An Expert on Nazi Doctors, Robert J. Lifton Makes His Case


An extended, well-paced, mostly one-sided private audience with the first half of its title, Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors puzzles out the oxymoron of the second half. The actual interviews that renowned psychiatrist and “psychohistorian” Lifton conducted in the late 1970s with both Auschwitz survivors and the doctors who tortured them are dispensed with fairly quickly; his main impression, he says of the latter, is simply that they were living too well. Rather than dwell on gory, numbing detail (or images: The film takes place almost entirely in Lifton’s home office, with some interstitial shots of the surrounding landscape), German directors Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter concentrate on Lifton’s dense and yet entirely intuitive theories of “medicalized mysticism,” the socialization of evil and the biomedical vision of human perfection (and the destruction of everything that interfered with that vision) that he claims was at the heart of the Nazi movement. That doctors—trained healers—perpetrated some of mankind’s most dire atrocities and then went on to live hearty, untroubled lives is discussed largely as a feat of compartmentalization and self-conception—that is, common human-survival strategies. The directors initially wonder if it’s possible to make a film about things that are nearly impossible to show; the relief is that Lifton’s elegantly reasoned, 87-minute response to events that were famously declared to have put an end to poetry brings us closer to the truth of what happened than gruesome images ever could.

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