet rivetingly essential documentary footage (an eyeblink by Holocaust doc standards), Verdict on Auschwitz not only tracks the 20-month trial but meticulously re-creates it. You feel the anguish, but also the catharsis, of a reckoning — the kind of healing a hastily gaveled hanging can't deliver. A-
Verdict on Auschwitz
by Chris Barsanti
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.
VERDICT ON AUSCHWITZ
2007, Un-rated, 180 minutes,
First Run Features
Frankfurt Trials of 1963-65 are not as well-known as other post-war judicial
inquiries into the Nazi war crimes. Yet over the course of 20 months, 360
survivors of the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps testified against 22
former SS officers who were responsible for coordinating the operations that
resulted in murder of millions.
The Frankfurt Trials came at an awkward time for Germany (actually, West Germany – the country was divided in the Cold War). Eighteen years passed since the end of the war and the West Germans were more than eager for closure. However, considerable voids in justice remained. While the Nuremberg Trials prosecuted the architects of the Holocaust, many of the SS officers who managed the mass exterminations were still at liberty. The capture in Argentina of Adolf Eichmann by Israeli agents brought a jolting reminder of war criminals who were still at large (most notably Josef Mengele, whose escape is described in the film as primarily being the result of American incompetence).
The Frankfurt Trials were not preserved on film, but audio tapes of the witnesses were recorded. The film makes liberal use of these recording (montages of Auschwitz as it stands today provide the visual accompaniment to the testimonies). The testimony is painful to hear, not only for the description of sadistic cruelty leveled against the concentration camp prisoner but also for the fact the witnesses had to return to Germany to face their accusers (the majority of those called were Jews who left Europe after the liberation of the camps and were able to begin new lives in America, Israel, Australia and even Mexico).
“Verdict on Auschwitz” also poses a disturbing question: when is it time for a country to officially close the book on its crimes against humanity? The answer, of course, is never. This is not to assign the guilt of one generation to those that follow it.
The Germans at least acknowledged what took place. However, some societies prefer to pretend these crimes never took place (Turkey in regard to the Armenian genocide, Japan in regard to its occupation of China in the 1930s and early 1940s). Other societies only acknowledge their actions too many years after the tragedies occurred (the United States in regard to slavery and the genocide against the American Indian nations, Australia and its campaigns against the Aboriginal peoples). If the German nation was uncomfortable with the Frankfurt Trials and the reminder of what transpired in the Holocaust, it is hardly a flaw in the German character. After all, all societies prefer gazing at pretty pictures rather than looking deep into mirrors.
by Tom Tugend
The name Auschwitz has
become a universal synonym for the horrors of the Holocaust and man's infinite
capacity for evil. But how did Auschwitz-Birkenau function as a 24/7
annihilation camp, and who were the men who operated the gears and levers of the
Judgment at Frankfurt
Using never-before-heard audiotapes, new documentary illuminates the so-called ‘Auschwitz trial’ Germany held in the early 1960s.
January 12, 2007
There are three trials of
Nazi war criminals that could be said to represent major turning points in the
world’s understanding of the Shoah. The first, of course, was the Nuremberg War
Crimes Tribunal, held in the wake of the war itself, the first such trial in
history, the event which first made it clear to the entire world the scope of
the Nazis’ crimes. The second was the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, with
a Jewish state meting out justice to one of the principal perpetrators of the
murder of six million European Jews, and the proceedings opening the eyes of
Israelis to the complexities of the Holocaust. Each of these events has received
considerable attention from filmmakers of both fiction and documentary.
Film tracks trial of Auschwitz cogs and by extension, the camp’s horrors
By Tom Tugend
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 9 (JTA) — The name Auschwitz has become synonymous with the horrors of the Holocaust.
How did Auschwitz-Birkenau function as a 24/7 annihilation camp, and who were the men who operated the gears and levers of the killing machine?
A glimpse of the answers is found in “Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965.”
