“Karl Plagge fought against being acquitted because he didn’t feel innocent,” says the godson of the man at the centre of the documentary, The Good Nazi.
This is the story of the unemployed German engineer who joined the Nazi party in 1931 and ended up saving around 200 Jews in Vilnius, Lithuania, rather than murder them. When tried in court following the war, Plagge was deemed a fellow traveller rather than a Nazi, even if the judges were reluctant to acknowledge his efforts.
What seemed to complicate things, though, was that he couldn’t save everyone. And yet, when Plagge died in 1957 at age 59, he knew little about the impact he had.
Deciding to use The Good Nazi as the title for an hour-long documentary, which is airing across Canada on VisionTV, was a calculated choice according to co-director and producer Ric Esther Bienstock. Even with so many stories still left to be told about the Holocaust, getting attention for another one isn’t easy – but, to her, making new films involving survivors feels like a race against the clock.
It doesn’t take long to understand that the name isn’t simply sensationalistic. The Good Nazi spawned from a 2005 book by Connecticut family physician Michael Good, whose mother, Pearl, survived HKP 562, a forced labour camp in Vilnius. After joining her on a trip to the site, despite knowing no further details beyond her rescuer’s surname, Good spent five years working on The Search for Major Plagge.
Still, the filmmakers wondered if the “Nazi” part of the title would be better in quotes – did Plagge really consider himself to be one?
After all, he was an SS member who supplied unskilled Jews with work permits, in order to keep them alive, and then told his superiors that their efforts were helping the Germans.
Producing the documentary came with an obvious challenge: the limited visual record of this history. That’s why they decided to use reenactments. Toronto actor Neil Bennett, whose face and physique lends itself to playing antagonistic characters, grasped the complexity of a man who had to keep most of his thoughts to himself.
And so, it was off to Lithuania, to reunite survivors with the place they survived. The film also captures efforts to dig into the history of HKP 562.
“The danger of urban renewal there is that all these locations aren’t being preserved,” says Bienstock. “It becomes an emotional issue: if we don’t record it now, it will be too late.”
What’s explored along the way is how the SS carried out a Kinderaktion, or children’s operation, when Plagge was in Germany on home leave. Young and elderly Jews were rounded up for execution in his absence. This left the staff officer feeling far from righteous for the remainder of his life, even if his actions were posthumously validated as such by Yad Vashem.
The Good Nazi will introduce viewers to an important word: malinas, hiding places that played a key role in Vilnius ghetto life. For the cameras, Good explores the places his mother hid, alongside hundred others, some of whom were hallucinating and attacking one another, before they were liberated by the Russians.
Personal reflections are juxtaposed in the documentary with a scientific mission: researchers using ground-penetrating radar to not only identify those hiding places, but also the mass graves where others ended up. It adds up to a riveting probe into the terror of 1944, through the lens of the digital age.
“The thing is, once it’s documented, it’s documented forever,” says Bienstock. “And we wanted to capture information that couldn’t have been uncovered 30 years ago because technology like ground penetrating radar didn’t exist then.”
Life goes on inside the building that housed HKP 562, which is now an apartment building. “The residents are watching TV, they’re making tea,” she says, “and it’s not that long ago on the staircases that so much horror was going on.”
The launch of The Good Nazi comes on the heels of a movie that Bienstock co-produced, The Accountant of Auschwitz, which covers the trial of Oskar Groening, one of the last surviving members of the SS.
She’s also been working with longtime collaborator Simcha Jacobovici on Enslaved, a series narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, about Africans who were transported to the New World against their will.
But as the daughter of Holocaust survivors herself, Bienstock says The Good Nazi resonates with her in personal ways and that she wants the film to connect with non-Jewish audiences, as well.
Karl Plagge’s godson uses the word “mensch” to describe him. He does so while speaking in German – but it’s a word that doesn’t require subtitles.
The Good Nazi has its Canadian premiere Jan. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the BAYT (613 Clark Ave. W., Thornhill) and debuts nationally on VisionTV on Jan. 21 at 9 p.m. ET.