Showing how the Nazis’ mass killings grew out of the German medical establishment’s willing implementation of euthanasia and other practices with seemingly legitimate ends, “Healing by Killing” adds a valuable, chillingly fascinating chapter to the study of the Holocaust, one so devastating in its depiction of collapsed ethical standards that it deserves to be required viewing in medical schools everywhere. Avoiding undue emotionalism and the most shockingly familiar of Holocaust photos, pic employs a calm, analytical tone that makes its arguments and evidence all the more powerful. The New Yorker release bids to captivate arthouse and festival auds.
Interestingly, Israeli director Nitzan Aviram has chosen to focus on what might be called the German Holocaust; the only Jew he spotlights is New York psychologist Dr. Robert Lifton, whose book “Nazi Doctors” inspired the film. Though the genocidal predation of Treblinka, Auschwitz, etc., comes into play late in Aviram’s account, his primary concern is to trace the terrible logic that led doctors, of all people, to lay the operational groundwork for mass murder.
Pic does not delve into 19th century theories of eugenics that evolved rationalizations for weeding out the master race’s occasional aberrations. Rather, it begins by looking at survivors of the Nazis’ forced sterilization program and recalling the euthanasia order, issued by Hitler in 1939, that aimed at “mercifully” dispatching the terminally ill and malformed. The latter caused the establishment of centers where the victims, many of them children, were stripped, gassed and cremated. The procedure included the writing of death certificates with false causes of death that were given to the victims’ families.
Somehow doctors were able to justify their participation in such procedures, on the grounds that what they were doing was good for the community as a whole. Ironically, public pressure caused the euthanasia centers to be closed down. But by then, the state and its medical accomplices had produced a model for killing that could be used on anyone of a disagreeable political, social or racial stripe, and that could be employed, secretly, on huge numbers of people.
Aviram’s interviewees make a persuasive case that the Holocaust could not have occurred without the efficient, faux-hygienic apparatus created by German doctors prior to the adoption of the Final Solution. And once the famous death camps were fully operational, doctors continued to play a part by designating which victims were to be gassed, then certifying their deaths.
Pic interviews several medical workers from the camps and makes plain that Dr. Josef Mengele, whose horrific experiments on women and twins were another aspect of the pseudo-science used to justify murder, was only the most infamous of many genocidal doctors.
Still, where other films spark indignation at individuals, this one mostly stimulates a clarifying appreciation of the Hippocratic Oath. Perhaps its most sobering moments come in comments from current medical students who shrug off that vow’s relevance and the need for ethics classes. While “Healing by Killing” may raise more ethical questions than it can answer, it powerfully demonstrates the need to address rather than ignore such quandaries.