This absorbing courtroom drama depicts one of the greatest scandals of the Austrian justice system, the trial of Nazi war criminal Franz Murer (Karl Fischer), the so-called Butcher of Vilnius. Murer was an established landowner and highly respected statesman. He is charged, roughly 20 years after the war, with orchestrating the murder of thousands in a Jewish Lithuanian community. One by one, over several days in 1963, witnesses and survivors offer harrowing and graphic testimonies about murders Murer either carried out himself, usually in anger at very minor infractions, or ordered others to do.
The geography of the eyewitnesses is varied, with many from Europe and several from Israel. Some speak German, and many, Yiddish. But it’s their performances that are riveting, so astonishingly real they create an immediacy that makes you believe you are either in the courtroom with them, observing an actual trial, or at least watching a documentary about the event. Their gestures, their emotions, their body language, are devastatingly authentic – it’s spellbinding. We also see others involved in the drama – Murer’s wife and children, jurors, journalists, and even Simon Wiesenthal – and the interplay among them and the case itself.
Equally mesmerizing is defense attorney Böck (Alexander E. Fennon), eminently unflustered and slightly arrogant, whose sarcastic questions and innuendo, often focusing on witness recollections of obscure details, serve to unnerve many of those on the stand, and call their credibility into question.
Even though the war ended nearly 20 years before, Austrian bigotry and nationalism haven’t diminished, and the varied emotions in the community influence every scene in which survivors share their stories of the inconceivable brutality.
Judy Bozarth is a writer and copy editor who’s been on AJFF’s Film Evaluation Committee and its copy editor for 11 years.