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The banality of evil turns savagely vivid

A documentary of the Auschwitz trial builds a horrifying portrait.

January 26, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

To call "Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965" comprehensive seriously understates its scope and attention to detail. The three-hour, three-part series bills itself as the first documentary on the trial, but it's no doubt the last word on the subject too. A top-secret S.S. project devised with the purpose of annihilating every last European Jew, what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau remained clouded until two decades after the end of the war, when the truth came out over the course of 20 arduous months.

Made for German public television in 1993, the film culls from 430 hours of the recorded testimony of 319 witnesses, including 211 Auschwitz survivors and 20 former S.S. officers standing trial for mass murder two decades after the crimes. The tapes were made to aid in the proceedings, but Hessian Atty. Gen. Fritz Bauer and former Secretary of the International Auschwitz Committee Hermann Langbein suggested the tapes be preserved. Thirty years later, while working on a film to commemorate the anniversary of the start of the trial (an illustrative example of Germany's compulsive showdowns with its past), directors Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner stumbled across the tapes moldering in the basement of a state archive.

Beginning shortly after the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial confronted returning survivors with the sight of their prosperous, contented tormentors, whose closing remarks not only denied responsibility for or awareness of what had happened but exhibited a stunning lack of remorse. Hannah Arendt coined the term "the banality of evil" in reference to Eichmann while reporting on his trial for the New Yorker, and the idea was reinforced in spades in Frankfurt. The defendants at the Frankfurt trial were not the masterminds of earlier proceedings but mid- to low-ranking functionaries notorious for their sadism. Among them were a cabinetmaker, an accountant, an importer, a pharmacist, a vocational teacher and a butcher. Josef Klehr, an illiterate orderly, liked to pretend to be a doctor who administered lethal injections straight into the heart. Dr. Viktor Capesius, a former I.G. Farben sales representative, recognized by astonished former neighbors and clients interned at the camps, claimed to have been "polite, friendly and helpful to everyone" and requested acquittal.

Bickel and Wagner set hours of wrenching first-hand testimony against archival photographs and footage from 1930s and '40s, which they intercut with images from the mid-'60s, images of Auschwitz today and static shots of the empty courtroom where the trials took place. The museum quality of the images seems ghostly at first, becoming progressively vivid as the savagery of the testimony builds. The narrator's passionless drone raises interesting questions about all sorts of things -- including the almost perversely orderly and methodical methods that characterized the trial.

In fact, this methodic soberness would seem to obscure rather than highlight the individual humanity of the victims, and Bickel and Wagner wait until Part 3 to introduce a powerful summary of the escalation of anti-Semitic policies in Germany from 1933 to 1945. Though its arrival sheds new light on what's come before -- much like survivor Rudolf Vrba's assessment that the killings were really "about robbery -- murder was a byproduct" -- its placement has the unintended effect of downplaying the larger issue of anti-Semitism. Valuable and instructive as it is, "Verdict on Auschwitz" can sometimes be so focused on the details it fails to show us the forest for the trees.

"Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965." Unrated. Running time: 3 hours. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., Downtown L.A. (213) 617-0268.

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