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The Palace of Justice where the Nuremberg Trials were held
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Courtroom 600 where the Nuremberg Trials were held
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Movie Review of The Witness House Based on the true story of Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Sharing a Villa During the Nuremberg Trials-Thumbs up

by Rhonda Spivak, October 8, 2017

I recently watched the interesting 2014 German movie Das Zeugandas, The Witness House, now on Netflix and recommend seeing it (The film is in English, with some German). It is a dramatization of the book of the same name, which is based on the rather shocking true story of the lead up to the Nuremberg trials when the Allied forces used a private home in Nuremberg as a temporary residence to house a mix of former Nazi Party officials and Holocaust survivors together. (The Nuremberg trials were the military tribunals in which members of the Nazi party were tried for war crimes.)


The film is fascinating because of the fact that it is based on true events, when witnesses not only were housed together but even dined at the same table. On any given evening, Jewish concentration camp survivors hiding the numbers on their arms could be seated next to personal friends of Hitler, SS officers, and former heads of the Gestapo. 


One true story is that it is in 1945, Hans Bernd Gisevius arrived in Nuremberg to give testimony against his former boss, the notorious Hermann Goering, who later killed himself rather than be hung. Gisevius had worked as a double agent within German intelligence, giving information to the Allies, and had participating in the failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. When he got to the Witness House and learned that he was under the same roof as his archenemy, former head of the Gestapo Rudolf Diels, he told his hostess, a Hungarian countess: "I'll kill him.".


In the Witness House, some of the witnesses had been called for the defense, and some for the prosecution, and it is not entirely clear who is who until the film unfolds. Allied forces had provided the house as safe lodging. The atmosphere at the Witness house appears to be on the whole remarkably civil most of the time,  thanks to the house's  manager, Countess Ingeborg Kálnoky, who makes  a gigantic effort to  steer conversations into neutral areas, and even tries to ensure that there is no radio in the house so that the witnesses can't listen to the Nuremberg trials.  Nevertheless, the Witness House is not calm by any means, as the viewer sees a shouting match, and a suicide attempt.


The movie is based on the book "The Witness House"  published by  journalist Christiane Kohl,  a former editor of Der Spiegel,  who produced  a  highly researched account of the disparate list of people who stayed at the villa, having drawn on  interviews, primary source materials, and more recently disclosed documents. Among the real live personalities who were at the villa were Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s photographer, who is full of anecdotes about the Fùhrer and shows no remorse. He exemplifies how unrepentant many of those who served the Third Reich were soon after their capture.


I would like to have known which parts of the movie (and the book) were on the whole true and which parts were more fictionalized. Since I have not read the book, I can't tell which parts are different from the movie.


What I appreciated most about the movie is that it taught me about a slice of history I did not know about. I visited the Nuremberg court house where the trials occurred several years ago and have done some reading on my own since then, but I had not come across this story. Anyone interested in the subject of the Nuremberg trials will be interested in this film. 



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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.