Review: ‘Human Failure’

Docu seethes with an undercurrent of ferocious irony and should prove fascinating to Jewish and non-Jewish auds.

That driest of documentation — tax records — becomes a macabre measuring stick in Michael Verhoeven’s exploration of the involvement of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. Venturing where many have gone before, Verhoeven enlists the expertise of a group of wry historians to throw new light on the workings of a “criminal system of expropriation, deportation, expulsion and murder” aimed at making sure that every non-Jewish German profited, directly or indirectly, from the Final Solution. Much like the helmer’s fictional “Nasty Girl,” the understated docu fairly seethes with an undercurrent of ferocious irony and should prove fascinating to Jewish and non-Jewish auds alike.

Though jealousy of wealthy Jews was recognized as a trigger for anti-Semitism, recent blanket theories of racism downplay this “class envy” aspect. Yet, as Verhoeven’s camera pans down reams of yellowed pages on which Jews were forced to inventory their possessions — from country villas to teddy bears, even filling out these forms in concentration camps after all was lost — it becomes clear that these lists itemize a vast store of goodies just waiting to be “Aryanized” by their neighbors.

Archived letters from tax collectors (who became an increasingly integral part of the process) complain about the people greedy for the apartments and furnishings of those about to be annihilated, annoyed that this stampede of would-be usurpers prevented them from doing their jobs efficiently.

Verhoeven’s docu lays out the fiscal master plan in all its bureaucratic soullessness, illustrated by the documents and narrated by passionate historians. Though the lion’s share of confiscated Jewish assets went to fund the war, the Nazis intentionally set aside enough spare change to try to guarantee that every man, woman and child profited from the permanent disappearance of Jewish citizens. Appropriated money was earmarked for everything from child care to pension funds — a percentage of the gold from dead Jews’ teeth went to fill the cavities of German soldiers. Mass deportation solved the Vienna housing shortage. The wholesale dismissal of Jews from positions of power enabled underlings to rapidly move up the corporate ladder, while the redistribution of Jewish businesses proved a windfall for longtime rivals. All this was recorded on paper, down to the names of those who bought “non-Aryan” bedding, furniture and books at public auctions. One Viennese Jew wonders at the origins of many proudly displayed German “family heirlooms.”

Relatives of those whose belongings were so meticulously recorded rediscover their ancestors by poring over the paperwork. Verhoeven fills the screen with photos of those Jewish dead: Ironically, the era’s only visual records of German citizens are the ID photos of Jews targeted for disappearance.

What emerges, colored by anger, weary sadness or triumph at revealing the hypocrisy and venality of fellow-Germans (the vivid personalities of Verhoeven’s historians making bearable the grim realities) is the vision of a state driven not by blind hatred but by a bureaucracy that used racism and murder for its own ends. Only a bureaucracy could think of fining Jews a million reichsmark for “inciting” Kristallnacht, later reclassifying the fine as a “Jewish capital fee” so that tax agencies could collect it.

Human Failure



A Menemsha Films release of a Sentana Filmproduktion in co-production with WDR, BR, SWR. Produced by Magnus Augustin. Executive producers, Beate Schlanstein, Hubert von Spreti. Directed by Michael Verhoeven. Written by Verhoeven, Luise Lindermair.


Camera (color, HD), Britta Becker, Matthias Boch, Joseph McCarthy, Jokl Hausleitner; editor, Gabriele Kroeber; music, Sami Hammi; sound, Markus Stoffel, Martin Noweck, Robert Gongoll, Gregor Kuschel. Reviewed on DVD, Jan. 17, 2010, New York. (In New York Jewish Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.


Wolfgang Dressen, Goetz Aly, Cornelia Muggenthaler, Beate Green, Vera Treplin, August Zirner, Andreas Heusler.
With: Wolfgang Dressen, Goetz Aly, Cornelia Muggenthaler, Beate Green, Vera Treplin, August Zirner, Andreas Heusler.
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