A doc­u­men­tary by Barry Avrich. In English and Ger­man, with English sub­ti­tles. Rated PG

The Georgia Straight - - Movies - by Ken Eis­ner

BE­FORE THE end of the Sec­ond World War, there were few set stan­dards for de­ter­min­ing evil on an in­ter­na­tional scale. Ban­ning chem­i­cal weapons (in­clud­ing those just tossed across the U.S. bor­der into Mex­ico) was some­thing par­tic­i­pants in the pre­vi­ous war had agreed to, though there was lit­tle mech­a­nism to ap­ply pres­sure to war­ring na­tions to abide by rules of en­gage­ment re­gard­ing civil­ians.

The Geneva Con­ven­tion came about in 1949, three years af­ter 27-year-old Har­vard Law School grad and for­mer U.S. army pri­vate Ben­jamin Ferencz was tapped by Gen. Ge­orge Pat­ton to in­ves­ti­gate con­di­tions at the newly lib­er­ated con­cen­tra­tion camps. Af­ter that, he helped track down the records of geno­cide—metic­u­lously kept by the Ger­man hi­er­ar­chy, true to cliché—used to con­vict first- and sec­ond-tier Nazis who or­ches­trated the Holo­caust.

Born in Tran­syl­va­nia, a land of shift­ing bor­ders and al­le­giances, he came to the U.S. in 1920, and his fam­ily lived in some of the poor­est quar­ters of New York, which gave him a life­long ab­hor­rence of crime. He learned English on the street and French from Char­les Boyer movies, and turned out to be a gifted stu­dent. “I didn’t know what that meant,” Ferencz tells di­rec­tor Barry Avrich in this well-above-av­er­age doc­u­men­tary. “I mean, no­body ever gave me any gifts.”

The Mon­treal film­maker spe­cial­izes in shoot­ing Shake­speare pro­duc­tions, and Ferencz’s story has all the grav­i­tas of a tragic his­tory play, leav­ened by in­cred­i­ble hu­mour and good for­tune, as ra­di­ated by the su­per-diminu­tive sub­ject, who had to stand on books to reach the podium as one of the lead prose­cu­tors at the Nurem­berg war-crimes tri­als.

He is now an in­cred­i­bly busy 99 years old, and lives in an unas­sum­ing Florida bun­ga­low with his wife of 72 years. His saga will be fa­mil­iar to peo­ple who’ve read about the fall of the Third Re­ich. (I have a spe­cial at­tach­ment to it, since my own fa­ther, born three years later, at­tended Ferencz’s Bronx mid­dle school and his Har­lem col­lege. My un­cle would later be with the army group that first en­tered Dachau.)

The pro­ce­dural and moral as­pects of Nurem­berg are equally com­pelling; less known is his role in re­set­tling dis­placed peo­ple af­ter the war, and in the es­tab­lish­ment of the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court—some­thing he and Robert Mcna­mara, of all peo­ple, pushed Bill Clin­ton to join, only to see Ge­orge W. Bush blow off its main tenets dur­ing his dis­as­trous Iraq ad­ven­ture.

Although Ferencz ra­di­ates grat­i­tude for a life well lived, he has be­come in­creas­ingly out­spo­ken about signs em­a­nat­ing from his cur­rent gov­ern­ment. “Be­cause,” he says, “I’ve seen it all be­fore.”

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