The three-hour documentary capsulizes one of the longest trials in German history. It lasted 20 months and included 22 defendants, 360 witnesses from 19 countries and batteries of lawyers, and was covered by 200 journalists. The presiding judge’s reading of the verdict took 11 hours.
Filmmakers Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner culled their material from 430 hours of original audiotapes of the trial. They discovered the tapes in the basement of a Frankfurt courthouse.
On the defendants’ bank sat 22 former SS men, now paunchy and middle-aged in sober civilian suits. These were not the big shots like Auschwitz commandants Rudolf Hoess or Arthur Liebehenschel, who were executed in Poland shortly after the war.
Rather they were the middle- to low-level functionaries, the hands-on torturers and killers, who had distinguished themselves by their brutality and dedication to the job at hand.
One was Wilhelm Boger, an SS political officer and inventor of the Boger-Swing torture device, on which the genitals of prisoners were smashed.
Another was Josef Klehr, an illiterate medical orderly who strutted about impersonating a doctor and killed thousands through phenol injections.
Otto Kaduk, a Zyklon B handler, described the operation of the gas chambers with an engineer’s precision. Until his arrest he had been operating an old age home.
By the nature of the subject, this is a difficult, often agonizing film to watch, with few light moments. One is inadvertently supplied by defense attorney Hans Laternser, who gives new meaning to the word chutzpah.
Laternser argues that the SS men who took part in the selection process as the trains pulled into the camp actually saved lives by assigning some of the men and women to forced labor. If his clients hadn’t done so, the attorney proposes, all the arrivals would have been killed immediately.
At the end of the trial, six defendants were given life sentences and three were acquitted. The rest were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 14 years.
For all its historical and educational value, the trial, and by extension the film, lacks one important dimension.
While Auschwitz-Birkenau was certainly a killing field for vast numbers of Roma, or Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war and political offenders, the vast majority of victims were Jews.
Yet in focusing on the nuts and bolts on how Auschwitz functioned, the victims fade into the background. This missing aspect may lie partly in the legal mechanics of the trial, but also reflects the reluctance of the West and East German governments in the 1960s to fully confront the Jewish dimension of the Final Solution.
Verdict on Auschwitz
by Paul Birchall
Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner’s powerful documentary focuses on the 1963 Frankfurt trial of many of the SS officers and Gestapo goons who ran Auschwitz, including rare archival footage of daily operations at the death camp, as well as the actual courtroom testimony of survivors, who describe in often calm, deadpan tones horrific experiences that still inspire outrage decades later. We also get biographies of the defendants, most of whom were known as peaceable, pleasant, even delightful fellows – right up until they uncorked the Zyklon B. The filmmakers are methodical and detail-obsessed: No person in the movie makes a statement that isn’t backed up by footage showing what is being talked about – or by shots of the documents from the state archives. Presumably their purpose is to provide unimpeachable proof of the Holocaust to directly rebut Holocaust-denying quackaloons like the ones who recently gathered at a convention in Iran. In a world in which there are so many documentaries about the Nazis that some wags have renamed the History Channel “The Hitler Channel,” this fascinating, educational description of Auschwitz and of the events that followed its liberation is a haunting reminder that the Holocaust was indeed state-sanctioned genocide.
VERDICT ON AUSCHWITZ: The Frankfurt-Auschwitz Trial 1963–’65
by Ella Taylor
If you pay any attention at all to Holocaust history, there’ll be few surprises in the actual evidence about the biggest site of Hitler’s Final Solution offered in this three-hour exhumation (shortened from a much longer 1993 version) of the trial of former Nazi apparatchiks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Consider the context, though, and this German-made documentary becomes a fascinating record — via a two-year Frankfurt courtroom drama less splashy than either the Nuremberg or Eichmann trials that preceded it — of the country’s awkward baby steps toward confronting its hideous legacy. Culling from 430 hours of audio recordings and limited archive footage from the proceedings, as well as interviews with observers and participants, filmmakers Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner provide a deconstruction of the mechanics of life at Auschwitz so exhaustive, it would make Claude Lanzmann proud.
