There are few events in the world that are as well known as the Holocaust, especially considering most people who were there for it have since passed away. It is a word that will most likely instantly bring certain terrible images to mind: images of the Nazis, of people herded like cattle, of huge camps, and of graves of thousands of victims. Despite the infamy of the Holocaust, and the importance of it, it’s something that has been rarely covered in education over the decades, leading to most people knowing relatively little about it, and even those monstrous enough to deny it even happened.
One of the things that is perhaps most shocking about the Holocaust is the fact that the vast majority of those who performed it, those who have the blood of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people on their hands, simply walked away from those horrors as free people. They never faced trial, they were never punished, and they got to live a life of peace, comfort, and occasionally wealth; all things that they denied those whose lives they took.
Most people will know the name Josef Mengele, a man known as the Angel of Death. In the concentration camps he performed experiments on living people that were little more than torture. He beat them, shot them, killed them with lethal injections, and performed painful procedures on them. These crimes were well documented, and there is no doubt that he did these horrific things. But did he face justice? No. He lived free after the war. He visited his family, celebrated with other former Nazis, and died on the beach of a stroke in his sixties, some thirty years after the end of the war. He was one of the most well known, well documented criminals of the Holocaust, and he was never punished.
The new documentary film Getting Away With Murder(s) takes a look at the Nazis, who like Mengele, never received punishment for their actions. The film, which clocks in at nearly three hours, makes a point early on to tell the audience that such a tiny fraction of those who performed some of the worst acts of human history, for which the charge of Crimes Against Humanity was first used, never faced justice. If you’re reading that and find yourself wondering how, how the Nazis, who documented everything they did, couldn’t be held to account for more than six million deaths, this film will be an eye opening experience. Though one that will leave you shaken.
The film begins with the writer and director David Wilkinson travelling to one of the most well known sites of the Holocaust, Auschwitz. The audience are taken through the process of what would happen to those first arriving there, how those deemed useful such as men and older boys were taken to one side, whilst the old, the infirm, the very young, were taken to a series of small buildings. They were told that these buildings were showers, that they were going to be cleaned up before going into the camp. They were told this by other prisoners, those whose job it was to take their possessions and organise through them; prisoners who were forced to lie as their captors watched over them, ready to kill them if they didn’t. Those that were ushered into these underground showers were then killed, the showers in fact being a gas chamber. Crowded in, like animals, they died in agony. Their bodies were then taken to the next series of buildings, furnaces, where they were destroyed.
We’re told this by one of the historians at Auschwitz, who shows us the spot where people were separated, he walks us down the long road to the showers, shows us the remains of that building, and then the small, unassuming pond where the ashes of hundreds of thousands of murdered innocents were dumped. We also hear from two people who were there, who were just children when they were forced into the camps. One woman whose job it was to go through the possessions taken from those murdered people, forced to organise them out so that they could be used for the good of the Nazis. The other is a man, who, just a child when at Auschwitz, worked on the camp farms, where he was made to scatter pieces of bone from the ovens by hand as fertiliser. This is the first fifteen minutes of the film, simply our introduction to the topic, and it’s already a harrowing and haunting experience.
READ MORE: January – Film Review
David Wilkinson doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the Holocaust over the course of the film. Early on he makes sure that the audience are more aware of the events than they’ve probably been before. My school education told me that it happened, that people died there in gas chambers, but it never went into the process. It never humanised those victims. And I assume that that is possibly the same for most people. By taking the viewers to that place, and having two of the survivors appear very early on, it makes this less of an abstract thing, less some horror of the past, and it puts a real human voice onto it.
It makes you think less of the overall numbers (something that is so overwhelming that you almost stop thinking of them as people), and makes you see the individuals who died. The film features several moments throughout where it uses footage from the camps, where we see the mass graves, to keep that reminder going. Watching this film you will see victims of the Holocaust, you will see dead bodies dumped out on the ground, you will see bodies being driven into a ditch with machinery because there are too many to move by hand, you will see men and women starved, beaten, and broken, you will see babies so withered that they barely look human any more.
I’m sure that there will be some who will say that this is too much, that the film doesn’t need to put those images on the screen, that the descriptions alone will be enough. But that’s not true. The descriptions aren’t enough. You need to see the victims. You need to be reminded that these are people who suffered and died in a hell on Earth, so that when the film starts to talk about the people who did this you’re sufficiently angry enough to want to see that justice holds them to account. You need that little bit of fire in you so that when you see over and over and over again those responsible for so much suffering walk free, it makes you want to rage.
