Can this be Germany?
The conceit behind Luke Holland‘s documentary Final Account is an intriguing one because its success demands that its subjects are willing to tell the truth. What do you otherwise accomplish by interviewing three hundred members and witnesses of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich if they’re all simply going to look into the camera while saying they weren’t aware of what was going on? You need some to admit their complicity. You need some to admit their fear. And you need some to admit their excitement. That’s where the complex gray area between guilt and regret lies: the hindsight to acknowledge your actions were performed with purpose even if you now realize how nightmarish they were. There’s power in cutting from one subject deflecting blame to another holding him/herself accountable.
A lot of that power lies in the fact that the person holding themself to account is by extension holding everyone else to account too. They see the mark staining Germany and their role creating it. Maybe they were conscripted into the Nazi party because they were children during Hitler’s rise and maybe refusing their orders in that role would have earned them a trip to the concentration camps themselves, but those truths don’t negate the one where blood is (figuratively if not literally) on their hands regardless. It’s in that recognition that we can learn from their mistakes if only because they agree it was a mistake. And it’s in the reactions some have in response to that learning that we become keenly aware it’ll happen again.
Holland could have made a feature film about one scene wherein a former Nazi confronts today’s equivalent of Hitler Youth by trying to explain how admitting shame for what happened doesn’t mean he’s embarrassed to be German. Here’s a man atoning for his sins in full view of the camera while someone a third of his age and too afraid to put his own face besides his rhetoric for fear of being “labeled” a criminal berates him. The audacity of that young man’s privilege is astounding and yet it’s exactly what’s been happening in America over the past decade: this idea that a white man never has to fear other white men when they can collectively fear the “other” (Muslims, Mexicans, etc. here and Albanian immigrants there) together.
You can’t necessarily be surprised by this either, though, when some former SS agents hold no shame at all. I can’t imagine what must have been going through Holland’s head (his grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust) when standing opposite a man who unflinchingly admits he still believes what the Nazis did was correct. He says he wouldn’t have exterminated all European Jews, but he does believe they should have been driven out. Add another gentleman who says the numbers of those killed in the Holocaust are gross exaggerations (his reaction makes it seem like he does so less because he thinks it’s a lie and more because his conscience couldn’t stand being complicit to them) and I wonder if I could have kept filming them.
There are so many smiles of deflection and quick answers feigning ignorance throughout Final Account because to a certain extent these men and women have probably needed to lie to themselves in order to survive. They’ve had to constantly move the line between complicity and intent so as not to find themselves lying awake every night in horror. Some have found their way through it to reckon with what they did as a result while others have simply allowed those lies to become truth in their minds. It’s why some can say what they did was objectively wrong while admitting they had no problem with it then and why others must methodically explain what they did without context since context would be too much to bear.
We don’t see all three hundred subjects (I’d estimate there’s less than thirty shown), but the ones he chose become surrogates for the rest via three camps: true believers, those with true remorse, and those caught in the middle. Holland plays them off each other through the editing process to provide a chronological timeline from Hitler’s rise to World War II’s end. With relevant archival footage sprinkled in to give us images alongside the interviewees’ memories, we become the judge and jury as far as whether their emotional response to the questioning and the events they speak on is enough to provide them the benefit of the doubt. Not that giving or withholding it is the point. More than anything, this film is about putting them on record.
Holland gives them the opportunity to have a voice by which to exonerate or hang themselves. He wants to hear from their mouths why they did what they did (one woman states her family weren’t Nazis, they just loved the look of the uniform) for posterity and as a result allows his documentary to say more about today’s similarities than anything else. It only makes what’s happening now worse by comparison since those kids had only one source of “truth” within small towns devoid of electricity. We have the breadth of the internet to seek actual truth and yet so many of us still willingly fall victim to propaganda. As Holland’s opening text describes, however, a monster’s strength often lies in the unquestioning army built in his/her image.
 FINAL ACCOUNT by director Luke Holland, released by Focus Features. Courtesy of Focus Features.
 Margarete Schwarz in director Luke Holland’s documentary FINAL ACCOUNT, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features
 Director Luke Holland during the filming of FINAL ACCOUNT, released by Focus Features. Courtesy of Focus Features