Verdict on Auschwitz dwells properly on the uniform mendacity and lack of remorse among the functionaries who ran the Third Reich’s most efficient charnel house — liars and cowards all, long after the fact. In testimony after testimony, often delivered in chillingly dispassionate tones by former victims about their treatment by sadists who went way beyond their brief, the film handily dispatches the notion that those who ran the camps were just following orders. The big fat elephant in the room is the court’s heavy emphasis on the perpetrators and nervous avoidance of the word “Jew.” Still, this is required viewing for everyone, especially for David Irving, Mel Gibson’s dad and all other profane deniers of a bloody century’s bloodiest genocide. (Grande 4-Plex)
'Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965'
A documentary of the Auschwitz trial builds a horrifying portrait.
by Carina Chocano
To call "Verdict on
Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965" comprehensive seriously
understates its scope and attention to detail. The three-hour, three-part series
bills itself as the first documentary on the trial, but it's no doubt the last
word on the subject too. A top-secret S.S. project devised with the purpose of
annihilating every last European Jew, what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau
remained clouded until two decades after the end of the war, when the truth came
out over the course of 20 arduous months.
Beginning shortly after the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the Frankfurt Auschwitz
trial confronted returning survivors with the sight of their prosperous,
contented tormentors, whose closing remarks not only denied responsibility for
or awareness of what had happened but exhibited a stunning lack of remorse.
Hannah Arendt coined the term "the banality of evil" in reference to Eichmann
while reporting on his trial for the New Yorker, and the idea was reinforced in
spades in Frankfurt. The defendants at the Frankfurt trial were not the
masterminds of earlier proceedings but mid- to low-ranking functionaries
notorious for their sadism. Among them were a cabinetmaker, an accountant, an
importer, a pharmacist, a vocational teacher and a butcher. Josef Klehr, an
illiterate orderly, liked to pretend to be a doctor who administered lethal
injections straight into the heart. Dr. Viktor Capesius, a former I.G. Farben
sales representative, recognized by astonished former neighbors and clients
interned at the camps, claimed to have been "polite, friendly and helpful to
everyone" and requested acquittal.
Verdict on Auschwitz
From an article on the Jewish Film Festival: http://www.nysun.com/article/46367?page_no=1
The festival mixes lighter subjects with darker films, such as Christian Delage's powerful documentary, "Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes." Interestingly, this film should be seen in conjunction with one not in the festival, Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner's "Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963–1965," which opens Friday. Drawn from 430 hours of audiotapes, the documentary offers a chilling look at the Frankfurt trial of members of the SS.
The Unvarnished Reality of the Holocaust
By Neil Genzlinger
The timing may be coincidental, but for perspective on the hanging of Saddam Hussein it would be difficult to do better than a viewing of “Verdict on Auschwitz,” a stark, emotionally draining documentary on the trial in Frankfurt of 22 defendants accused of being part of the Nazi death machine.
The film, initially produced in 1993 by a German public television station for the 30th anniversary of the start of the trial, seems ragged and disorganized by the current standards of American documentaries, but that doesn’t detract from its power. Instead it enhances it, serving as a reminder that Hollywood treatments of the Holocaust, as excellent as some of them have been, are no match for the unvarnished reality.
Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner built the film around audiotapes of the trial, which included testimony by more than 200 Auschwitz survivors. The prosecution’s painstaking case offers contrasts with the trial of Mr. Hussein, which has been faulted by some rights groups, but so does the long delay in pursuing the defendants. Which is more unsettling, the relatively quick justice meted out to Mr. Hussein, or the picture of the midlevel managers of Auschwitz living free of repercussions for almost 20 years after the war?
Another point of comparison: against the chutzpah of the Nazis in this film, Mr. Hussein, with his protestations and weak attempts to turn the tables, registers as a pipsqueak. In a particularly jaw-dropping clip, Adolf Eichmann, whose conviction in an Israeli court in 1961 was a sort of prelude to the Frankfurt trials, blames higher-ups for his crimes and applies the V-word to himself.
