Thomas Harlan’s Wundkanal indicates its seriousness through a bevy of distancing techniques: hideous industrial settings, suffocating framing, a washed out palette of blues and blacks, long interrogations that loop back on themselves. These are crucial touches, the first steps the director takes in approaching the mountain of reasons that might have stopped him from making this film. They act as both ritual of purification and a clear signal of what it will not be, flushing away any pretense of entertainment, narrative, explanation, or answers.
Harlan’s father was the notorious Veit Harland, director of the repugnant Jud Suss and one of the creative forces behind the Nazi propaganda machine. It’s a huge legacy to overcome, and rather than attempt to explain or confront it, Harlan explodes the entire situation in one virtuoso outburst. Wundkanal is a messy, ugly movie, but it’s also an outstanding document, one of the few to approach the Holocaust with absolute deference to its enormity.
The film’s defining characteristic is its recruitment of Alfred Filbert, a convicted war criminal who had served time for the murder of thousands. Propped up by a thin fictional structure, Harlan gives the 80-year-old Filbert the floor, forcing him to explain himself. Amid the horror of allowing such a person voice to defend his position, things becomes even more ethically suspect, through the employment of an onslaught of distorting devices, from constant mirror reflections to the ghastly image of the man himself, caked in stage makeup.
The film steadily devolves into an exercise in offensive trickery, aiming to incite dueling expressions of disgust, on one side at the sins of this man, on the other for the opportunistic filmmaker who’s literally abusing him for his own profit. Supposedly promised a chance to defend himself (the film’s development is documented in Robert Kramer’s Our Nazi, also on the festival bill) Filbert is instead forced into a series of punishing, increasingly complex games, a forgiveness-seeking process that goes nowhere. Through this the film communicates the exploitation inherent in approaching this kind of loaded subject, while fully absorbing its ugliness, all the while challenging audience complacency.
Wundkanal inevitably becomes about the dizzying confusion of history, its inability to be processed or explained in any linear fashion. It threshes its subject’s words and spreads them across a wide array of media, film formats, and image styles, while mixing reading, reciting, and remembering. Filbert questions himself and others, talks to his own image on a television, all on a static set heaped over with reams of evidence, photographs, maps, and clutter.
The crux of the film is its betrayal, tricking a sick old man into damning himself through a rigged system. It’s not a coincidence that Filbert was known for a horrifying program of manipulated suicides, where arms were literally twisted, with prisoners forced to shoot themselves in the back of the head. Filbert displays that technique here, and Harlan then mimics it with a handheld camera, cementing the connection. By eschewing all but the basic elements of narrative and owning up to its own ghoulishness, Wundkanal approaches the event in the only way possible, searching for a cathartic reckoning that results in no catharsis, only a heightened sense of the inapproachability of the event.
Wundkanal will play on February 28 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.