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Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals

PBS // Unrated // December 31, 2011
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeremy Biltz | posted April 18, 2012 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
Countless films, both documentary and narrative, have been made about World War II, and specifically the Holocaust. And certainly, Elusive Justice is not the first film to examine the hunt for Nazi war criminals, but the PBS produced documentary is a compelling look at this particular historical topic, and benefits greatly from its one on one interviews with many of those directly involved, both victims and perpetrators.

The film is just under two hours long, and consists mostly of individual interviews, archival photos and footage, and explanatory and introductory narration, provided ably by Candice Bergen. A large range of individuals are interviewed, including people such as concentration camp survivor Yehuda Maimon, Benjamin Ferencz, a military investigator who personally inspected camps looking for documentation of crimes, Uki Goni, an Argentine journalist, Rafi Aitan a Mossad operative, and even people like Vladas Zajanckauskas and Max Milde, who participated in Nazi crimes themselves.

It is these interviews, and the general candor with which the subjects speak, that are the true strength of the film. Several people talk about their desire for vengeance, perhaps as a means to justice and perhaps not, and detail their attempts at extra-judicial killings, and their successes. An anonymous Mossad agent, whose name is not given even though his face is not blurred out, describes how he tracked down Herberts Cukurs, the "Hangman of Riga" in Brazil, lured him to Uruguay, shot him to death and sealed him in a trunk with a note. There is a lot of meditation on revenge, justice, peace, righteous anger, activism and outrage, and how all of these overlap and meld together, especially after decades of time have elapsed. For the most part, the filmmakers avoid making their feelings about the issue explicit. Indeed, they don't need to. The images and interviews speak louder than any editorial comment they could make.

A lot of intriguing episodes and events are mentioned, any one of which could be the subject for an entire film on its own. But Elusive Justice works mainly as a survey, and therefore is unable to give more than a cursory glimpse at any one area. The search for, arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann are discussed, as are the hunt for Mengele, links between the Argentine dictatorship and the Nazis, the Nuremburg trials, and many other subjects. One particularly affecting portion discusses the Spiegelgrund, an Austrian hospital for the unfit. Alois Kaufmann, who was held there as a boy because he was considered a juvenile delinquent, discusses his efforts to have the hospital staff charged with crimes. He describes how the head doctor, Heinrich Gross, would visit every few weeks and review the patients. To some, he would give candy. Those who were given candy soon disappeared. Footage is shown of Kaufmann going to the Spiegelgrund basement in 1997 with an American news team and finding jars of human brains, taken from the patients. Kaufmann recognizes one of the names as a friend of his.

Elusive Justice is in many ways a punch in the gut. It's not just the graphic photos and film from the concentration camps, though those are powerful enough. It's looking into the eyes of those who were actually there, who were victims of these crimes, and in some cases the criminals, and hearing them tell their stories, like Alois Kaufmann. This provides a human face that personalizes the impersonal history that almost everyone knows the outlines of. These are not outlines, they are human beings talking (mostly) frankly about the past as it happened to them. (I say "mostly" because those such as Zajanckauskas and Gross stoutly deny their guilt, even in the face of documentary evidence to the contrary, and in Gross' case preserved human brains in jars.) The justice of the title is elusive because the consensus of most of the interviewees is that only a small fraction of the Nazi criminals has been or ever will be prosecuted. One person said that it they had prosecuted everyone, trials would have been going on continuously to the present day. Even people whose crimes are documented continue to live their lives, using their own names, not in hiding. Many people are trying to catch up to them before they die, but it is acknowledged that many will never be brought to account.

Elusive Justice is at times a difficult film to watch, but definitely worth the time. A heavy editorial hand is eschewed, and not necessary. The interviews are powerful enough. Even if perfect justice for Nazi atrocities will never be realized, we can learn more about the crimes and criminals, and the human beings who suffered under them. Highly recommended.


The video is 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks good, aside from some very rare and mild aliasing. Of course, much of what we see is archival footage, of various levels of quality.

The audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and works well. We can always clearly hear what people are saying. English subtitles are included, and at times obscures titles or other written information on the screen, but only rarely. A video description track for the blind is also included.

The only items that could be construed as an extra are a listing of all the donors that funded the film, and a link to the PBS website.

Final Thoughts:
Elusive Justice is a powerful film, and an effective one. It gives a general survey of a number of subjects related to the search for Nazi war criminals. It wrestles with the concepts of revenge, murder and justice forthrightly. The footage and interviews included can be difficult to watch, so be forewarned, but the effort has great rewards. This is a very good film.

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Highly Recommended

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