Trial and Terror

Friday, January 19, 2007 |  by Staff Writer
In the face of Iran's Holocaust denial conference in December and contemporary desensitization comes this startling German documentary:

Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963–1965
Directed by Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner

On August 20, 1965, after 20 months of proceedings, the verdict was pronounced in one of the most significant trials in German legal history: The court heard 360 Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp survivors and other witnesses from 19 countries in a trial against 22 members of the SS accused of taking part in the mass murder of millions.

“Verdict on Auschwitz” isn't a film so much as it is a discovery. Yet another epic movie about the Holocaust might seem redundant, but the recent conference in Tehran of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites has made the truth necessary once again.

The film, considered the greatest German production on the subject, is opening in New York and London this month. Made for television in 1993 by Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner, the movie revisits the long trial of Auschwitz officers that began in Frankfurt in 1963 and stretched on for 20 months.

The documentary contains an extraordinary variety of evidence and provides substantial pieces of testimony through a mix of archival footage, photographs and interviews with people present at the trial, and excerpts from 430 hours of audiotapes.

The film doubles not only as an autopsy of a trial, but as an examination of how the mass slaughter that took place at the Auschwitz-Birkenau genocide factory would not have been possible without the meticulous paperwork the Germans kept that would prove to be their undoing in courts of law. Uncovered were plans for the crematoriums, bureaucratic records of executions, photographs, notebooks and speeches, including an audio recording of a speech by Heinrich Himmler in which he makes explicit reference to the extermination of the Jews. There are heroes, too: the determined German prosecutors and an eloquent survivor named Hermann Langbein, whose ardor for justice remained strong 30 years after the trial.

The documentary's aesthetic quality isn't groundbreaking, but when set against the image of the empty Frankfurt courtroom, the voices of the trial's witnesses resonate like wails from a haunted house. In the documentary's third part, it is revealed that the horrific would become routine to the public as the trial dragged on.

Though there are enough Holocaust documentaries to match the number of days it took for the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial to come to its conclusion, the voices Bickel and Wagner allow us to overhear never cease to shock and awe the Jewish dimension of the Final solution.

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