How much do you know about the people who live next door? You know — those people you don’t really know very well, but whose names and faces are familiar to you, and with whom you exchange pleasantries on a regular basis? What do you know about their proclivities, their interests, their capacity for good and evil? And how much do you know about their past — where they came from, what they’re running from, what has been left in their wake? How would you be able to reconcile someone’s outward appearance of kindness and affability with discovering that they were complicit in, even perhaps directly responsible for, the most egregious of human atrocities? Well… Geez, that would be a bummer, wouldn’t it?
That disquieting feeling of cognitive dissonance is one of the central themes explored by the filmmaking duo of Rosario Cervio and Martín Liji on their new film The German Neighbor, a fascinating and often devastating new Argentine documentary that is being screened every Sunday of June (as well as the first Sunday of July) at MALBA. The film tells the story of Roberto Klement, a friendly, respectful German immigrant who took up residence in Argentina and lived for a decade as a loving husband, caring father, and overall well-regarded member of the community. That is, until he was identified as Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi Secret Service lieutenant colonel and one of the people directly involved in what is now known as the Holocaust.
The German Neighbor takes an interesting approach to its documentary storytelling, using a fictionalized narrative as a means of presenting the story: A young translator in the city of Buenos Aires attempts to make sense of the story surrounding Eichmann, and takes it upon herself to find out as much as she can about his case. This leads to a series of interviews that are fascinating (her interactions with people who came to interact with Eichmann over the years), illuminating (her conversation with an expert in the field of human behavior), and heartbreaking (first-hand accounts of Jewish persecution in the 1930s). The idea of framing the narrative around the translator is both clever and effective, creating an instant empathic bond with the audience as we latch on to her own sense of drive and fascination as we pursue the story. These conversations are intercut with ruminations on our individual relationships with the past, as well as footage from Eichmann’s 1960 trial in Israel, rounding out the story and our understanding thereof.
One would imagine that it is difficult to make a movie about a topic like this without coming off as excessively grim. And there are moments in this documentary that are incredibly harrowing. But the filmmakers are able to navigate the inherent darkness of its topic by knowing when to keep a respectful distance and when to press for more information, more details. It’s not just about the war, the Holocaust, or the aftermaths thereof: it’s also a study of human beings’ understanding of each other. One of the most pointedly poignant moments in the film is when one of Eichmann’s old acquaintances repeatedly asserted that “he was a nice man. So nice. So respectful. Incredibly nice.” The audience starts believing it, too — until the moment we are reminded of the kind of suffering he was directly responsible for inflicting.
The basic story of Klement / Eichmann is one that has been told before in various books, movies, and TV shows: a person who puts on a kindly front is revealed to be a horrible monster who’s capable of inflicting terrible harm. It has informed everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Breaking Bad. It is a trope that has popped up repeatedly in fiction over the years because it speaks to something that shakes us to our very core: the fear of the evil that lurks within, man’s potential for cruelty and duplicitousness, as well as the reframing of mundanity as hiding something profoundly sinister. It resonates. And this story resonates particularly strongly because it’s not fiction: this happened. And it’s a story that is intrinsically — and perhaps uncomfortably — linked with Argentina. Eichmann’s last words included the statement “Long live Argentina.” It is a fascinating piece of history that is more than worth exploring. Cervio and Liji do it with aplomb.
The German Neighbor screens at MALBA every Sunday of July at 8 PM. Tickets are available online and at the door.