After the Truth is the imaginary tale of Dr. Josef Mengele's return to a newly-united nation which resents having their post-Cold War celebration spoiled by a Nazi Party pooper.
Mengele was the "Angel of Death of Auschwitz," the furthest extreme in Nazi betrayal of sacred trust in the medical profession and Western ethics. His horrific medical experiments on concentration camp inmates afterward represented the lowest a human being—humanity itself—can sink.
The real Mengele escaped to South America, where he dodged responsibility until drowning in 1979 at age 68. Since Mengele died without answering to human judge, this film drafts on the story of another fugitive Nazi, Adolf Eichmann. The accountant for the Final Solution was kidnapped by Israeli agents in 1960 and brought to Jerusalem to be tried, convicted and hanged. Eichmann sat in the bullet-proof glass box that Mengele occupies here. The doctor comes home willingly, to resolve things—to tell, he says, "the truth"—his truth: that he's not such a bad guy, that he's been made to take the rap for a nation, if not a species.
Other truths are in play. The truth of the nation, at pains to distance itself from that Germany. The truth of Mengele's attorney, Peter Rohm, who can't finish his biography of the doctor. The historical truth of Auschwitz isn't much in question: "what really happened" is freely admitted by Mengele, to the outrage of neo and old Nazis. Nor does the film puzzle over legal truth, the legitimacy of war crimes trials, controversial even at Nuremberg, dismissed by some as "victor's justice." That would have been an obvious entré e into conversation about truth itself, a concept lately as quaint as certain provisions of the Geneva Convention: but no, old fashioned common-sense notions of truth go without saying.
The film's German title is Nichts als die Wahrheit, The Truth and Nothing But. The English title is more provocatively layered: After the Truth can refer to the pursuit of truth, and to living in the wake of some truth. Much ink has been spilled mapping quadrants of human reality "After Auschwitz"—that truth for which subsequent ethics, philosophy, art, theology, psychology, sociology, even epistemology struggles to be more than footnotes. Nevertheless, it's hard to accept that there may be no absolute truth in the face of something that demands absolute juustice.
So, who's really guilty?
The film pulls us into thorny questions about collective versus individual guilt, wherein sliding to one end of the scale lessens responsibility at the other. If everybody's guilty for Auschwitz, nobody's guilty. If somebody's guilty, everybody else seems to get off the hook. Dr. Mengele offers traditional Nazi defenses: he was a cog in a machine, just following orders, a product of his circumstances. The jury, onscreen and off, must decide whether these arguments represent the voice of Satan, laying the axe to morality—or the voice of Reason, asking questions none of us (on screen and off) care to face.
This association of Mengele with the Devil is hardly rhetorical: the film feels like a magical realist fantasy where an angel (or angel of death) falls from the sky and poses less questions about the miraculous than a monumental inconvenience.
Myth and fact are two more truths in contest. The film tries to have it both ways, and pulls it off—though not without a certain hair-raising metaphysical vertigo. To understand this problem, imagine Adolf Eichmann as a movie Nazi facing, say, Indiana Jones. Eichmann, remember, was the inspiration for the phrase "the banality of evil." He embodied not Evil but Mediocrity Incarnate.
In After the Truth, veteran German actor Götz George plays Mengele less banal than diabolically cunning—a bald, brooding brilliance between Hannibal Lecter and Colonel Kurtz. Thus, against a general demythologizing thrust, myth doesn't quite become fact. This Mengele still towers over history.
We never hear a word about the historical Mengele's real-life family. Notably absent is Mengele's son Rolf, for whom his Argentinean relative was "Uncle Fritz." Rolf later confronts the man he was mortified to acknowledge as his father with questions that provoked rationalizations mouthed here. Whether the characterization has much to do with the real-life Mengele matters little: poetic license justifies metaphorical heightening, and the film would have been less effective without so compelling a central figure. Even a fully demythologized Mengele remains more than just flesh and blood, as surely as the signifier "Auschwitz" will forever signify infinitely more than just a small town in Poland.
So does this would-be historical Mengele have a point in claiming he's been made a scapegoat? There's the paradox. Viewers' experience of the film depends on how they negotiate it. A too literal reading may conclude that the prosecution's case is airtight; a more poetic reading finds Mengele impossible to litigate: ridding the world of Evil can be done neither by law nor army.
'He's like an alien to me'
Recently I screened After the Truth for some evangelical students. They struggled to situate Unfathomable Evil into ill-tested theodicies. Some resisted what seemed an assault on their moral categories—ready to take it out on the messenger. I was surprised to find that their instructor jumped into the breach, sandbagging threatened narratives, bolstering the wall between Decent People Like Us and that monster Mengele.
There's always been a couple schools of thought on this. Some people insist ordinary human beings are capable of anything. Others find it impossible to think of the perpetrators of Auschwitz as anything but monsters. "He is like an alien to me," said Rolf Mengele of his father. "Auschwitz seems like another planet." If it's tough for Americans to process this, imagine the agony of Mengele's own son, who became a lawyer, declaring that he'd defend his father in court if need be, even if he was an alien.
Certainly it would have been easier for all of us if Auschwitz could be blamed on aliens. The story even sounds like a case of alien abduction or ritual abuse: a nation kidnapped by dark beings doing dark things, in the end blasted out of the galaxy by earth people. Patrolling the border between Auschwitz and the earth people has required constant vigilance ever since. This film, like Auschwitz itself, ruptures the border. What's really on trial is the title of Peter Rohm's ever-unfinished book on Mengele: One of Us.
The handle by which some may grasp this film will be bio-ethics. When Mengele characterizes his actions as "compassionate euthanasia," the apologetics ring creepily familiar. Linking them to contemporary debates are appropriate. Yet such questions can obscure others. It would be ironic if a viewer used bioethics as a stick to beat Evil Others, rather than following the film to implications less about Them, than Us.
But for the Grace of God …
For Peter Rohm is our lawyer, too. His closing argument seems to win the day, but I wouldn't want to face an appeal. If the film teases with closure, it whips it away to reveal the Abyss, threatening to suck us all in. Auschwitz remains the great debunker of narratives, large and small. We watch as Mengele scribbles on his memoirs, as Eichmann did, like Speer, like all of us do.
One way or another, we're all perfecting our story—exonerating, explaining, excusing, blaming, polishing—even watching this film. We may be stunned to find the onscreen narrative-making falls into precise sync with our own. It may be the moment we're telling ourselves that, no matter what we've done, we're not as bad as Nazis (a chief pleasure of Nazi movies!) If we catch our reflection in Mengele, God grant our response will be the honest one: there but for the Grace of God, go I.
As Christians, we carry an additional burden: reconciling a weighty historical record and that story of a loving, just and powerful God. Whether we want to open that can of worms depends on how far into the heart of darkness we're willing to let this film take us—into "the truth." (I keep hearing Jack Nicholson: "You can't handle the truth.") Certainly the truth was too much for Oedipus.
Most of us, if there are cracks in our well-crafted narratives, tend to live in one denial or another. Yet the monsters beneath the surface always find a way to get out and wreak havoc—typically, in projections of them onto the nearest Evil Other. The Jews. The Witches. The Satanists. The Terrorists. The Guest Speaker. Even the Nazis, ironically—not to let the Nazis off the hook. Just to suggest there may be room for more of us on that hook than we might prefer to think.
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