Director explores heartlessness and banality of evil

THESSALONIKI – After the gas chambers and the gulags, people thought that this traumatic experience and international treaties would make sure that such unspeakable tragedies would not happen again. They were wrong. Before the turn of the century, Yugoslavia came apart in an orgy of ethnic strife whose atrocities have yet to be exposed, or rather unearthed, to the full. It was pictures of the carnage that made Ove Nyholm ponder the nature of the killers. «How can one blow a baby’s head off?» he thought. The next step was shooting a documentary about these people. «I decided to find them – no matter what,» he says in his film essay «The Anatomy of Evil,» which was screened at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. «I decided to face heartlessness face to face.» And he did. After persistent research, the Danish filmmaker finally managed to track down members of the Serb paramilitary troops who went after Kosovo Albanians and asked them to give their own take on the crimes. His aim was to decipher the forces that make ordinary people commit mass killings and genocide. Their narratives are deeply disturbing. There is no sign of self-doubt or repentance. «You know the Albanians, they are not people,» an unidentified ex-soldier tells the camera. «They are pure shit. A primitive people.» He makes clear he would do it all over again – if he had to. Other accounts are shockingly mundane. «I accepted the war. I accepted it as a job… a soldier’s job is to kill the enemy,» another man says in a straight voice. It is this point that bridges the Serb paramilitaries to the German Einsatz squads that were tasked with the extermination of Jews in the eastern occupied territories. More than 2 million people were rounded up and shot into mass graves by the Einsatz troops – family men that returned home after work, their consciences clear. Efficiency was king. A former member describes how soldiers were told to aim at babies held against their mothers’ chests – in order to save bullets. These mass executions were not a twisted episode in human history but were deeply rooted in the nature of modern society. These were ordinary people following orders to execute a task indistinguishable from any other bureaucratically assigned duty – what Hannah Arendt once dubbed «the banality of evil.»   «I became part of a running machine that I could not stop,» says a former German commander who appears to recognize himself in one of the execution photos. In it, a man stands aside supervising, perhaps ordering, the execution of dozens of Jews cramped in a still-yawning mass grave. He may well have done it hundreds of times.   «Where does heartlessness spring from?» Nyholm ponders in one of the periodic voiceovers heard along an atmospheric score as he drives – symbolically? – in the dark. Modernity is not the full answer.   For Nyholm, it all boils down to safety. People will go to all ends to defend their life projects against outside threats. «You must die so I can live,» the film suggests, is the key to genocide. The only light in this dark tunnel is the «painful insight of conscience.» So it’s human nature against morality and it’s a never-ending debate from here. Nyholm does not hesitate to put the question to himself. What would he do in a similar situation? That he cannot answer. One can only speak of what one has experienced, he says. «Maybe I would have acted like them,» he admits. «I realize: That is my condition.»