By Jim Slotek
According to his son Don, Ben Ferencz had a ritual at the family dinner table.
“He would ask, ‘What have you done for mankind today?’” the younger Ferencz recalls of his dad, the 99-year-old subject of Barry Avrich’s illuminating doc Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz.
Whatever anybody had done that day or since must pale in comparison to the life of this energetic near-centenarian, who conducted criminal investigations of the Nazi death camps in his ‘20s as they were being liberated, and prosecuted the notorious “Einsatzgruppen” at Nuremberg, 22 SS officers collectively accused of killing a million people.
He then embraced as his life’s work the institution of the International Criminal Court. (And prosecuted its first case against an African warlord who conscripted child soldiers).
A hero from an era when we still had heroes, the diminutive Romanian-born, activist and lawyer fairly burns through the screen with passion born of witnessing the worst that humanity can do. And he still tours the world with the impossible dream of ending inhumanity.
Avrich, a filmmaker best known for his biographies of powerful showbiz figures (including Harvey Weinstein, Garth Drabinsky and Lew Wasserman), leaves all that behind with this bare-bones portrait, pointing the camera and basically listening to one of the most inspiring individuals of the past century (his stories enhanced by tremendous archival footage from the Schulberg Family Archive, producers Stuart and Budd Schulberg having filmed the 1948, military-commissioned doc Nuremberg).
As one must in this sort of profile, talking heads are trotted out to sing Ferencz’s praises – including activist lawyer/civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz and retired U.S. General and Kosovo War commander Wesley Clark. But Ferencz is his own best spokesman, and he tells, with a wry wit, his tale of immigrating as a child Jewish refugee, growing up in Hell’s Kitchen and becoming a legal prodigy (I interviewed him by phone for the film’s Toronto International Film Festival debut, and, though ailing, he was engaged, passionate and playfully crusty and sarcastic).
His sense of humour doesn’t always hold back the tears, though. Occasionally, while reliving the past, Ferencz breaks emotionally. But he has never turned away (his recollection of his only personal jail-cell conversation with one of the Einsatzgruppen murderers shows his frustration that some minds apparently couldn’t be changed).
Hanging over the entire film, but barely addressed, is that these aren’t the best days to be asking the best of humanity. There are brief images of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un (and of their “best friend” Donald Trump). The U.S., having never ratified its participation in the International Criminal Court is openly hostile, under the Trump administration, to global humanitarian efforts of any kind.
But one can hope that Ferencz’s apparent defiance of time is symbolic of the endurance of hope over barbarism. Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz is must-see viewing, not only for people who care about the past, but about the future.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz. Directed by Barry Avrich. Starring Ben Ferencz, Alan Dershowitz, Gen. Wesley Clark. Opens Friday, November 30 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.