"Species shame" is the phrase Martin Amis selects in his book Koba the Dread, to describe the feeling that washes over someone who considers the horrors and the outright insanity of Nazism. It's the insanity part that's most successfully captured in 1993's three-part documentary Verdict on Auschwitz, which is being given a stateside release on January 12. The film chronicles the happenings at the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, Germany, which took place in 1963-1965, around the time of the Eichmann trial in Israel. Pieced together from 430 hours of audio tapes from 211 Auschwitz survivors, the resulting film will make you believe that some sort of tangible virus must have swept through the Nazi ranks, causing an outbreak of sheer lunacy that culminated in the most random nightmare scenarios imaginable at the Auschwitz camp. At one point, we are told of a deranged SS guard named Stark, who had the habit of naming Jewish women who arrived at Auschwitz "Sarah," and then shooting his Sarahs at random, unprovoked. That's one of dozens of similar memories dredged up in the film.
The huge cache of audio tapes was discovered by directors Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner in the basement of the State Archives in Frankfurt, and when watching the film the first thing that strikes you is the challenge faced by the filmmakers in finding three hours worth of archival footage to match with the endless audio snippets. Long stretches of the film rely on a single camera set-up in a deserted courtroom. With an empty witness chair filling the frame, we are expected to let imagination fill in the missing pieces. This is sometimes successful, sometimes not, but there's no question that the audio is never less than compelling, and sometimes stunning. To hear the story of a Jewish artist who determined to draw the gas chambers in his mind and made the discovery that the shower heads were actually phony shower heads, with only indentations in the heads instead of holes, sends the mind reeling. The Nazi project to liquidate "all attainable Jews" is aptly described as something that has no comparison even in the Middle Ages.
One of the most chilling figures to emerge in the film is Dr. Victor Capesius, who worked with Joseph Mengele on the selection platform at Auschwitz. A former employee of IG Farben, Capesius excelled at leading a double life. Video of his former acquaintances are reminiscent of the neighbor who tells the news camera that he never knew the guy next door was a serial killer. In his closing statement, Capesius said "I did not cause anyone to suffer in Auschwitz. I was polite, friendly and helpful to everyone whenever I could. I am guilty of no crimes in Auschwitz. I ask the court for an acquittal." The lunatic Stark arguably one-ups that closing statement with his own: "Esteemed court, I participated in many people's deaths. I was totally honest about this fact from the very beginning. Following the war, I often asked myself if this made me a criminal, but I have failed to find a valid answer for myself." Watching the film, you can almost feel the court members throwing up their hands in frustration at statements like that.
Fritz Bauer, seen in the photo above, was the attorney general in Hesse and is the man most directly responsible for making the Auschwitz trials go forward. It was in 1958 that he secured a class action lawsuit to bring the former Nazis to trial. He also played a major role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann. He is viewed in archival interview footage throughout the film, cigarette always in hand. He appears as a man somewhat beaten down by the exhausting process of going against the grain in postwar-Germany and once famously referred to himself as an exile in the judicial system because of his insistence on dredging up the horrors of Nazism in a country that so desperately wanted to forget. One of the few supportive figures of his quest is presiding judge Hans Hofmeyer, who would eventually sentence the Nazis and make the statement: "If all the defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, it still wouldn't be sufficient to expiate the deeds perpetrated at Auschwitz. For this human life is too short."
Verdict on Auschwitz is a film most valuable for the small, unexpected details it contains, like the mousy, girlish voice of Rudolph Hess, which we hear momentarily in an archival clip. Like the sexual deviant Stark, he seems to be telling us unconsciously that his evil proceeds from some kind of fundamental human weakness. Were the Nazis nothing more than bullies who were given God-like power in a schoolyard? Maybe, but the film tries to give a more thoughtful explanation, going into details about the succeptibility of German Heroic Realism to misuse, and the perils of following a romantic ideology in which all depends upon the force of will. Other details contained in the film are of the type that you don't want to know, but are told anyway -- for example, that the Nazis had a mechanism for tattooing newborn babies in the women's camp. This film would likely find its most receptive audience in schools, where it's three-part structure would make it workable and where young people could get a glimpse of the depths to which humanity can sink.