Ordinary Men is a new Netflix documentary based on the 1992 book by historian Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins). The hourlong documentary delves into the machinery of the “forgotten holocaust,” taking us on a journey to one of the darkest chapters of recent history from the perspective of the perpetrators. A narrator provides the historical context, which the book naturally offered in much more detail. A key figure in the film is Benjamin Ferencz, the chief prosecutor for the United States Army at the Nuremberg war crime trials, who died at the age of 100 in April 2023.
The documentary unearthed a significant amount of archival material that reveals a very different view than the one presented by Hollywood. Film and audio recordings from the Nuremberg trials alternate with lesser-known Soviet trials in Kyiv, but both present a similar pattern of extermination. Several thousand Jews were selected and divided into groups of 50. These victims either stood or knelt facing their executioners, positioned so they would fall directly into mass graves. The firing squads systematically mowed down these groups until nightfall. The men who pulled the triggers were not sadists or criminally insane. They were “ordinary men,” — bakers, carpenters, police officers and firefighters — members of the community. The prevailing narrative after the war was that these men were just following orders. However, Browning discovered that they actually had the option to refuse to take part in the massacres, but most chose not to. Their initial emotional distress was eventually numbed by the daily routine. Anguished faces gave way to stoic calm. The men would gather after work for drinks, and one man even celebrated his wedding there. Few acknowledged how wrong their actions were. They showed no compassion for their victims and instead felt sorry for themselves.
The central theme of the documentary is that anyone can become a murderer if their government is determined to mold them into one. Several genocides since the Holocaust bear this out. The dramatic recreations of individual battalion members are based on Browning’s meticulous research of personal files and photographs, which offer exceptional, unpublished testimonies. The documentary also includes the full recording of an execution of Jews in Eastern Europe, an extraordinary find since filming and recording the executions was strictly prohibited. Ordinary Men is a powerful cinematic example of how historical research can engage and compel us to remember and ponder the forces that can drive people to extremes.
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