Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Nichts als die Wahrheit (4 Stars)

Dr. Josef Mengele's name is well known. He is infamous as a German doctor who performed medical experiments in the concentration camp Ausschwitz. For instance, he carried out experiments on twins, causing one of them pain while testing the reaction of the other in another room to see if there was a psychic link between twins. He also researched medical cures for illnesses such as typhoid and malaria, deliberately infecting Jewish prisoners so that he could attempt to heal them.

After the Second World War Mengele fled to Argentina, a haven for Nazi war criminals, and later moved to Paraguay, where he lived openly using his real name. After Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped by the Israeli secret service in 1960 he no longer felt safe and fled to Brazil, where he changed his name to avoid detection. For the next 20 years he was the most sought war criminal, and he achieved notoriety in films made about him, films that exaggerated his medical experiments rather than adhering to the facts. He died an accidental death in a swimming pool on February 7th 1979, but because he was buried under a false name he wasn't verified as dead by the German authorities until 1985.

So much for the facts that build the background of the story. The film presents the hypothesis that Mengele faked his death in 1979, swapping his dental records with another person's so that if his bones were ever dug up -- as happened in 1985 -- the corpse would be incorrectly identified. The film takes place in 1999. Josef Mengele is suffering from cancer and doesn't have long to live. He travels to Germany and surrenders himself to the German authorities because he wants to clear his name in court. He wants to tell his side of the story. He requests that the lawyer Peter Rohm should defend him, because he comes from Mengele's home town of Günzburg. There are other connections, in particular Mengele knew Rohm's mother when she was a 17-year-old nurse.

At first Rohm refuses to accept the case, but after being put under pressure by the government he grudgingly accepts. He confesses to the judge that he feels unable to defend a person as evil as Mengele, but the judge reminds him that under German law every man has the right to be defended in court, and she warns him that if she thinks he isn't doing his job he will be disbarred. So Rohm does his job as a good lawyer. Unfortunately, that's not the way the public sees it. Because he defends a Nazi everyone assumes he's a Nazi himself.

Mengele's defence is that everything he did was for the good of his patients and the good of humanity. If the war hadn't ended so soon and he had succeeded in finding a cure for malaria he would be considered a hero. He personally hand-picked his patients, and he says that by doing this he helped them. He knew the Jews were being killed in the gas chambers, and he said that any Jew he selected for his experiments had a better chance of surviving. Any Jews that he killed died less painfully than they would have done in the gas chambers.

I was unhappy to see that at the end of the film Peter Rohm broke down and refused to continue to defend his client. He became a bad lawyer. Was he disbarred? The film ends before we see the consequences, but his conscience didn't allow him to carry on arguing the case for a man he personally despised.

The film's message is stated clearly, in the words of Peter Rohm. So many people, not just Josef Mengele, do evil things. That wasn't just in the Second World War, it happens today. Instead of confessing our guilt when we do wrong, we try to justify ourselves and make it sound like we had good intentions. We should be honest. We should admit our guilt.

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