For director Matthew Shoychet and producer Ricki Gurwitz, the chance to screen their first feature in front of a hometown audience is thrilling.
The Accountant of Auschwitz is having its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Tickets have already sold out, except for a handful of “rush” tickets to be held for the days of the three screenings.
However, in late March, Shoychet and Gurwitz said the film still wasn’t wrapped. There was still a musical score to be added, as well as bits of news footage to obtain from German broadcasters.
“It’s a race against time,” Shoychet said.
Those time limits have been a challenge for the filmmakers since the project’s inception. The documentary focuses on a 2015 trial in Lueneburg, Germany involving Oskar Groening. Then, the titular accountant was charged with being an accessory to the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
Groening was 94 when the trial began. He was not much older than the Canadian Jewish survivors who arrived in Lueneburg to testify, including Hedy Bohm, Max Eisen, and Bill Glied.
Shoychet first learned of Groening’s name when he was a chaperone on the March of the Living, where Glied and Eisen accompanied him. The survivors missed the second half of the trip to travel to Lueneburg for this trial.
Gurwitz was also in that German town for the prosecution, covering the proceedings as a producer for CTV News.
“The more I read about the case, the more I thought, this is not so black and white,” she says. “[Groening] was very interesting.”
Then, many rejoiced at the opportunity to have a former Nazi face justice for heinous crimes. However, others took a look at the nonagenarian and wondered if it was worth the trouble to prosecute him.
Nevertheless, the trial gave Groening the chance to bear witness and admit what he had done at Auschwitz: collect the luggage of Jews, search for money and valuables, and plunder these belongings.
“He’s actually speaking in the courtroom, saying, ‘I saw the gas chambers,’” Shoychet says.
The Accountant of Auschwitz focuses not just on this occasion but also the history of Nazi trials in Germany. The film elaborates on why so few SS officers were prosecuted in the past, and how Groening’s recent trial sets an important legal precedent.
“It was frustrating that it took him so long to get to trial,” Gurwitz says. “So many men did terrible things… [and] never got punished but got pensions in Germany. It’s pathetic.”
As Shoychet adds, if the most sadistic and reprehensible Nazis only got a few years in prison, how does one properly decide how much jail time a guard like Groening deserves?
These questions become harder to answer due to the passage of time. Few former Nazis are still alive, and even fewer are fit enough to stand trial.
“[Groening] was only being targeted because all his superiors have died,” Shoychet says. “His acquaintances never faced any kind of punishment.”
Meanwhile, there are not many survivors available to testify. Glied, Eisen, and Bohm were all interviewed extensively for The Accountant of Auschwitz, although their courtroom testimonies were not captured on camera.
Eisen and Bohm will be at the second Hot Docs screening, on April 30, with other Holocaust survivors in Toronto, Shoychet says.
The final cut of the documentary will be dedicated to Glied, who died in February at age 87.
Meanwhile, Groening died on March 9. Even though he was sentenced more than two years ago, due to illness and constant appeals from his lawyer, Groening never served a day behind bars.
Nevertheless, this feature-length documentary marks an important chapter in the history of the Holocaust – especially for the survivors who have waited decades for this verdict.
“The survivors said, ‘We don’t care if he goes to jail,’” Shoychet says. “‘The fact that this trial is actually happening and he at least had his day in court… For the history books and the records, it says he was found guilty.’ That’s enough for them.”n
Rush tickets for The Accountant of Auschwitz will be available one hour before the screenings on April 29, April 30, and May 4 for those in the rush line. The film will open theatrically in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on June 8.