“The subordinates of these superiors are now victims,” he says. “I am such a victim, and it should not be forgotten.” Some defendants at the Frankfurt trial tried similar hogwash, claiming they did not know that mass murder was taking place in their camp. It rings ludicrously hollow, a reminder that those who take responsibility for their own actions fare best in the eyes of history.
VERDICT ON AUSCHWITZ
The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965
Opens today in Manhattan.
Directed by Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner; in German, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Armin Alker and Dominik Schunk; edited by Sigrid Rienäcker; produced by Gerhard Hehrleine; released by First Run Features. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 180 minutes. This film is not rated
Telling how but not why of Nazis
by Gene Seymour
The question may never be answered, but it never ceases to need asking: Why is
it that the same human imagination capable of painting beautiful landscapes,
composing haunting symphonies and inventing satellite radio is also tempted to
devise elaborate ways to torture, poison and eviscerate masses of helpless men,
women and children?
"Verdict on Auschwitz," which
chronicles the two-year mid-1960s trial of former SS officers who took part in
massacres and other unspeakable acts at the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration
camps, overflows with even grimmer stories than these. And no matter how many
depictions or dramatizations one may have seen of the Holocaust, hearing these
recollections of audio-taped testimony from four decades ago makes its horrors
somehow more vivid, infuriating and agonizing.
Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965
Originally broadcast on German public television in 1993, Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner's documentary Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965 is a monumental achievement. This mesmerizing record of the legal proceedings against twenty-two former members of the SS brilliantly weaves together rare, archival footage, interviews, and trial excerpts culled from 430 hours of audiotapes. Although it's profoundly disturbing, Verdict on Auschwitz nevertheless demands to be seen, for it indelibly captures what Hessian Attorney General (and Holocaust survivor) Fritz Bauer rightly described then as Germany's moment to "find the truth."
While the trial of the Auschwitz adjutant Robert Mulka and twenty-one other SS camp officers has not embedded itself as deeply in the international public consciousness as the Nuremberg war tribunals (the subject of Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg), the courtroom proceedings in Frankfurt transfixed West Germans for twenty months. Over the course of the trial, 360 witnesses, including 211 Auschwitz survivors, testified regarding the horrors either sanctioned or directly perpetrated by Mulka, pharmacist/Josef Mengele associate Victor Capesius, and the camp's political investigator, Wilhelm Boger, a.k.a. "the Devil of Auschwitz," among others. As the concentration camp survivors described the gruesome living conditions and monstrous brutality they endured at Auschwitz in wrenching detail, none of the defendants evinced the slightest bit of remorse for their actions. All vehemently maintained that they "knew nothing," that they were merely obeying the orders of the true and only perpetrator of these atrocities, Hitler. Despite the exhaustive evidence against his clients—not just witness testimony, but SS films, photographs, and the camp's meticulous records—the defendants' chief attorney, Hans Laternser, argued that they had actually subverted Hitler's plans for exterminating the Jews by sending some prisoners to work, rather than straight to the gas chambers. Laternser's outrageous courtroom tactics backfired, however, as all defendants were found guilty on August 20, 1965.
Given the voluminous amount of evidence and documentation involved in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, Bickel and Wagner do a masterful job of distilling it into a three-hour documentary, organized into three parts, that also sheds fascinating light on the Nazis' rise to power. In the first part, "The Investigation," the filmmakers provide a riveting overview of the events that led to the trial—and how the authorities basically let the notorious Dr. Mengele escape to South America in the late 1940s. Expert witness Hans Buchheim also discusses the SS ideology of "absolute toughness," which would manifest itself most brutally in the torturing and killing of camp prisoners. The actual trial comprises the second and most chilling part of the documentary, with "The Verdict" bringing Bickel and Wagner's film to its devastating yet just close. It may be a punishing film to watch, but Verdict on Auschwitz is one of the great documentaries about World War II, and Germany's attempts to come to terms with its nightmarish past.
Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963–1965
Dirs. Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner. 2005. N/R. 3hrs. In German, with subtitles. Documentary.
“We must show the world,” says chief prosecutor Fritz Bauer, “that our new German Republic is a democracy determined to preserve the dignity of every individual.” So rings an early (and, post–Saddam snuff video, timely) sentiment in this hyperdetailed account of the 20-month trial of Nazi officers once stationed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Largely assembled from original audio recordings taken at the tense proceedings, along with recent footage from the ghostly grounds, Verdict on Auschwitz presents an ennobling—if excruciating—testament to the purging spirit of justice, dragging postwar Germany into a confrontation with its past two decades after the fact.
The Quad is screening a shorter version than the four-hour cut from 1993. But even abbreviated, it’s hard to imagine any viewer leaving dissatisfied at the trove of lawyerly detail: reams of documents, ghastly blueprints of ovens and gas chambers, execution orders. Just as gripping are the occasional glimpses of early media frenzy surrounding the event, with banks of photographers and cameramen angling for access. If you’ve seen Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentaries Shoah or Sobibor, you’ll know that such epics benefit from a bit more reflection. But as a compilation of evidence, this is damningly complete.
Verdict on Auschwitz: Nazi Trial Documentary Chronicles the Horrors of the
Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965
by Ken Fox
Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner's comprehensive three-hour overview, which first aired on German television in 1993, is rich in sickening historical detail but strangely devoid of any critical analysis of what unfolded in the courtrooms of Frankfurt am Main beginning in 1963.
While not the first German trial to prosecute the SS officers charged with executing Hitler's Final Solution — such trials had in fact been held regularly since the international court at Nuremberg — it was the largest. By the time the trial opened on December 1963, a total of 22 Auschwitz SS men, including Robert Mulka, adjutant to the camp's notorious commandant Rudolf Hoess, had been arrested and charged. The trial would also prove to be the longest: Closing statements and the verdicts of the six member jury and three judges wouldn't be heard until nearly two years later. Cameras were forbidden in the courtroom after the first 15 minutes of the trial, but the entire proceedings were taped — 430 hours in — and Bickel and Wagner rely heavily on those recordings, replayed over shots of the now-empty but still haunted courtroom. Horrifying witness testimonies from Auschwitz survivors — one given while the sounds of children playing outside the courtroom windows can be heard over a detailed description of a mass murder — conjure scenes of unimaginable cruelty and misery. In between their chronological recounting of the trial, Bickel and Wagner sift through the evidence dossiers, provide biographies of the defendants — all of them "ordinary men" — and describe the workings of the camp and the horrible economy it fostered. The footage they provide of Auschwitz today is chilling in its quiet and emptiness.
Like the proceedings itself, the film is a crucially important recounting of what Himmler wrongly predicted would go down in history as "an unnamed chapter which shall remain forever unspoken," but curiously lacks any critique of the trial's ultimate failures. As Rebecca Wittman has recently pointed out in her book Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial, the proceedings brought an unprecedented amount of international attention to the actual details of the Final Solution, many of which were not widely known, and once again asked the German public to confront their past. But the new German republic's determination to try the defendants as ordinary criminals according to the West German penal code — a code which, unlike the international laws enforced at Nuremberg, did not include "crimes against humanity" among its charges — led to a deeply unsatisfactory outcome. According to West German law, prosecutors needed to prove personal motivation and knowledge of the illegality of the act in order for a defendant to be found guilty of perpetrating murder. Consequently, the court wound up inadvertently legitimizing the criminal Nazi regime by finding guilty or murder only those "excess perpetrators" whose sadism drove them to exceed "normal" SS orders and act on their own; the vast majority who followed "legal" but obviously criminal orders from SS command were "only" found guilty of aiding and abetting genocide. As dry as these legal details may be, a consideration of the inability of any ordinary system of justice to deal with Auschwitz might have said as much about the unprecedented enormity of what occurred on that vast stretch of Polish swampland as the grisly details the film necessarily offers in abundance.
Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965
by Ronnie Scheib
Holocaust survivors give testimony about the most infamous of the Nazi death camps in the three-hour documentary “Verdict on Auschwitz.”
A First Run Features release of a DEFA Film Library presentation of a Hessischer Rundfunk production. Produced by Gerhard Hehrleine. Directed, written by Rolf Bickel, Dietrich Wagner.
With: Herman Langbein, Joachim Kugler, Dr, Fritz Baueur, many others.
Narrator: Edgar M. Boehke.
(German, Polish, Russian, English dialogue)
Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner's ambitious three-hour documentary, based on 430 hours of audiotapes from the 1963-65 trial of 22 Auschwitz SS officers, was originally made for German TV in 1993. Though it contains little hitherto unknown information, the contrast between meticulous Nazi record-keeping and the anguished voices of survivors recounting their ordeal resurrects the horror anew. Furthermore, documentary reps a fascinating reflection on Germany's ongoing attempts to come to terms with its past. First Run Features release, which opens today at Gotham's Quad Cinema, should establish a frontrunner slot on public or cable TV.
In marked contrast to the recent Canadian documentary "Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes," the testimony here comes in purely audio form, the visual content depending entirely on choices made by the filmmakers. The film is divided into three parts (originally aired separately): the investigation, the trial and the verdict. Though Bickel and Wagner use these divisions to loosely structure the mass of material, they rarely seem constrained by the timeline.
Within the courtroom, the voices of former inmates re-create the unimaginable day-to-day reality of the death camp for Frankfurt crowds drawn by the headlines. The filmmakers not only illustrate the testimony with footage and photographs, but also examine the proceedings from the vantage point of what came before (dipping into 1918 archival clips to trace the formation of the SS, for instance, or freely sampling testimony at the Nuremberg trials) and what came after (later interviews with prosecutors and activists disclose some behind-the-scenes political maneuverings). The film attempts to contextualize both the Holocaust and the 1960s trial for a '90s German audience.
But it is the chilling succession of facts and documentation in the arid judicial proceedings -- broken by the naked pain of disembodied voices with no faces, under images of too-familiar artifacts of manufactured death -- that gives the documentary its weight.
Bickel and Wagner are quite sparing in their use of the audio tapes, wisely doling them out for maximum effect over the three-hour running time. Thus, the flat, outrageous statement of the camp's second-in-command that he knew and saw nothing of the deaths at Auschwitz is followed by the emotional reaction of a survivor explaining how he knew everything by his second day there -- he had only to read the message in blood on the wall.
Camera (color/B&W archival), Armin Alker, Dominik Schunk; editor, Sigrid Rienacker; sound, Wolfgang Horch, Dieter Fuhr. Reviewed on DVD, New York, Jan. 8, 2007. Running time: 180 MIN.
Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurter Auschwitz Trial
by F. Swietek
In German w/English
subtitles. DVD; Booklet included
DEFA Film Library
The trial of more than 20 West German defendants who served at the notorious death camp Auschwitz was not help until some two decades after World War II and extended over two full years. But it was of extraordinary significance: not only in the interest of the justice—however delayed—but also because the trial compelled the relatively complacent people of postwar Germany to confront their past. In 1993, Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner drew on the 400-plus hours of audio testimony, together with newsreel footage, stills, and interviews with witnesses, prosecutors, judges, and observers, to create a three-hour televised documentary, divided into segments titled “The Investigation,” “The Trial,” and “The Verdict.” In 2005, the pair re-edited the series into a single hour-long film, replacing the German narration with an English track. Both versions are included on this double-disc set, and while the longer one obviously contains more material—including substantial treatments of figures such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele—both programs are able accounts of the trial and powerful contributions to Holocaust history.
