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The Auschwitz Gate
Photo: First Run Features

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Directed by: Rolf Bickel & Dietrich Wagner.
Produced by: Gerhard Hehrleine.
Directors of Photography: Armin Alker & Dominik Schunk.
Edited by: Sigrid Rienäcker.
Released by: First Run Features.
Language: German with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: Germany. 180 mins. Not Rated.

How to bring war criminals and dictators to justice is much in the news with debates about international tribunals, national trials, and offers of reconciliation and amnesty, so the case of German prosecutors, judges, and jury trying SS officers for murder at Auschwitz has immediate relevance. Even if you have seen all nine-and-a-half hours of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or the recent six-hour PBS/BBC series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, among other documentaries, or visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or Yad Vashem in Israel, among other exhibitions or Web sites, there is still more to be learned in this newly released 1993 German television documentary produced for the 30th anniversary of the trial.

Part one, “The Investigation,” explains how over a decade after World War II and the international Nuremberg Trials a new generation of German prosecutors, including a former political prisoner, wanted to demonstrate that a civilized democracy could, within the rule of law, mete justice to its own citizens who had committed mass murder in the name of the state. Contemporary interviews with the prosecutors profile their frustrations in dealing with ex-Nazis, starting with the most notorious. Furious at apparent leaks and extradition protocols that let Dr. Josef Mengele get away, Hessian State Attorney General Fritz Bauer provided the specific lead to the head of Israel’s Mossad for the brazen capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires. Stirred by a tip from a criminal, the prosecutors find that mid- and lower-level SS and other staff are still in Germany leading very comfortable lives, profiting from their wartime activities. In 1958, they decide to build a systematic legal case against 22 men who helped operate a single concentration camp on a day to day basis. They reach out to the International Auschwitz Committee, eventually bringing in over 200 Auschwitz survivors and other witnesses from 19 countries with painfully intimate observations of the death camp.

The centerpiece of part two, “The Trial,” is excerpts from 430 hours of original audiotapes of the two-year trial that filmmakers Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner discovered neglected in the basement of the State Archive of Hesse. While there is some newsreel footage of the opening and the defendants coming and going, the emotional tapes are mostly played over a reconstruction of the city hall court room, occasionally supplemented by transcription readings, the recall of living witnesses, and historical footage, including rare SS-produced images. While sometimes the German translators almost drown out the original witnesses speaking in Polish, Slovakian, English, or Hungarian, the timber and passion of their voices have tremendous impact and are essential to be heard in understanding what went on at Auschwitz. Made particularly clear is the different treatment of political prisoners, children, Jews and Gypsies, culminating in the wholesale massacre of the Hungarian Jews that even the local townspeople finally couldn’t ignore, per the witnesses.

One prosecutor claims he could have made his case just based on the voluminous, meticulous smoking gun documents, such as the trucking permits for Zyklon B gas, but the close-ups of the damning evidence in German are not translated for English viewers in the otherwise excellent and legible subtitles by the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A fascinating side story is the judge’s insistence on bringing the full court to Auschwitz to check the plausibility of witness and defendant claims right at the height of the Cold War when West Germany and Poland did not have diplomatic relations.

The trial and the film are unusual in highlighting the structure and operation of the SS, particularly the defendants’ lives in post-World War I Germany and within the rise of the National Socialist Party, with excerpts shown of notable speeches by Hitler, Himmler, etc. to throngs of cheering Germans. A prosecutor notes that not a single SS member ever admitted guilt or implicated another in any trial anywhere. One of the most startling witnesses is a weeping SS lawyer who was dispatched to Auschwitz to investigate the one thing that headquarters considered illegal there – corruption. We hear his detailed observations of the facility, as well as of the trains that did not return empty but were filled with booty from the dead, labeled “Winter Relief Mission,” but directed for individual SS members’ personal profit. (My cousin survived there, where her father, my namesake, died because she was assigned to sort the mound of clothes.)

Throughout, the film makes much of journalists bringing the specifics of the Final Solution to the attention of young Germans, and playwright Peter Weiss used transcripts from the trial for The Investigation. But in the United States, The New York Times, for example, only had a smattering of articles, including front page coverage a couple of times, which may be why Americans are unfamiliar with this trial. While The Holocaust Encyclopedia dismisses cases tried in West German courts as having permitted SS officers to get off lightly in the defense of following orders from superiors, part three, “The Verdict,” documents one by one the sentences and follows up as to their time actually served, several truncated for health reasons.

The DVD release will include a booklet and an one-hour summary version produced by the filmmakers in 2005 for educational purposes. Two scholarly books have recently been published in English on the trial: Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial by Rebecca Wittmann (Harvard University Press) and The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965: Genocide, History and the Limits of the Law by Devin O. Pendas (Cambridge University, 2005). Nora Lee Mandel
January 11, 2007



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