Conundrums Galore

A Nazi can’t outrun justice. Maybe he should have?

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Accountant of Auschwitz
RPL Film Theatre

Aug. 24–26

World War II was the defining event of the 20th century and it spawned thousands of narratives, some of them still unfolding. One of them is the prosecution of war criminals.

Given the magnitude of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, surprisingly few officers were held accountable. In the war’s aftermath, subordinates across the board blamed the chain of command. German judges (many of them Third Reich sympathizers) were sympathetic to their plea: out of 800,000 officers, only 124 were convicted.

But the juridical approach changed in later years, leading to the arrest of 93-year-old Oskar Gröning, the titular Accountant of Auschwitz. From his position, Gröning was indirectly involved with the murder of 300,000 Jews. Not only did he keep the books, he sorted through the prisoners’ belongings, looking for gold.

His trial gave Auschwitz survivors an opportunity to tell their story and receive a bit of justice. It also brought out the neo-Nazi movement, which never misses a chance to defend the indefensible. A third group — including one of the Jewish witnesses — believed the humane thing to do was to let Gröning live his final years free, regardless of the outcome of the trial.

Ultimately The Accountant of Auschwitz is about accountability. Gröning shows awareness and regret, and his testimony provides valuable information about the operation of concentration camps. Was there anything to be gained from his imprisonment? The answer will be a personal one.

The Accountant of Auschwitz gets kudos for trying to leverage this case into an indictment of the German judicial system but it doesn’t quite succeed. A key subject — why weren’t subordinates prosecuted this rigorously after the war? — is treated like an exercise in semantics. Not very compelling viewing, and at 75 minutes, the film doesn’t come close to shedding enough light on the topic. The Accountant of Auschwitz would’ve benefited from a more focused approach on the trial itself.