NEW YORK — Netflix is a media behemoth, and it has irrevocably altered the entertainment landscape in a number of ways. While it may like to put front and center its stable of prestige feature filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach, Ava DuVernay, and Alfonso Cuarón, everyone knows it’s the “wait, I gotta see one more” programming that keeps everyone hooked. That means cooking shows, British soap operas and, perhaps somewhat macabre-ly, true crime documentaries.
Netflix hit paydirt with “Making A Murderer” in 2015 and since then it’s been pumping them out like clockwork. There are many who watch them, weirdly, as a type of comfort food. The series all follow a formula (lots of withheld information sprung just as each episode ends) to inspect mankind’s darker impulses at a grisly yet entertaining remove. Something with a title like “Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist” has an irresistible tabloid appeal. Which is why I was a little surprised when I learned they made one about the attempted genocide of the Jewish people.
John Demjanjuk was my first Nazi. I was too young for the Eichmann trial or the march in Skokie, Illinois. The concept of actual, living Nazis — either the ones from Europe that killed much of my father’s family or a modern day variety wearing swastikas for more than shock value — felt a million miles from me. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb around a lot of other Jews. Nazis were something to watch get flung out of jeeps by Indiana Jones.
But in the mid-1980s the evening news introduced an old man from an Ohio neighborhood that didn’t look much different than my own backyard. His Eastern European accent was like my grandfather’s, and the grandfathers of all my friends. But John Demjanjuk was, according to many, a concentration camp guard, and not just any guard, but the demonic “Ivan the Terrible,” the representation of pure, depraved evil that couldn’t exist in reality, much less in this country.
“Of course it’s him!” my great aunt hissed when his picture came on TV. “We don’t know, we don’t know,” my grandfather, an autodidact and farmer who never let passions cloud his mind, would reply. Ivan the Terrible (who could pronounce Demjanjuk?) was a constant topic of conversation for years. And he terrified me.
And that’s heart of the matter, represented right in the title of this five-part documentary: “The Devil Next Door.” Could the will to coldly comply with the Final Solution really be lurking in the hearts of seemingly kind men buying groceries beside us? And not just “comply,” but relish?
Ivan the Terrible, the gas chamber guard at Treblinka, was known to taunt and torture the condemned. He kept a sword and would mutilate prisoners for fun. He sliced off women’s breasts moments before they died, just because he wanted to. And now, it was discovered, this monster was masquerading as a mild-mannered, retired assembly line worker outside of Cleveland. Everyone who knew him at the Ford plant liked him. His family claimed he was the kindest man who ever lived. Maybe this was all just a case of mistaken identity.
The slow process of extradition from the United States to Israel and the subsequent trial(s) make up the bulk of this series. To just follow Demjanjuk’s path plot-by-plot is to keep one engaged. But directors Yossi Bloch and Daniel Sivan wisely know when it makes sense to take a break from the avalanche of plot delivered by talking head commentators. The emotion, naturally, comes from the witness testimony.
Most of “The Devil Next Door” is swiftly paced. Graphics fly on the screen, new evidence is discussed in quick information blasts. But toward the end of the first episode, we get our first voice from the past — old video footage from the trial in Jerusalem, in which a man, the weight of his people’s history on his shoulders, is trying to express just who is Ivan the Terrible.
There’s a scene in the 1976 thriller “Marathon Man” where an ex-Nazi (loosely based on Dr. Josef Mengele) goes to New York City’s diamond district and is recognized by camp survivors as der weisse Engel (Goebbels’s nickname, the White Angel). The scene is played-up for drama, but it eerily predicts a moment from the trial in which a survivor named Eliyahu Rosenberg approached Demjanjuk in the dock to “look into his eyes.”
It is a moment of pure terror, but what happens next is catnip to a typical “Netflix true crime” viewer. Evidence emerges that Rosenberg had, decades earlier, boasted that he had taken part of the Treblinka uprising and killed Ivan the Terrible.
By TV courtroom standards, Rosenberg’s testimony should be ignored. But those who have been touched by the Holocaust (e.g. every living Jew and many Gentiles) are inclined to understand that regular psychology doesn’t quite make sense regarding survivors and how they may have acted or what they may have said immediately after their families were systematically murdered by a state-run engine of evil. This documentary, to its immense credit, does understand this.
In addition to access of the original trial footage, “The Devil Next Door” takes full advantage of a man always willing to talk. In the abstract, lawyer Yoram Sheftel (still making waves today) is part of a noble cause. Without a proper defense attorney, there can not ever be the appearance of justice. But I’ll quote from Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Big Lebowski” to describe him: “You’re not wrong… you’re just an asshole.” He is shown taking great delight in being the most hated man in Israel during the Demjanjuk trial.
Sheftel, who didn’t just drive an ostentatious sports car, but a German one, danced right up to the line of being a troll. But he is, undeniably, quick-witted and funny on camera. You don’t know whether to laugh or hiss. Demjanjuk’s American lawyer, Mark J. O’Connor, however, is a snake, and you can tell from the beginning. It comes as no surprise at the end to learn he has associations with Holocaust deniers and his father, who worked in government after the war, has been implicated in having a very open policy to letting ex-Nazis into the United States.
The main character in all this, however, is Demjanjuk himself. One minute he comes across as a victim from Kafka, a sputtering old man in his undershirt swearing that they’ve got the wrong guy. It’s terrifying. Maybe he’s innocent. Then he addresses the Israeli press with a smug, “Shalom,” twisting the knife for all survivors who may be watching. It’s terrifying, too. He has to be guilty.
Bloch and Sivan love to play this game, forcing you to second guess yourself at regular intervals. They also do a good job of showing just how much the trial(s) took over Israeli discourse. In the United States, once Demjanjuk was extradited it wasn’t a top story too often. Even though I knew the ultimate outcome, there were certainly aspects that were new to me. So to answer the baseline question of is “The Devil Next Door” good, all I can say is I intended to just watch the first episode and next thing I knew it was 3 o’clock in the morning and I’d finished it in one gulp.
It then being the middle of the night, I was confronted then with a quiet household and the inability to sleep. As my bad luck would have it, I’ve been reading more and more about American neo-Nazism in the post-Charlottesville era. The recently leaked audio of Richard B. Spencer shouting, “Kike!” still rang in my ears. I realized that John Demjanjuk may have been my first Nazi, but he’ll sadly be far from my last.