There have been dozens of trials over the years following the Holocaust that have attempted to hold those responsible to account. The most famous of these, one that a lot of people will have heard about, is the Nuremberg trials. Despite the well known status of the trials, I wasn’t aware before this film that it only saw action being taken against 21 people. The name evokes images of mass trials against hundreds of Nazis, but in reality it was a small trial that saw 21 evil men try to get away with genocide.
Not only does the film go into this trial in detail, but it talks to the only living person who was there, American lawyer Benjamin Ferencz. Aged 102, Ferencz talks about Nuremberg with a fire and passion. You can see how important it was to him, how much it mattered, and how much it has affected his life since. He offers a doorway into an event that is often so mythologised that it doesn’t seem real, but Ferencz puts a human face onto things once again, reminding audiences that this wasn’t some big, dramatic Hollywood movie-like trial, and that getting the sentences they did was an uphill struggle that almost never came to be.
But these were just 21 people. More than 21 people took part in the Holocaust. And so the film starts to look at those who got away, those who never received any real justice, and the reasons why. Scattered throughout the film are moments when we cut to photographs of high ranking Nazi officials, and those with important positions within the death camps. We’re told about what they did, the kind of crimes they committed, and the little to no justice that their victims received.
There are those who were tried in absentia, who were never made to serve their sentences. Those who killed tens of thousands and receive a death penalty, which was then commuted to a few decades, then again to a handful of years. We hear of a woman who experimented on children in the death camps, who cut them to pieces and infected their wounds just to see what would happen; not only is there the injustice of her receiving a sentence of just four years for this, but the fact that she lived out her life after as a family doctor before dying in comfort. There’s another who was documented as beating babies to death, of throwing them out of buildings multiple floors up, who was acquitted because she was simply ‘following orders’.
The film makes it clear that these kinds of results aren’t isolated incidents because of incompetent legal systems, but that those in charge just didn’t care. Other nations, such as the UK and the US, didn’t want to pursue the Nazis in court for fear that those same kinds of trials and those same charges of Crimes Against Humanity could one day be used against them. Countries didn’t want Nazis sent to prison because they were useful in one way or another. The Cold War tensions led to Nazis being set free because the imagined enemy of the future was more important than holding to account the very real crimes of the past. After all, it was ‘only’ Jews that were killed, and most of those nations didn’t care about the Jewish people.
Getting Away With Murder(s) makes a point of letting the audience know that the Allied Nations, the ‘good guys’ as our history books would tell us, mostly didn’t care. They would say and do what they needed to to make themselves look good, and to look like the problems had been solved, but would do little more. The film looks at how many war criminals ended up settling in England, finding jobs here, building homes, and living their lives consequence free. I was appalled to see that my home town was one of those listed. Appalled, but by that point in the film, not surprised.
My biggest take away from this film is that the education on the Holocaust is woefully inadequate. We’re told the barest minimum about it, and in most cases it’s been romanticised. We’re given the story through the lens of the Allied Nations being heroes who came in, liberated the camps, and punished those responsible. But the truth of the matter is that most of those in power just didn’t care. We may have liberated the camps, but we didn’t do much to help the victims, and even went on to put some in prison ourselves. And we did nothing to punish those responsible. The barest minimum was done, to make the public think that the matter had been closed and that the guilty had been punished when the reality was so far from that.
READ MORE: Babylon – Film Review
The Holocaust is a mark of shame on humanity, not just because of what the Nazis and their collaborators did, but because of how little was done after. Justice wasn’t done. The guilty walked free. The victims were forgotten. And now we live in a world where the same rhetoric that led to those events are being echoed in the news in multiple countries.
We live in a world where we’ve continued to have genocides, and where they’re happening right now. We live in a world where fiction like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (a book that has quite literally been condemned by multiple Holocaust groups) is given more weight and attention and taught in schools over actual history, all whilst giving sympathy to the Nazis. We live in a world where people deny the Holocaust even happened, and where Nazis are bold enough to walk down the street when they should be afraid of getting their teeth kicked in.
We failed. We didn’t learn enough, we didn’t do enough. Getting Away With Murder(s) makes that clear, and because of that it will make audiences uncomfortable. But sometimes you need to face up to that discomfort and learn from the past in order to do better.
Getting Away With Murder(s) will be made available to view for free on 27th January 2023, International Holocaust Memorial Day. In the UK it will stream on All 4 and More 4, and will also debut on the following international platforms: Amazon USA, Canada, Australia; Tubi USA, Canada, Australia; Roku USA, Canada; Xumo USA, Canada; Peacock USA; Plex USA; 7Plus Australia.