Biweekly Binge: The Devil Next Door - Crouching American, Hidden Nazi
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's the Netflix documentary The Devil Next Door
The original Ivan the Terrible was the first Russian Tsar, Ivan Vasilyevich, way back in the 16th century. He transformed the Russian state into an empire and inspired fear in his enemies and absolute authority over his council and people. At least according to unreliable Wikipedia, the 'Terrible' nickname has more to do with this fear and authoritative quality, and less with evil or Machiavellian tendencies. Unreliability is also the hallmark of the new Netflix documentary The Devil Next Door, about another Ivan the Terrible, this one surpassing all standards in nefariousness, unprecedented in torture and violence. It is about an Ivan who was the guard in Treblinka's Nazi extermination camp, where he was known to be the most vicious of the lot, having personally led prisoners into gas chambers.
Treblinka is believed to have held about 1.7 million Jews as prisoners. In the 1970s, a man living under the name John Demjanjuk in Cleveland, Ohio, was believed to be the same Ivan the Terrible and what followed was the most well-documented and publicised trial of a war criminal. The Devil Next Door looks at the case over five episodes, from Demjanjuk's identification in the United States to his deportation to Israel, following the controversial case in Cleveland, and the subsequent high profile case and emotional impact it wrought on the Isrealite population, particularly the number of Holocaust survivors - from Treblinka - who came forward to identify him as Ivan the Terrible.
The startling thing about The Devil Next Door is that sinking feeling that an event as horrific as the Holocaust occurred in the not-so-recent past, and even today there exist governments threatening, aiding or abetting genocide and ethnic cleansing. A local Israelite says that she wants her children to watch the trial, it is the only way to never forget the nature of those events and make sure nothing like that ever happens again. The images do little justice to the violence behind the day-to-day life in an extermination camp, which in itself is unfathomable, and the documentary brings to the fore gut-wrenching eyewitness testimonies of survivors. The accounts put in perspective the trauma they have been forced to live with and the mental health toll it takes. One of them says that he struggles to not think about it all the time.
At one point, the eyewitness accounts are doubted, evidence contrary to their claims is brought in and it poses moral questions to everyone from the audience to the lawyers and judges.
For obvious reasons, the Demjanjuk case created an emotional frenzy in Jerusalem and for the length of the case, Yoram Sheftel, the defence attorney became the most hated man in Israel. Or the second most, followed by Demjanjuk.
The Devil Next Door remains interesting through five episodes mainly due to the diverse characters who were directly or indirectly involved in the case. Sheftel is one such character, a limelight moth who thrives in notoriety. For the interviews, he wears his Star of David necklace over his shirt, as if to claim that he is no less Jewish than the ones who believe Demjanjuk was indeed Ivan the Terrible. The prosecutors Eli Gabay and Michael Shaked cut sincere, if aggressive, figures digging deep to prove that the case is not one of mistaken identity as claimed by Demjanjuk's family and his lawyers.
Even though Demjanjuk's family makes a compelling case and elicits sympathy, John Demjanjuk's own reactions come across as calculatedly cold. It's unimaginable what would go through the mind of the normal, inoffensive person John is believed to be by his friends and people in his local community in Cleveland, when faced with charges as heinous as those of Ivan the Terrible. In simple terms, it is incredible weight on a man and an undoubtedly traumatic experience. But John remains cold and composed throughout, even smiling, and in one ill-advised moment, offering a handshake to a Treblinka survivor.
There are, of course, conspiracy theories galore. That this whole event was orchestrated by the Soviets, drawing a wedge between two anti-Soviet groups - Ukrainian Americans and Jewish Americans. The Devil Next Door keeps us invested when it brings up these ethnic complexities but never delves deeper into them. Like the American defence attorney's anti-Semitic father and his connections, or Reagan government's White House communications director Pat Buchanan, a known Holocaust denier.
It also glosses over some otherwise intriguing insights - like how survivors were treated initially in Israel. The survivor tag was an albatross around their necks - what did you do to survive something that six million didn't? The trauma of first-person experience of Holocaust carried with it the guilt of living.
Directors Yossi Bloch and Daniel Sivan also arrive too late to contemporary impacts of the subject. The presence of so many known Nazis in the United States and how asylum was granted not just to the devastated European and Jewish population, but also to many Nazi war criminals. While the documentary itself is mostly dispassionate, unlike the trial, it could have done with some serious introspection into this aspect in modern history. One of the experts on the subject puts it plainly - "There are Nazis all around us."