One day in 2018, the prolific documentary producer John Battsek received a call from Diane Weyermann of Participant Media, asking him if he would travel to the East Sussex village of Ditchling to meet a 69-year-old director named Luke Holland. Weyermann said that Holland had spent several years interviewing hundreds of Germans who were in some way complicit in the Holocaust, from those whose homes neighboured the concentration camps to former members of the Waffen SS. The responses he captured ran the gamut from shame to denial to a ghastly kind of pride. Now he wanted to introduce these testimonies to a mainstream audience, and he needed help.
“Luke wasn’t consciously making a film,” Battsek says. “He was amassing an archive that he hoped would have a role to play for generations to come. We had to turn it into something that has a beginning, a middle and an end.” As soon as he saw Holland’s footage, he knew it was important: “It presented an audience with a new way into this.”
At the time, Holland was in remission from myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer, which had previously killed his brother, and B-cell lymphoma. In late 2019, while the film was in postproduction, he told Battsek that he had been given a year to live. That prognosis turned out to be optimistic. He died on 10 June 2020 at the age of 71, shortly after Weyermann visited him in hospital to tell him that Final Account had been selected for the Venice film festival. “He wanted the film out in the world,” Battsek says. “He wanted his work to be appreciated.”
When Holland embarked on the project in 2008, he wrote a mission statement in the form of a semi-haiku: “My grandparents were murdered / I want to shoot old Nazis / I am a film-maker.” His Jewish mother had fled Austria for England just before the German annexation in 1938; her parents had not. Holland had previously explored the period in his films Good Morning Mr Hitler! and I Was a Slave Labourer. Now he wanted to build an archive of interviews with perpetrators, coaxing often reluctant men and women in their 80s and 90s into unearthing uncomfortable memories. “The main driver was: ‘If we don’t get these voices now, soon we won’t have the opportunity to do so,’” says Sam Pope, an associate producer of Final Acccount.
Pope, who grew up in Ditchling, had known Holland since he was six. When they reconnected in 2011, Holland showed him some of his interviews, and Pope had the same reaction as Battsek would seven years later. “The raw power of it leapt off the screen and I wanted to be a part of it,” he says. “None of this was easy. But he’d set a mission for himself.”
Jewish organisations said: ‘Herr Holland, we’re not going to pay for you to speak to old Nazis’
The interviews began in October 2008 and continued off and on until 2016. Holland travelled alone on a shoestring, living off donations from friends such as the composer Michael Nyman, because funding was hard to find. “Jewish organisations said: ‘Herr Holland, we’re not going to pay for you to speak to old Nazis,’” Pope explains. “So Luke went to the German organisations and they said: ‘Herr Holland, how would it look if we gave you money to speak to old Nazis?’”
Pope describes Holland as charming, persuasive and “a very active listener”. The reflections and confessions that the director elicited are testament to his ability to listen, but also to probe and thus get people to reveal more than they had intended. “When Luke sat down opposite these people, he was always conscious of the door,” Pope says. “If he pushed too hard too early, then it could mean the shutters come down. But at the same time, he couldn’t let them get away with mitigating or downplaying their involvement. It’s a slow unravelling of someone’s tightly knitted personal history.”
In one scene, Holland softly coaxes a man named Heinrich Schulze into admitting that the escapees from Bergen-Belsen who hid in his family’s farm were recaptured because Schulze himself reported them to the camp guards. “He [Holland] was very skilful,” Battsek says. “There are various moments when someone will say, ‘I wasn’t there’, and he will very gently ask questions that enable them to make it crystal clear that they’re lying and they were there.” He adds: “We wanted to present their view of their experiences in such a way as to enable an audience to come to its own conclusions.”
There are many such indelible scenes in Final Account, all the more chilling for taking place in small-town living rooms on quiet afternoons: knobbled fingers fondly stroking old medals and Nazi insignia; eyes flashing with pride at belonging to the SS’s elite band of brothers; a croaking voice saying of Kristallnacht that “I didn’t feel any pity for the Jews”. Cutaways are used sparingly so that we can see whether the interviewees unapologetically meet the camera’s gaze or flinch and turn away. Some tremble on the precipice of acknowledging their guilt before retreating into denial or excuses. “The faces are the most interesting part,” Pope says. “You see their emotional responses to these memories as they’re dredging them up.”
One of the few interviewees who accepts the full weight of guilt is a former SS member named Hans Werk. In the film’s standout sequence, Werk meets young Germans in the Wannsee villa where the ”final solution” was plotted, and loses his temper with one man who sounds like a neo-Nazi. In that moment of raw emotion, the reason for the film’s existence is clear. “I feel like the film has a spooky relevance to the times we’ve been living in, and how easy it is to be swept along by ideologies,” Battsek says.
Working with Pope, Battsek and the editor, Stefan Ronowicz, Holland had to whittle a lean, 90-minute film out of almost 600 hours of footage, comprising around 300 interviews. These ranged from one-off half-hour conversations to those spanning 16 separate encounters. “He was insatiable,” Pope says. “If he was still around, he’d probably still be looking for more. He was doing it for his grandparents, but it took on a larger significance when he screened some material for survivors. One said that to hear it coming from the mouths of those who were responsible confirms your own suffering.”
The unseen footage survives in the archive, which is available to researchers via three institutions in London and Paris, with more to come. That may ultimately prove to be a more enduring legacy than Final Account itself. “There were three founding pillars for this project: education, research and memorial,” Pope says. “Perpetrator – as opposed to survivor – testimony is a relatively new field, so we’re taking great care that it’s properly contextualised.”
Holland was diagnosed in 2013 and lost a year to chemotherapy. At one point he was given just days to live, before a successful course of stem-cell treatment. He recovered enough to see the film through to its final stages, but didn’t live to see it find an audience. In a horrible coincidence, Weyermann died of lung cancer in October 2021. “Diane’s vision and courage are 100% the reason this film got made,” Battsek says. “Nobody else would have done that.”
Pope only wishes that his friend was alive to see the reactions to the film that occupied his final decade. “It was tragic,” he says. “There were so many doubts along the way: are we doing the right thing? Is it going to be understood correctly? I wish he could have had this feedback.”
• Final Account is released in the UK on 3 December.