Last October, as Barry Avrich wrapped up his latest documentary, Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz, Harvey Weinstein got in touch. He wanted to buy the distribution rights. Avrich has a long and complicated history with Weinstein – he tried to make a documentary about the Hollywood mogul, who pushed him away at every turn – but Avrich nevertheless agreed to the deal.
Forty-eight hours later, The New York Times published its bombshell takedown of the producer, and the #MeToo movement began.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘I have to have the film back,’ ” Avrich recalls from the third floor of the Soho House, a members-only club in downtown Toronto. He’s dressed entirely in black – black jeans, black polo, black sports jacket, swept-back black hair – and speaks with a deep, gravelly voice made for a late-night blues radio station.
After the Weinstein allegations broke, Avrich called his lawyer and demanded they regain the rights. His lawyer told him, “I don’t think it’s possible.”
Avrich replied, “I’m not asking for your opinion.”
After two weeks of aggressive negotiations, Avrich won out. “It was disturbing and it was stressful, but there was no way I was going to let them release the film,” he says, leaning back. “I knew that I would prevail.”
For Avrich, Prosecuting Evil, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, is different from his dozens of other documentaries. This one, he says, is his most important.
It tells the story of Ben Ferencz, a chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. Ferencz was a short, bombastic 27-year-old Jew whose parents fled with him from Transylvania to the United States in 1920, where he excelled in school and enrolled at Harvard. With a law degree and drive to improve the world, he landed in the thick of the infamous Nazi trials of the mid-1940s.
Ferencz wound up spearheading the Einsatzgruppen trial after discovering that 24 surviving Nazi officers were personally responsible for more than a million deaths. With Ferencz’s dogged efforts, many of the defendants received the death penalty; most others were sentenced to decades in jail. Ferencz would spend the rest of his life advocating for an International Criminal Court – something that didn’t exist until 2002.
Now 99 years old, Ferencz is the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor. But many don’t know his story, and neither did Avrich until May 2017. That was when his wife and daughter were watching Lesley Stahl interview Ferencz on 60 Minutes and called out to Avrich, “Turn this on, we think you’d love this guy.” Avrich tuned in and was immediately captivated.
“This is somebody that needs to be in film history,” he recalls thinking.
He called up Ferencz the next day and proposed a feature-length documentary. Ferencz amiably agreed, but didn’t quite grasp the scope of the project: when Avrich showed up in Florida, he brought six cameras, truckloads of equipment and plans to shoot for two days.
Ferencz suddenly had second thoughts. So they reached a compromise: Avrich agreed to trim Ferencz’s main interview down to a single six-hour shoot in his Florida home, a modest bungalow in his salmon-accented retirement community.
With an impossibly lucid memory, Ferencz is the film’s spine, narrator and lens. A cocksure youth peeks out from his twilight years, and the movie shines when that persona butts up against his profound sincerity. Recalling Nazi official Otto Rasch in the film, Ferencz notes how he killed 33,721 Jews in two days, then pauses, looking like he’ll tear up at the memory. Instead, he swerves into triumph: “I got the bastard,” he announces, pivoting his sob into a laugh.
There was trouble with this format, too: listening to a nonagenarian talk for most of an 83-minute film can get boring. Realizing this, Avrich peppers in shorter interviews with experts in international law and war crimes, as well as a candid and effusive Don Ferencz, Ben’s son, who followed his father into law. (“My dad used to ask us – and I kid you not – around the dinner table every night, ‘What have you done for mankind today?’ ”)
When Avrich completed the film, he flew down to Boca Raton and rented out a theatre for a private screening. Ferencz cried as he watched it.
“Generally the subjects of my films are either dead or in jail,” Avrich says. “So for him to turn to me, crying, put his hand in my hand, and say, ‘This is all I need’ – that was great.”
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz screens at TIFF on Sept. 7 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Sept. 13 at the Scotiabank Theatre.