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 its 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 of 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.
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: NR
- Review: 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 Mai… (more)