Archival Spaces 314
Uploaded 3 February 2023
Marking Holocaust Remembrance Day (27 January), the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival under Hilary Helstein, in cooperation with the German and Austrian Consulates, mounted the L.A. premiere of a new Holocaust-themed film, Schächten (2022), which deals not so much with the Holocaust, but with its utterly shameful aftermath. For decades after the liberation of Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination camps, the Germans and Austrians collectively swept their culpability under the carpet, allowing most of the participants in the genocide of European Jewry, to live in peace and prosperity.
Except for a relatively small group at the top of the Nazi hierarchy, and concentration camp officers, few were prosecuted: the “soldiers” in the Einsatzgruppen who gunned down tens of thousands, the staff in the Concentration camps, the Nazi officials that ran the railroads to the death camps, others that carried out the “Aryanization” of Jewish capital and property, the judges who sentenced tens of thousands to death, the police forces that rounded up Jews for deportation, at least not until the late 1960s, but even then only those with real blood on their hands. Austrians and Germans had turned themselves from a nation of perpetrators to a nation of victims who had suffered under allied bombs and a dictatorship. They were supported in that endeavor by the American government which categorized Austria as a country occupied by the Nazis, rather than an enthusiastic German province, while also cutting de-Nazification short in favor of bolstering American-led anti-Communism.
Schächten opens in Winter 1944 in the mountains of Austria, where a very young Viktor Dessauer watches his grandparents being hunted down and killed by the SS, while he survives alone in a cave. Cut to Vienna in 1962, Viktor has come home from his schooling in England to celebrate his birthday and take his place as the head of the family textile business, both he and his father the sole survivors of the Holocaust in his family. Through friends, they learn that Kurt Gogl, the SS officer who shot Viktor’s sister and mother in front of the father is alive and leading a quiet life under an assumed name as a school teacher in romantic St. Wolfgang Lake, near Salzburg. With the help of Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Viennese Nazi hunter, they go to court to bring Gogl to justice, but the justice system and the police are filled with former Nazis and younger anti-Semites, so Gogl is acquitted, despite Viktor’s father giving eye witness testimony. Viktor continues to harass Gogl and is brutally beaten by Gogl’s Nazi friends, leading him finally to kidnap the SS officer and trap him in the same cave he had hidden in during the war.
Starring Jeff Wilbusch (Unorthodox, 2020) as Viktor, Christian Berkel (Downfall, 2004) as Simon Wiesenthal, and Paul Manker (The People Vs. Fritz Bauer, 2015) as Gogl, the film is directed by Austrian Thomas Roth who also wrote the script. It is based on the true case of Johann Gogl, a former SS man who was acquitted on 12 February 1975 at his last trial for crimes committed in the Mauthausen and Ebensee concentration camps. However, most of the characters and events are fictional, although aspects of the Dessauer family are based on a similar Viennese Jewish family.
Having lived in Germany as a teenager in the 1960s, the child of a concentration camp survivor, I’m very familiar with the feeling that you are surrounded by former Nazis. I used to sit in the tram and wonder just how many of the 40-70 year-olds around me had committed crimes in the war; my 8th-grade German teacher in my Gymnasium constantly droned on about being a soldier fighting the “Ivan” on the Russian front. In the film, there are a couple of very uncomfortable scenes between Viktor, his Catholic girlfriend, Anna (Miriam Fussenegger), and her parents, where the daughter insists on knowing what her father did during the war, but doesn’t get an answer; the parent’s fear and repressed anti-Semitism is palatable. Her father eventually forbids Anna from seeing Viktor, but she joins him anyway when he emigrates to America. The scenes also reminded me of when the broadcast of the American tv-miniseries, Holocaust (1979, Marvin J. Chomsky) on German television led to countless such discussions around German dinner tables, at that time the first such national discussion of German’s culpability for the Holocaust.
To the film’s credit, the relationship between Victor and Gogl is complicated and nuanced. After the trial fails, Viktor attempts to kill Gogl and even has him in his gunsight, but then thinks twice about committing murder. Gogl keeps his friends from killing Viktor. When he kidnaps the old, fat, and out-of-shape Gogl, he must literally help him across a stream and up a mountain, taking his hand, an image of perpetrator and victim that is poignant in its irony. On the other hand, when Viktor returns to the scene of the crime and finds the cave empty, the scene seems to serve no other purpose than to absolve the central character of guilt for the disappearance of Gogl.
Like The People Vs. Fritz Bauer, which covers much of the same territory from a German perspective, Schächten – the title refers to the ritual kosher slaughter of animals – is relevant not only as a correction of history but also applicable to Europe today, when anti-Semitism, racism, and the exclusion of minorities are still virulent.
Postscript: In 1946, the largest trial by the American Military Government of crimes committed at the Mauthausen concentration camp took place in Dachau, during which sixty-one defendants were convicted, of which 58 were sentenced to death and 49 were actually hanged. The selection of defendants was intended to represent a cross-section of perpetrators. After the end of the Allied occupation of Austria, the Austrians rapidly ended any further prosecutions of Nazis. Of the former members of the SS given prison sentences, by 1955 all had been released. After 1955 the number of Austrian trials against Nazi perpetrators dropped dramatically.