From time to time people will ask me if there are any specific movies that Ignatius Press has released on DVD that I really think highly of. There are several, but there’s one of them in particular which came to mind in these past few weeks. It’s a chilling German legal thriller called After the Truth.
“Do you see at least a bit of yourself in me?” That’s the final line of the film, spoken to the viewer. The speaker is an eerie-looking bald man with a strangely compelling yet unsettling gaze. It’s Dr. Josef Mengele, played by Götz George in a performance which veers between skin-crawlingly creepy and authoritatively persuasive.
Set in the late 1990s, After the Truth follows defense attorney Peter Rohm (Kai Wiesinger), a man planning to write a biography of Josef Mengele, the infamous doctor at Auschwitz whose gruesome experiments on Jews, Roma, and other prisoners are regarded as some of the most heinous crimes ever committed. Rohm receives a “birthday” package in the mail containing a Nazi uniform. As he examines it, he realizes this is not only authentic, but that it is in fact the actual uniform worn by Dr. Mengele. Not long after, Mengele himself is speaking to the young lawyer.
What Mengele wants is simple. He wants to return to his native Germany, and he wants to be put on trial. He believes he has a persuasive defense.
When the movie was first released in 1999 it attracted a fair amount of controversy in Germany. The film allows Mengele to make powerful claims in his own defense: his work may have been unsettling, but the findings of Nazi science are still used in medicine. The people sent to the concentration camps were destined to die anyway, and he had only been trying to bring some good from their deaths. As the screenwriters point out in their booklet accompanying the DVD, the scientific world that Mengele was educated in made his actions possible, and even seem reasonable to many:
Mengele was educated in a Germany permeated by this thinking. At Munich University, he earned his Ph.D. under the tutelage of Professor T. Mollinson, an expert in the field of “racial hygiene”. Later, he studied with Baron von Verschuer enforcing the Race Law. It was Professor von Verschuer who appointed Mengele an assistant physician even before he had finished his degree. Later, the same academic world that educated Mengele would fund the lab at Auschwitz in which the SS physician performed his cruel experiments. And it was the academic institutions of Germany that received “specimens”, body parts of people killed by Mengele, for their own research.
None of this excuses Mengele. It does demonstrate that he didn’t spring fully formed from his own imagination. He was a product of his times, the logical expression of ideas that were broadly accepted in German legal and medical circles in the 1920s and 30s. Mengele’s hundreds of thousands of victims are the final, terrible result.
As the screenplay for After the Truth has defense attorney Peter Rohm saying during his closing argument, “The road to Auschwitz isn’t so long, as long as you take it one step at a time.”
Given the ongoing debate about Planned Parenthood and the defenses many are making for their practices of harvesting organs and body parts from the unborn, this film offers viewers a chance to see where we are along that road. And a chance to look in the mirror and see what we, as a nation, can see in ourselves. Is it a pretty picture?
After the Truth is available on DVD for $9.95 (plus an additional discount if you order online from Ignatius) and includes a 16-page booklet by screenwriters Christopher and Kathleen Riley. Click here to order.