Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barry Avrich
Screenwriter: Barry Avrich
Cast: Benjamin Ferencz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/24/19
Opens: February 22, 2019
The best kinds of documentaries feature fly-in-the-wall eavesdropping. After that, you could get a good story about people facing the interviewer, whereas the worst kind of non-fiction movie-making finds has one character simply talking to the camera, with some archival shots thrown in. “Prosecuting Evil” is an exception. Most of the film finds Benjamin Ferencz simply talking to the lenses with perhaps little need for fancy direction. Yet this fellow is so riveting in his testament that his articulate chat is even more interesting than the black-and-white archival shots taken during the Nazi Holocaust.
Remarkably short, Ben was the lead prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the 1946 Nuremberg trials. You would not expect this since he did not do undergraduate work at Harvard but instead this Transylvania-born attorney who grew up in Brooklyn attended City College, which at the time was free, catering largely to men and women who could not afford private universities. He then headed to Harvard Law on a full scholarship, after which he was called upon by Telford Taylor who was prepping up for the Nuremberg trials.
Plunging into research he found the needed journals which, thanks to the meticulous recording of just about everything under the sun by Germans, saw entries on the mass killing by death squads during the early forties. He discovered that the people on trial had all received copies and therefore could not state in defense that they had no idea what was going on during the mass shootings and concentration camp exterminations.
Nuremberg was the scene of history’s most notorious murder trials. Director Barry Avrich, whose “Romeo and Juliet” film shows a similar theme of rivalry between two houses leading to tragic ends for the heroes, had to stand on a stack of books behind the lectern, and he, with an assortment of the most evil defendants you might ever see, laid out his case to the judges. None of the defendants claimed “I was just following orders,” or at least we heard nothing of this trite excuse in the doc, but not a single man showed remorse for killing 10,000 Jews and more in cold blood. Most were sentenced to death by hanging and we’re told that each one faced eight minutes of strangulation.
After the trials, Ferencz advocated for an international court to try war criminals, his dream coming true when the International Criminal Court at the Hague was formed. Though President Bill Clinton signed on for the U.S. at the last minute, President George W. Bush, fearful that American sovereignty would be lost by the court’s judgements, scrapped the treaty.
In the final shots we see Ferencz swimming, keeping up his stamina at his current age of 99, warning that though this is not his world any more, it’s up to the politicians to do what they can to prefer the rule of law rather than force.
83 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+