Directors Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter seem to have taken the concept of the banality of evil too far, applying the stalest of documentary filmmaking techniques, the talking-head interview, to their Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors, in which the psychiatrist and Harvard lecturer Robert Jay Lifton gives us the Cliff’s Notes version of his 1986 book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide from the safety of his book-filled study. Lifton, who himself interviewed dozens of doctors that worked at Auschwitz, is an easygoing and engaging academic, and someone whose university course probably wouldn’t put you to sleep. But, then, college classes don’t have an 86-minute running time.
The discoveries Lifton has to offer are certainly interesting, his exposing of his own interview techniques, of his particular process, intriguing. He remembers feeling that the SS medical men didn’t deserve the affluent, comfortable lives most of them still led at the time—financial wellbeing earned as a result of their generally still practicing medicine. We watch as Lifton visibly struggles even today to grasp the enormity of the psychological information his research garnered.
Unfortunately, we may as well be listening to Lifton speak through an audio book, which would be preferable since at least then we wouldn’t have to suffer through tedious cutaways to random stock shots of tranquil beaches and serene fields. Even the camera seems to readjust oddly at times as if the cinematographer had suddenly remembered the film was rolling; a distracted Lifton interrupts himself to take a phone call during a discussion of Mengele. And the filmmakers only make things worse by trying to liven up the proceedings aurally. Between the mystical bells chiming in the background (while Lifton delves into the subject of “doctor as shaman”) and the Bernard Hermann-sounding strings added for eerie effect, the film often accidentally approaches B-movie absurdity.
But perhaps the biggest misstep the filmmakers made is forgoing the use of any archival footage of the SS medics themselves. Since this is all secondhand storytelling, the flesh-and-blood people being analyzed never seen or heard from, they’re depersonalized and distanced from us. These men of Mengele are portrayed only in the abstract, so how could we possibly be moved to be disgusted and horrified by their actions? Ultimately, we feel nothing toward them. Which happens to be exactly how the Nazi doctors were able to kill with such a clean conscience.