The Accountant of Auschwitz is a 2018 documentary by Matthew Shoychet about the 2015 trial of Oskar Groening, an SS Unterscharführer responsible with sorting valuables and personal properties of Auschwitz prisoners.
The story is simple. In the 2000s, as the Germans were running out of Nazis to put on trial, they changed the laws so they could prosecute individuals who were associated with crimes of war, as opposed to directly taking part in them. Prosecutors were unable to find accused to fit even this loosened criteria, but they lucked out by discovering a 2005 BBC interview in which Oskar Groening was admitting his presence at Auschwitz in an attempt to refute Holocaust denialists. So they put the 93 year old on trial.
Groening was honest. He did not shy away from recounting his work at Auschwitz, and owned up to his moral guilt. He did not consider himself legally at fault, though.
This is a good and engaging production, but it has one problem. It isn’t really about “The Accountant of Auschwitz”! Groening’s trial is covered in maybe a third of the documentary’s 80 minutes – the rest focuses on past Nazi Criminals who escaped or received lenient sentences. There is barely any coverage of the trial itself, mostly outside commentary by survivors or scholars, and a few transcripts (which I generally don’t like, because they can easily be taken out of context, but fortunately it doesn’t seem to be the case here). We’re barely even told what exactly was Mr. Groening doing at Auschwitz.
I find it difficult to understand why the film makers did not focus more on Oskar Groening and his trial – the material should have been abundant and interesting. Maybe they did not have the legal right to go more in depth (this sounds plausible)? Maybe they just chose to go another way?
I thought this was a worthwhile watch, just be aware that the pompous title of the documentary is somewhat misleading. Groening’s trial was just a pretext to look at how Germany supposedly failed to punish members of the Nazi regime after the war. I also felt that the philosophical question posed in the film, regarding someone’s guilt over events which unfolded 70 years ago, is thrown out there without being investigated deeper. You should be able to watch this on Netflix or rent on Amazon in most countries.