TIFF 2018: Prosecuting Evil

Biopic of chief Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz also a tribute to the power of international law
Prosecuting Evil tells the story of Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg trials prosecutor. PHOTO COURTESY of TIFF
Prosecuting Evil tells the story of Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg trials prosecutor. PHOTO COURTESY of TIFF

Content warning: graphic descriptions of the Holocaust.

Ninety-eight-year-old Ben Ferencz is the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials. It’s been over 70 years since he condemned the Nazis in front of the entire world, but even today, his face lights up as he repeats, by memory, a line from his submissions at trial: “The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.”

Directed by Barry Avrich, Prosecuting Evil combines Ferencz’s firsthand accounts, primary source footage, and statements from human rights experts around the world. The film is a jarring reminder of the horror that can flow out of cavernous international divisions, and of the need to universally condemn hatred across jurisdictions.   

Born in Transylvania to a Hungarian Jewish family, Ferencz immigrated to the United States when he was young to escape antisemitic persecution. When war broke out, Ferencz was a young law student at Harvard who wanted nothing more than to find a way to sabotage the Germans. Ferencz enlisted in the army and spent the months following December 1945 visiting newly liberated concentration camps and collecting evidence.

Ferencz knew at the time that there would eventually be a trial, but he could not have imagined that he would be the one to lead it. He was only 27 years old when he took on the role of chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial: footage shows him baby-faced and fiercely determined, feet firmly planted on a stack of books so he could address the court without peering over the lectern. That young lawyer achieved the remarkable feat of looking evil in the eye: in front of the whole world, he demanded that Nazi Germany answer for its crimes. 

Nuremberg was a series of trials unlike any other. For the first time in history at such a scale, the proceedings sent a powerful message to the world that war crimes would be punished, and that evil could be prosecuted, even in times of war. Fortunately for the prosecution, there were mountains of documentary evidence, chillingly meticulous records of when, where, and how Holocaust victims had been murdered. And Nuremberg was after everyone, from the Nazi party leaders and senior officers, to the doctors who performed grotesque medical experiments, to the lawyers and judges who sullied the courts and the rule of law.

Prosecuting Evil is remarkable for allowing Ferencz to tell this story in his own words. Though his conviction for human rights and justice has never wavered, he retains complicated feelings about his time at Nuremberg to this day. Ferencz testifies to the devastatingly difficult work of visiting concentration camps and looking survivors in the eyes. To keep himself sane, he put up a mental screen and repeatedly told himself that what he was seeing was not real. Instead of calling for the death penalty, Ferencz had advocated for life in prison, but four of the defendants were hanged. These men slaughtered his people, but he still finds it alienating to be responsible for their deaths.

Hatred is an insidious force, and though Nuremberg provided some accountability, it did not lead to remorse. It is likely that the Nuremberg defendants honestly believed they were not guilty of wrongdoing; in their eyes, every murderous order they followed meant being one step closer to saving the Reich. When guilty verdicts were handed down, Nazis were marched to the prisons and the gallows with no words of apology. Hopeful for signs of closure, Ferencz visited one convicted defendant prior to his execution — only to hear, spat through the slats in the prison door, that the world would one day suffer for putting an end to the Nazi project.

By juxtaposing Ferencz’ storytelling with primary documentary footage from the Holocaust, Avrich gives the audience a small snapshot into what, as Ferencz puts it, is “incomprehensible to a natural human mind.” Viewers see the Holocaust as what it was: armies of Nazi soldiers pledging allegiance through extermination, gas chambers and tall towers of human bones, people dragged out of their homes and shot in the streets, and human beings with shaved heads and protruding ribcages, waiting for death.

In this way, the film is a testament to the power of documentary evidence in shaping the public conscience. No one can truly understand genocide without experiencing it firsthand. In a world that remains incredibly divided by conflict, it’s all the more important that film and storytelling bring former atrocities out of the shadows of history. 

As a complement to media, international law remains, at the least, a powerful communicative tool to respond to mass-scale tragedies. The horrors of World War II shocked the world into putting human rights instruments on the map. The dial in many parts of the world today moves toward isolationism, but we know all too well that Nuremberg did not put an end to international crimes. Remembering the Holocaust, and remembering Ferencz, can preserve what is left of our commitment to humanity.

“War will make mass murderers out of otherwise decent people.” Ferencz has seen it again and again over the course of his 98 years, and the only way out, he says, is law.

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