Radical Evil: The film that nobody wants to see

Stefan Ruzowitzky's controversial film about Nazi soldiers is facing a battle to get a release. Geoffrey Macnab meets him

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The Independent Culture

Generally, when the director Stefan Ruzowitzky makes a film, everyone wants to see it. His 2007 feature The Counterfeiters (about a secret plan by the Nazis to destabilise Britain by flooding the country with forged pound notes), won an Oscar. His children's movie, Lily the Witch: the Dragon and the Magic Book (2009) broke box-office records in Germany. He is about to direct an English-language action-thriller called Patient Zero that will star Matt Smith of Dr Who fame and that is likely to be popular too. However, there is one film that the genial Austrian recently directed that no one at all seems to want to see.

Radical Evil is a documentary asking why ordinary people become mass murderers. Its particular focus is on Nazi soldiers who murdered Jewish civilians with pistols and rifles in the period from 1941 to 1943. Approximately two million Jewish civilians are estimated to have been killed by these death squads in eastern Europe.

The film is based on quotations from the perpetrators and features interviews with psychiatrists, historians and genocide experts as well as with Benjamin Ferencz, one of the chief prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials and still dapper and articulate at the age of 93. Its conclusion is very bleak – one reason the film has proved such a tough sale. Ruzowitzky suggests there was nothing unique about the Nazi killers – and that we might all have done the same in their place.

At the Nuremberg trials, some of the Nazi killers took the Rorschach test. Psychiatrists assessing their personalities on the basis of their responses to inkblot tests concluded that they were "psychologically sound" and "completely normal men". "The mass killers are people like you and me, doing what they think is necessary for the general welfare," Ferencz tells the director.

Why did Ruzowitzky make Radical Evil? The director recalls that when he was researching The Counterfeiters, he came across Christopher Browning's book, Ordinary Men (1992), which made the argument that members of a Nazi reserve police battalion committed war crimes not because they were wild monsters but because of peer pressure and a desire not to buck authority. "That intrigued me because as a film-maker and screenwriter, it [film-making] is always about motivation and why do people do what they do."

"I'd love to see myself as the one guy who says 'no'," the director responds when I ask if he could see himself behaving like the members of the Nazi death squads. "Of course, we can't be sure. Conformity is really part of our [make-up]. We are social beings. For centuries and for thousands of years, we have learned to stay with the group… that is why it is very hard to identify those moments in your life when, for a change, you should not go with the group but do something different, listen to your own beliefs and morality."

The director was born in late 1961. As a student in the 1970s, he felt (like so many of his generation in Austria and Germany), that "anybody who was in their sixties was a suspect" regarding their behaviour during the war. Ruzowitzky's parents had been children at the end of the war but his maternal grandfather was a fervent Nazi supporter. His paternal grandfather also applied for Nazi membership. The director believes that it would not have been possible to make Radical Evil 30 years ago, when the perpetrators were still alive. "Now this generation is gone. They are dead – dead or demented. Now, there is a new generation and we have a chance to deal with these crimes in another way."

By analysing the behaviour of the Nazi death squads, Ruzowitzky hopes to alert present-day viewers to how easily "normal" people can lose their moral bearings. "This is not about history. This is about psychology, politics, sociology. These things happen right now… you also have some ordinary young people who suddenly become Jihad fighters and suddenly show up on Facebook with cut-off heads. I think in many ways it is similar mechanisms that are in place." He adds that trying to understand the killers' behaviour "does not mean excusing".

As the director acknowledges, the underlying message of the documentary is very disturbing – namely that it doesn't always take very much to turn "ordinary" men into mass murderers. "Apparently, we are ready to forget all about our moral and ethical standards if there is somebody to convincingly tell us 'go and kill your neighbour'."

That pessimism about human nature is one reason, perhaps, why international distributors have been so reluctant to acquire the film in spite of the acclaim it has received, including an award at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

"The shocking thing about the movie is not the extent of the crime back then but it is to realise that you and I are not as far away from the perpetrators as we would love to think," he says. "All these movies about the triumph of the human spirit, this is what we want to see in movies. This is sort of the contradiction to that. It is about the triumph of evil in the end of the day and the human spirit disappearing… distributors apparently think that is not what people want to hear or see."