Generally speaking, there are two different kinds of documentaries: the kind about its style and the kind purely about its subject matter. The former (for example, the films of Michael Moore) aim to capture the viewer’s attention with flash and cleverness. They try to sway you to their way of thinking, sometimes in an overly manipulative manner. The latter mainly wants to inform. They present facts and straight-forward interviews, though they run the risk of being dry to the point of dullness. Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz belongs in the second category. However, its subject is so remarkable, so inspiring, that it overcomes the limitations of its presentation to become genuinely moving. It is not a great movie, but the story it tells makes it must-see.
Ben Ferencz is a Jewish man who was born in 1920 in Romania. His parents fled the country when he was a baby to escape the persecution of Jews. He grew up in New York where he became interested in the law and, eventually, war crimes. He served in the US Army during WWII where he was a witness to the atrocities committed by the Nazis when he was sent to collect evidence from concentration camps as they were being liberated. Shortly afterward, he was recruited to be a prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials. He had never actually practiced law before, yet he was named chief prosecutor in the case against the Einsatzgruppen, a unit personally responsible for the murder of over one million Jews, as well as many others seen as a threat to the Reich.
As you can probably tell from that synopsis, much of this movie consists of information imparted via interviews. This is a documentary made so more people can appreciate its subject. It is full of praise and the repeated listing of accomplishments. There are no eye-catching graphics on display. There is some archival audio/video and old photos but, with a couple of exceptions, they mostly reiterate what is being said by the interviewees instead of adding anything noteworthy.
The filmmakers talked to many people in the legal profession, however, the centerpiece of Prosecuting Evil (80 minutes without the end credits) is an interview with the 98 year-old Ferencz where he discusses his incredible experiences. Still smart, passionate and able to vividly recall what happened more than seventy years ago, he is charming and sympathetic. You can hear the emotion in his voice as he relates his past. This is a man for whom every day is an opportunity to make the world a better place.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz is a great story told in a routine way. Luckily for the filmmakers, Ben Ferencz is an amazing man who has been involved in so many interesting things. Director/writer/producer Barry Avrich put this together like an extended news piece. It is not cinematic. Yet I was enthralled nonetheless.
While this is far from the best documentary I have seen recently, I am glad it has been made. It is about a man who saw unthinkable horror and wanted to do something about it. Not only was he a significant part of making sure some of those responsible for the attempted extermination of the Jews were punished, he has dedicated his life to ensuring those who commit similar violations of human rights are held accountable for their actions. He is a great man whose story needed to be told. That alone makes this a valuable film.
3¾ out of 5
Written and Directed by Barry Avrich