Author and cartoonist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has penned books on Vietnam, cults, nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and the Holocaust. He has a particular interest in the indoctrinated white coats that waged mass killings in the name of Hitler's Third Reich. This particular character from WWII is given front-and-center treatment in Nazi Doctors. To hear Lifton speak it, when people commit the unthinkable it happens in a pattern. A small stream of academics and history buffs will fill seats but leave partially shortchanged by the lack of dirty details.
The doc doesn't pack a wallop. Nor does it play post war vigilante and attempt to unearth privileged secrets. German filmmakers Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter setup at Lifton's seaside retreat on a figurative fishing expedition. The co-directors admit they are attempting to tell something without much to show. Lifton whips, "...One can only do so much and in a sense one has to fail to comprehend the entire event. It's elusive..." The directors' mission here is not to convey the "entire event" but explore snippets.
Much is made of the interviews Dr. Lifton conducted with the Nazi doctors. There's initial distrust in his content. These men - some 40-plus ex-Nazi pledged exterminators - exude "unctuous politeness," live nicely and even deliver babies as practicing physicians. The 80 or so survivors he interviewed should only boast the same luxuries. This practical reality offended Lifton to his core. A Jew himself, Lifton managed to get these doctors to trust him (he in turn promised anonymity) in a series of meetings. Each interview covers the doc's curriculum vitae. When it arrives at the Auschwitz chapter tensions top out. Some snapped that they felt on trial, others wouldn't circle around their culpability. He made it clear these men live in the dark. "They could never confront what they did morally."
Going deeper, Dr. Lifton believes that the movement and its allegiances supersede personal ideology. "The loyalty to the SS, to the Nazi project in general, to the Nazi hierarchy, it took over their conscience from everything." The pacifist could become a mass murderer, and when it came to experimentation on humans and putting the young "to sleep" doctors harbored softened justifications to "sustain their sense of being a doctor." He contends that the ordinary doctor let loose in a totally dominated or controlled environment "has the temptation to carry through some kind of experiment he can then justify as contributing to science." But this so-called work was quickly sullied because the findings were "negated in their value," having taken place inside lawless Auschwitz.
Lifton's words and intended tangents are eloquent, but I sense that he's holding back. If he abhors these comfortable physicians that's a start, but he doesn't seem to be bothered enough by the gravity of death toll and suffering that fails to keep these medicine men awake at nights. Instead he stays clinical and observant. Sanitary. And that might fit when it comes to his legitimacy as a doctor, but it plays like static onscreen. You learn a great deal about the thinker and storyteller in Lifton, but you'll learn so little when it comes to where he truly stands. He's explored the psyche of these brutal euthanasia artists but the effect seems to like only scant ripples in almost unmolested waters.
Distributor: National Center for Jewish Film
Directors/Producers: Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: October 6 NY