Crime pays. For Netflix at least. The streaming behemoth has mined a rich vein of content in the true crime docuseries genre, tapping into our seemingly insatiable desire to be scandalized by the sins of miscreants and the misfortune of their victims. From John F. Kennedy to O.J. Simpson, the unsolved and the unresolved fascinate us, even when history itself is a spoiler.
Thus far, it’s hard to think of a single crime deemed too sensitive to be given the docuseries treatment. Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, bloodthirsty drug lords, mass-murdering cults, and high-profile disappearances have all been adapted for our small screens.
When it comes to the Holocaust, however, producers have been wary of turning the systematic and industrial murder of tens of millions of people into a true-crime drama. Understandably so. Any story with roots in such a traumatic narrative, in a period that is called, not hyperbolically, the darkest period in human history, must be painstakingly sensitive.
We are attracted to true crime stories in part because they satisfy our morbid curiosity; they allow us to rubberneck from the privacy of our own homes. Any writer or director hoping to create a Holocaust-themed true-crime docuseries would studiously have to avoid the pitfalls of what could be criticized as trivializing the Holocaust for television.
That was the challenge facing Daniel Sivan and Yossi Bloch in “The Devil Next Door,” the story of John Demjanjuk – a retired Ukrainian-American auto worker living in Cleveland. Demjanjuk was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but died while waiting to appeal his conviction in Germany in 2012.
Demjanjuk’s story is, of course, already well documented. It was headline news around the world for years and several books have been written about it. The case even inspired Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock,” one of two of his books to be partially set in Israel.
Accused of being Ivan the Terrible, an unfathomably cruel guard at the Nazi extermination camp in Treblinka, he insisted that it was a case of mistaken identity. Originally convicted by a court in Israel and sentenced to death, the Supreme Court later overturned the conviction and allowed him to return to the United States.
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Sixteen years later, in 2004, the U.S. stripped Demjanjuk of his citizenship, and five years after that, he was extradited to Germany. In 2009, he was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews and sentenced to five years in prison, but released from custody pending his appeal.
“The Devil Next Door” would not have been possible had Israel not been ahead of its time in 1986, when Demjanjuk arrived here to stand trial. Perhaps inspired by the Ted Bundy trials in the United States a few years before, the authorities here decided to broadcast the whole of Demjanjuk’s trial live on national television.
Unlike many of the other true crime series that have been produced in recent years, “The Devil Next Door” does not have the fallback of forensics to rely on. The creators couldn’t add tension by cutting to a technician in a lab coat examining DNA evidence. Instead, they use the natural tension created by live footage from a courtroom, the unscripted reactions and interactions of the people watching the trial, and contemporary news reports.
Sivan has already proved himself more than adept at taking archival material, adding current interviews, and creating a fascinating product. That’s exactly what he and Mor Loushy did for “The Oslo Diaries,” a Sundance-nominated documentary on the Israel-Palestinian peace talks in the 1990s.
The two main characters in the new five-episode series are Demjanjuk himself and Yoram Sheftel, the controversial Israeli lawyer who defended the accused war criminal, much to the disgust and fury of many Israelis.
Sheftel is a fascinating character in and of himself, of course. A provocateur playboy, a loudmouth lawyer and a thorn in the side of the Israeli legal establishment for decades, he went on to become an outspoken advocate of an extreme right-wing ideology. In “The Devil Next Door,” both in the archival material and the new interviews, he struts around like a self-satisfied peacock, his tail feathers a blinding array of arrogance and goading.
In addition to Sheftel, the series features extensive interviews with nearly all of the surviving characters of that time: prosecutors Michael Shaked and Eli Gabay; judges Zvi Tal and Dalia Dorner; defense attorney Mark J. O’Connor; Demjanjuk’s grandson and son-in-law; as well as American officials, Nazi hunters and legal experts. Footage of Demjanjuk, of course, is limited to the archive.
In addition to the distressing footage of Holocaust survivors testifying in court, “The Devil Next Door” also shows footage from the camps themselves. It does not shy away from showing piles of bodies, executions, crematoria. This is entirely in keeping with comments made by former chief justice Dorner, when explaining why, in the original trial, the court allowed witnesses to tell their personal stories of survival and to recount the horrors they saw, even though the trial itself was about the identity of one man. Without the graphic details, she explains, it’s impossible to understand the context of the crimes. “The Devil Next Door” walks alarmingly close to the line marked “gratuitous,” but never crosses it.
Through sensitive interviews, colorful characters, a gripping story and the suggestion of injustice, the creators fashioned a hook to revitalize a story that’s already been told. They skillfully juxtapose footage from several decades and, with a total running time of a shade under four hours, the five episodes do not feel overstretched.
“The Devil Next Door” may not appeal to the average consumer of true crime television. It’s one thing to rubberneck a gruesome or celebrity murder, or even a series of murders. But one would hope that viewers of “The Devil Next Door” will watch it in the spirit that was clearly intended: not to satisfy our morbid curiosity, but to challenge us to reconsider the nature of revenge, justice and memory.