Superficially, this minimalist docu about the role of doctors as prime executors of Nazi ideology would appear redundant. Psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton had previously expounded his theories in a 1986 book, and the filmmakers add nothing: no illustrative footage, no contrasting or corroborating evidence. A single talking head (Lifton’s) directly addresses the camera. Yet with its contemplative pauses and subtle angle changes, the pic provides a full appreciation of Lifton’s analysis and the impact that this study personally had on the man, himself a physician. Galvanizing docu debuts Oct. 6 at Gotham’s Film Forum.
The octogenarian Lifton, seated in his cabin on Cape Cod, Mass., speaks thoughtfully to German vet documentary filmmakers Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter (who are sometimes glimpsed, and whose questions are sometimes overheard). He discusses his unsettling experiences interviewing Nazi doctors and gradually discloses the fruits of that research. Periodic cutaways to tranquil shots of the sea punctuate the slow buildup of horror, as slight shifts in camera angle bring viewers back to the unassuming man who has seen too much.
Lifton views doctors as having served a crucial function in Hitler’s master plan, envisioning Auschwitz as a sort of evil hospital presiding over the health of the Volk by eliminating all threats to German purity. Lifton links the Nazi mystique to the shamanistic roots of the medical profession — to the witch doctors who communed with supernatural powers in order to mediate between life and death. Doctors made the selections for extermination in the camps and opened the gas jets in the crematoria. Insofar as National Socialism was nothing but applied biology in the service of Aryan perfection, the job of assuring that no “unhealthy” genes survived fell naturally to the physicians, who had to be methodically weaned from the preservation of life to the deliberate taking of it.
In this context, the infamous experiments of Josef Mengele and his cohorts take on a paradoxical coloration. Since all they were doing as doctors was rote killing, using prisoners as guinea pigs in radical procedures sustained the illusion that they were physicians engaged in important scientific discovery.
Finally, Lifton denies the uniqueness of German anti-Semitism, exposing how easily even highly educated professionals dedicated to saving lives can be socialized to kill. Implicit in the detailed exposition by Lifton, author of works on Hiroshima, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, terrorism, capital punishment and Vietnam, are more recent, generally less acknowledged genocides that haunt his peaceful cabin.