One might question some editing choices—a summary of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies, for example, is held back until the close of the third episode in the original series—but overall, the direct and unvarnished approach taken in both versions of Verdict on Auschwitz results in a movingly understated testimony to the heroism of survivors and dedicated judicial officials, as well as a quietly devastating commentary on the brutality of which human beings are capable. DVD extras include information on the archive of audio tapes, director filmographies, a contemporary newsreel on the trial, and clips from public readings of trail testimony, held simultaneously in East and West Germany in a rare Cold War gesture of cooperation.
Highly recommended. Editor’s Choice. Aud: C, P.
**** = Excellent, highest rating
C, P = Colleges&Universities, Public Libraries
Trial and Terror
by J. Hoberman
After 20 months and 300 witnesses, "the horrific has become almost routine." So the narrator notes late in Verdict on Auschwitz, a 1993 German documentary on the mid-'60s trial of 22 SS men, just now getting an American release. If anything, the story of the Auschwitz genocide factory is today even more familiar—which makes the defamiliarizing "German" quality of this three-hour doc all the more necessary.
Directed by Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner, Verdict on Auschwitz is less epic in its aspirations than Claude Lanzmann's monumental Shoah and less critical in its approach than The Specialist, in which Eyal Sivan revisited the Eichmann trial as theater. The model is Alain Resnais's Night and Fog; Verdict on Auschwitz similarly juxtaposes archival footage and postwar material (both 1963 and 1993) to produce shocking eruptions of past atrocities in the context of an orderly everyday Europe.
Verdict on Auschwitz is divided into three parts. The first, "The Investigation," introduces the defendants—well-fed war criminals who have just been hanging out in Germany—while noting other figures (Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, Rudolf Hoess) made unavailable by death or disappearance. Soviet footage graphically documenting the liberation of Auschwitz is followed by a former Nazi judge's testimony on his wartime trip to Auschwitz. Given by a German, this detailed account of the extermination procedure is, as the prosecuting attorney dryly notes, "a rare exception."
The movie's second part, named "The Trial" for maximum double meaning, describes daily life in Auschwitz from the perspective of surviving inmates—a few of whom, notably Filip Müller and Rudolf Vrba, will be familiar to viewers of Shoah. Witnesses emphasize Auschwitz as the site of state-sanctioned looting as well as a facility that mass-produced death on an unprecedented scale. Vrba, who escaped in 1942, maintains that the concentration camp was essentially "about robbery—murder was a by-product." But other testimony suggests that Auschwitz was more like an orgy of spontaneous (as well as organized) killing and that once hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews arrived in 1944, the extermination mechanism went into inconceivable overdrive.
A key event in that thing the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past), the Frankfurt trial served as the basis for Peter Weiss's "documentary" play The Investigation. Indeed, staged throughout West Germany in the mid '60s, Weiss's drama had at least as much influence on public opinion, particularly the burgeoning New Left, as the trial itself. Weiss organized actual testimony to make a Marxist argument that Auschwitz was the logical culmination of capitalism (rather than, for example, the logical culmination of European anti-Semitism). This is an ideological line that the filmmakers are eager to avoid.
The emphasis here is on the Jewishness of the victims. A brief digression acknowledges the difficulty that German authorities had in encouraging and arranging for surviving witnesses to travel from Israel or America to Frankfurt. Their presence is crucial, although at one point the prosecuting attorney says that he could have made his case purely on documentary evidence. The filmmakers only refer indirectly to the sort of cross-examination the victims endured: In the movie's final third, "The Verdict," it's noted that the chief defense lawyer intimidated witnesses by asking for precise details: At what time exactly was it that you saw your mother beaten to death?
The SS men, 20 of whom were found guilty, largely refused to testify. Verdict on Auschwitz ends with the adjunct officer to the camp commander claiming that he knew nothing about the gas chambers. (It's a pity Saddam was hanged before anyone could ask him about gassing the Kurds.) Among other things, Verdict on Auschwitz establishes that the Holocaust's perpetrators were also its first deniers.
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