Monday, October 04, 2010

Robert Jay Lifton on Nazi Doctors

It is always considered more egregious when those charged with upholding the public trust (police, judges) break the law. Likewise when doctors, healers by calling, commit or abet murder, it deeply disturbs our notions of a morally ordered universe. Yet, doctors have often been amongst the vanguard of horrific mass movements, particularly that of the German National Socialists. Medically trained psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (recognizable from the History Channel’s Decoding the Past) explains his research on such German doctors who committed countless acts of mass murder and barbaric human experimentation when stationed at concentration camps in Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter’s Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Guaranteeing confidentiality and stressing his previous work on Viet Nam and Hiroshima, Lifton secured the confidence of many former Nazi physicians. Though Lifton is undeniably a man of the left, he emerges as no moral relativist in Karnick & Richter’s film, frankly expressing anger at the apparent affluence of many of his subjects. Yet, he was evidently able to get them to open up, at least to an extent. Confessions of personal culpability were not exactly forthcoming. Though, as Lifton sketches out his interview process, it is clear he gave them sufficient opportunity.

Still, Lifton gleaned some considerable insight from his interviews, including their commitment to the cruel and dubious human experiments as a means of preserving their self-image as practicing medical professionals. Perhaps most intriguingly, Lifton frequently observed the works of evolutionary biologist Konrad Lorenz on their bookshelves. A former Nazi whose early writings suggested the need to proactively help Darwinian selection along, Lorenz became a Nobel Prize winning environmentalist. It is easy to speculate how his life and work would be significant to the former National Socialist physicians, in a myriad of ways.

Throughout Doctors, Lifton comes across as an authoritative and engaging interlocutor, largely refraining from expressing his own politics. Indeed, this is fortunate, since he is essentially all Karnick & Richter offer viewers. Granted, it makes sense to largely rely on Lifton’s interview segments, because even his own understanding appears to deepen through the process of discussing his research. However, there is no archival footage, graphics, or visual aids of any sort pictured, aside from a handful of Lifton’s bird cartoons (a recreational past-time for the psychohistory scholar). Instead, the filmmakers simply focus their cameras on Lifton in his study, only periodically breaking away for brief transitional nature scenes that look like they might have been lifted from a late Ozu film.

Regardless of how many Holocaust documentaries are released this year, it remains an import subject. Karnick & Richter certainly present Lifton’s findings in a respectful setting, but most people are visual learners, and they simply do not provide a lot of memory hooks in Doctors. Yet for audiences with sufficient attention spans, there is a lot to absorb from the film. It opens this Wednesday (10/6) in New York at Film Forum.