Cleveland is a nondescript US city and John Demjanjuk a nondescript retired factory worker. Ohio is a long way from the death camps of Nazi-occupied Poland, while a grandfather who is a former Ford employee seems to be far removed from a genocidal maniac responsible for thousands of deaths during the Holocaust.
This dichotomy is at the heart of The Devil Next Door, a five-part documentary series that explores the real-life tale of Demjanjuk, a naturalised American of Ukrainian descent who, in the 1980s, accused of being Ivan the Terrible – the man who committed unspeakable crimes during WWII. Demjanjuk finds himself extradited to Israel where he stands trial, with the docuseries’ central conceit summarised as: Demjanjuk is either the victim of mistaken identity or a guard from the Treblinka death camp who operated the gas chambers and who tortured and terrorised Jews before killing them.
The mistaken identity vs evil criminal is formula that Netflix perfected with 2015’s Making a Murderer, the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man convicted of a crime he claims he did not commit. While The Devil Next Door relies on a similar approach, the stories and crimes are not comparable – but viewers of both are left with a postmodern challenge and must grapple with different versions of truth and history.
A showman in a “show trial”
The postmodern dilemma was not a component of Netflix’s 2018 documentary series Wild Wild Country. But it and The Devil Next Door share the same production team and some similarities. One such example is the role of Demjanjuk’s defence lawyer.
Ma Anand Sheela, the “star” of Wild Wild Country, who was the personal secretary to the mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, was a “central, colorful guide – whose own actions seem grounded in an innate, though at times abhorrent, sense of defiance,” wrote Salon in its review of The Devil Next Door, while Demjanjuk’s story “has the flamboyant Israeli defense attorney (and eventual social pariah) Yoram Sheftel.”
Sheftel is indeed a key player in the series and it is impossible not to overstate the implications of an Israeli defending an accused war criminal in Israel. He truly revels in the challenge and argues that Demjanjuk is the victim of a “show trial”. Sheftel also revels in the media frenzy that accompanies the trial. Archive footage shows Demjanjuk seemingly unaware of the gravity of the situation, saying “shalom” with a goofy smile on his face as proceedings begin.
Where The Devil Next Door really excels is when it delves into the details of the Demjanjuk trial. The archive footage from the courtroom is excellent and covers everything from survivor testimony to evidence about facial recognition. The series also presents papers and certificates that, depending on your view, either exonerate Demjanjuk or prove his guilt. Each detail is reviewed in microscopic detail, often through the perspective of the lawyer or expert who dealt with it during the trial. It may be procedural but it is compelling.
Some of the strongest and most moving scenes focus on the testimony of Treblinka survivors who are convinced that Demjanjuk is Ivan the Terrible. Prosecutors were always taking a calculated gamble in having survivors testify as a not-guilty verdict would cast doubt over their testimony, something considered an absolute taboo. At the same time, the trial took place in the late 1980s, some four decades after the end of WWII, when memories were fading.
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The banality of evil
In its critique of the series, The Guardian said: “There was scope in The Devil Next Door for much more context and philosophising about truth and memory”, a provocative point and presumably one that the filmmakers considered, but decided to forgo to instead focus on storytelling.
“Like Wild Wild Country, this documentary series doesn’t produce any real new reporting or evidence. It’s about taking a story that is recent enough that it exists within the memories of many of its viewers and parsing through the sensationalization of its time,” Salon said.
The Devil Next Door does not moralise and it spends only a limited amount of time unpacking the notion of what justice should look like. One could also argue that the series does not push the boundaries of looking at what evil is, and how it can exist in seemingly benign forms – or what political theorist Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”.
In the final episode, a former manager at the Ford factory is interviewed. He refuses to be drawn on speaking about Demjanjuk directly, but his observations are chilling. Immigrants like Demjanjuk would work on the factory line in silence and then “retreat into the shadows” for their breaks before working in silence again. The Devil Next Door does not play up the similarities between working at a car factory and a death factory, but the parallel lingers.