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 vergangen heitsbewältigung
(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.