REVIEW: The Human Element [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 12 minutes | Release Date: 2016 (USA)
Studio: MeanStreak Production
Director(s): Trevor Riley
Writer(s): Trevor Riley

“I have never been a resident”

Many speak about the Allies’ pride in victory once World War II came to a close—and with good reason. Where the Holocaust is concerned, many people were saved as a result of these soldiers’ actions. Unfortunately, many more died before that liberation. It’s a real life horror story with monsters and victims, predators and prey. But what many gloss over by painting the Nazis as the truly reprehensible creatures they were is the fact that they were also human. Morality or not, they were men who made a choice; men who embraced a life of superiority out of ego and fear in what would be left outside their uniforms. With so many comrades in the same boat, who was positioned to remind them of this reality?

Writer/director Trevor Riley seeks to show us that there were many who could: those same people they meant to exterminate. His short film The Human Element exists on the very real truth that the Jewish men and women tortured and treated like rats weren’t homeless or scourges on society. They were professionals, artists, businessman, etc. So why couldn’t a Nazi psychoanalyst find himself sitting across from a Jewish psychiatrist as well-versed in the field as he? These Germans were so prideful and resentful that they’d ignore any erroneous information that didn’t help them find more Jews to kill. And if they didn’t, they’d simply laugh the resume off as a cute anecdote along the lines of, “He thought he was a doctor.”

So it’s unsurprising that the conversation Riley puts into the mouths of his Nazi (Shane Johnson) and Jew (Anthony Skordi) proves a captivating back-and-forth. There’s the young upstart who sees glory in the future and an inhuman creature before him opposite the wise man with his back against the wall who’d rather force his adversary to acknowledge his disgusting nature than save his own life respectively. Just think about it: to plead for mercy would probably receive nothing but more punishment and in turn bolster the villain’s outlook that he’s stronger and therefore worthy of power. To make the enemy understand that the title “Doctor” doesn’t apply to someone who looks straight through another human being with contempt may help save those prisoners next in line.

The film’s about revealing the system’s evil, not mankind’s. It’s easy to paint historical malevolence as faceless and nameless monsters with nothing but anger and rage in their hearts. The difficulty is showing those beasts faltering in their ideology and remembering what we are beneath religion, appearance, and culture. The argument Skordi proposes is hardly unique—we continue to wield it today as terrorists and hubristic idiots wreak havoc because they’d rather be superior than homogenized. In the end we’re all humans and that’s a scary prospect. Language becomes our strongest weapon for victory and defeat as we disguise our hate with flimsy excuses. The Human Element portrays Bergen-Belsen, but I saw Ferguson, Paris, and countless other contemporary hotbeds within it just as clearly.

[1] Shane Johnson as Dr. Kuntz in The Human Element
[2] Anthony Skordi opposite Shane Johnson in The Human Element

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