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‘Final Account’: Germans reminisce — some mournfully, some proudly — about their Nazi past

Invaluable documentary hears the reflections of former soldiers, guards and prison camp workers.

Klaus Kleinau is one of the former Nazi functionaries discussing their wartime recollections in “Final Account.”
Focus Films

Through the years and the decades, they preserved mementos of their time as members of Hitler Youth, or their early adult years with the SS. Photos and identification papers, paramilitary medals and swastikas. Apparently, it never occurred to them to get rid of these reminders of an unimaginably horrific, hate-riddled past.

We are now some 75 years past the end of World War II, and the octogenarians and nonagenarians interviewed in Luke Holland’s invaluable documentary “Final Account” were just children when Hitler rose to power in the 1930s — but some of them eventually became soldiers, SS officers, guards and prison camp employees who stood by mute and often indifferent as they witnessed the wholesale capture, torture and murders of hundreds, thousands of Jewish prisoners. Holland spent years interviewing hundreds of Germans about their memories of the war, condensing the conversations into a feature-length documentary in which these elderly men and women sit in the comfort of their living rooms and kitchens, repeating variations on the same theme: I had no choice but to join the Hitler Youth. If I had spoken up when I witnessed atrocities, I would have been shot and killed. I was young. There was nothing I could do.

Some express regret and wonder how one group of humans could treat another group of humans with such cruelty. Others say they wish Hitler had sent the Jews away instead of killing them, or flat-out refuse to believe the magnitude of the Holocaust. One man — a former Waffen-SS soldier, his eyes shining with defiance, says he has no regrets and he’s proud of his past.

A group of women wax nostalgic about their days with the girls’ wing of the Nazi party youth movement, remembering how they were able to get out of the house and enjoy physical exercise and singing and marching, and felt like they belonged to a group. An elderly woman giggles like a schoolgirl when asked if her husband was an SS soldier, and says only that she had to hide him for months after the war ended or he would have been killed. Yet the women also recall the smell of burning flesh from a nearby crematorium. They knew of the horrors being perpetrated in the name of Hitler. But what could they do?

Although the score is sometimes unnecessarily overwrought, director Holland wisely refrains from adding unnecessary flourishes, and only occasionally shows footage or still photos reminding us of the horrors of the Holocaust. We have seen those images, time and again. We know what happened. What makes “Final Account” so intriguing and, yes, so infuriating, is seeing and hearing from so many Germans who are near the end of their days and have somehow managed to make excuses, to rationalize, to distance themselves from the hell that was their homeland in the 1930s and 1940s. Granted, a small percentage of them come across as genuinely regretful and truly remorseful. Most don’t.