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A Generation Of Germans Give 'Final Account' Of Living Through Nazi Germany

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The film "Final Account" opens with an older man singing a song from his youth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINAL ACCOUNT")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in German).

SIMON: The tune sounds cheery, but then you see the translated words subtitled from Germany in the 1930s. The lyrics are violent fantasies about sharpening knives to kill Jews. "Final Account" is the last film made by Luke Holland, a distinguished British documentarian who died last year. For more than a decade, he sought out and spoke with dozens of older Germans who'd been a part of the Third Reich, some in Hitler Youth, some in Waffen-SS, some as concentration camp guards, some as children and citizens who saw and smelled the smoke of camps and stayed silent. Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, worked with Luke Holland on the film and joins us from Los Angeles.

Dr. Smith, thank you for being with us.

STEPHEN SMITH: Hello, Scott. Hi.

SIMON: And Sam Pope, an associate producer of "Final Account," joins us from Ditchling, England.

And Mr. Pope, thank you for being with us.

SAM POPE: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Dr. Smith, in some ways, this is a film that Luke Holland worked towards through much of his career, didn't he?

SMITH: Yeah, it really is an extension of his life, Scott. You know, his mother and father left Germany, you know, to escape the Third Reich. He didn't know that he was Jewish until he was in his teens. And then once he did, I think he was always on a quest to really discover that history and why his family had been through it, what the origins of that were. And, you know, it was no surprise to me in 2008 when he said, I want to go to Germany and interview Nazis. Had it come from anybody else, I would have been surprised but actually not from him.

SIMON: Sam Pope, was it hard to find people to talk to? Or maybe I should say people who would talk?

POPE: In some cases, incredibly difficult. Luke spent much of his time trying to find people, knocking on doors, convincing people to go on record. On occasion, as the film shows in the archive, there were those who were willing to open up and reflect on their past.

SIMON: It is hard to see the documentary footage of smiling young children laughing and playing and dancing, adorned with swastikas. Dr. Smith, does that give us some insight into the kind of lives they were living?

SMITH: Well, I think the documentary itself is really an amazing inside-out look at how the Third Reich unfolded and how successful the Nazis were in convincing the German people to go along with their project. I mean, we see these young people in the documentary still full of joy when they think about the songs they learned and the camps that they went to and the activities that they were a part of. It was exciting, which the Nazis understood. Take a 10-year-old. It's only a few years before you can put a rifle in their hand and they'll be fully indoctrinated.

SIMON: You know, Sam Pope, when a woman says, we didn't like the party, but we liked the uniform, on the one hand, you're inclined to think, all right, at least she's being honest. On the other hand, you're thinking, wow; she's not being honest with herself at all.

POPE: And this is very true for a lot of these interviewees. Are they being honest with us? That was one of the questions that we wanted to approach and we wanted to leave sort of open for the public to determine.

SIMON: Well, it would have been hard for anybody, I dare say, but especially hard for the son of people caught up in the Holocaust to sit with people who say, not only did we know what was going on, we smelled the smoke. It was like burning tires.

SMITH: I think the courage of Luke Holland to go into those homes and to suspend judgment, even though there was, you know, a lot of judgment he could make - he really was doing this on behalf of all of us. These are questions that we need to know the answer to. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for doing that, as painful as it must've been at times.

SIMON: Sam Pope, there's a moment in the film where there's a man who was a former Waffen-SS, unapologetically so, speaking in front of his wife. You look at her face. And at least I told myself she must have been asking herself, is this the man I've been married to?

POPE: Part of the challenge with the interviews was the including spouses - spouses sitting next door. One wonders how much they know, how much they wanted to know. In some cases during these interviews, husbands and wives would walk in and say, I think that's enough for today. They don't want to say anymore, just as we're getting into dangerous territory or start to uncover something - something interesting, something damning.

SIMON: There's a group of women in - speak with Luke Holland. It looked like some kind of assisted living facility. And they say at one point, well, people would talk quietly about what was really going on, but no one would say it out loud because they were afraid of being shot. And then I guess it's Luke Holland in German who challenges them and says, do you know anybody was ever shot for talking? Did that ever really happen?

SMITH: Yes, it's a very good question that he asked because the general urban myth about this is that, you know, those who try to defy orders were sent to the eastern front, to the front lines, became cannon fodder for the Wehrmacht or other units. So, you know, we know that those sorts of redeployments took place. But he's right to ask that question of that group because, you know, one of the justifications is, well, of course we couldn't do anything because it would've cost us our life. But there's actually no evidence of that.

SIMON: Sam Pope, what do you make of the camp guard who says, I didn't imprison anybody?

POPE: As a man - he was very, very young. He was a teenager when he was signed up to the SS.

SIMON: Sixteen, as I recall.

POPE: Sixteen years old, yes - as I think he says to avoid his labor service. They said, well, join the SS. That'll get you out of it. Now I necessarily don't - what his motivations necessarily were, but I think that is, in part, I mean, what the end of this film does - this reflection on the perpetration on one's involvement. He seems to, yes, slowly but surely come around a little bit. He starts to sort of recognize his own involvement but is always willing to make excuses.

SMITH: And I think, Scott, one of the things that occurred to me when I was watching that individual is a complete lack of any sort of apology. And so it's very revealing what, you know, Luke Holland was able to extract from him there.

SIMON: There are people who say today, even in the course of this film, oh, yes, Jews were killed but not nearly as many as people think. It's wildly exaggerated. Or, yes, it happened, but it's time to get over it. What's the answer to that in 2021?

POPE: It's a part of our history that is so recent, so pressing, so important. There's so many aspects of it that reflect our own current moment. There's a reckoning - a reckoning for ourselves, for human involvement. As a great crime against humanity, modern-day deniers - it's a refusal, and it's one rooted deeply in anti-Semitism.

SMITH: And I think actually, Scott, I'd add to that that denial doesn't - is not about saying it didn't happen, but it's also trivializing and minimizing and relativizing that history so that, effectively, it doesn't challenge our own lives and not facing its severity and its consequences. We don't have to dwell on that in such a way that we become voyeuristic or fascinated in a way by its horrific dimensions, but we do need to be reminded. And if you add up all of these books and movies, including this new one, "Final Account," which is going to add a new dimension to how we see that period of time, it is now undeniable, including those who are trying to avoid, you know, their own culpability. In so doing, they confirm that it happened. That's another defense against denial that we need to have at our disposal.

SIMON: These are among the last people on Earth who talk about those events, not just as witnesses but as part of the machine that perpetrated the crimes.

SMITH: And, of course, you know, not only has Luke Holland, the filmmaker, passed away, but many of these interviewees have also passed away at this point. So he really did this in the nick of time.

SIMON: Dr. Stephen Smith is executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation - and Sam Pope, associate producer of "Final Account," a film by the late Luke Holland, in theaters this weekend.

Thank you so much for being with us, gentlemen.

POPE: Thank you very much.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMORIAN SONG, "BANDITS ARE DOING BAD DEEDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.