In 1986, autoworker John Demjanjuk, a nationalized Ukrainian immigrant, was arrested for being a Nazi war criminal and extradited to Israel to stand trial. His family claimed to know nothing about his past, and Demjanjuk denied all the charges. He was accused of being gas chamber operator Ivan the Terrible, one of the most notorious and vicious guards at the Treblinka death camp in Poland.
This is what Netflix’s new limited-episode doc-series The Devil Next Door is about, and it is an engrossing 5 hours to watch, even if it leaves you wanting more when it ends.
The series lays out Demjanjuk’s extradition and ensuing trial in real-time, with contemporary news footage from around the world, and modern-day talking heads with the members of Demjanjuk’s family, the legal teams on both sides (including the surviving judges), and reporters who covered the trial.
This is a harrowing series to watch—it doesn’t shy away from interspersing images of the death camps to illustrate the horror of what Treblinka was like and the atrocities that occurred within it. Brutalities that Demjanjuk, with corroborating survivor witness testimony, is accused of actively and gleefully participating in. The prosecution’s case rests solely on a registration card for the Treblinka camp with an attached photo purported to be Demjanjuk, and the testimony of the survivors—which is incredibly hard to watch.
At one point, a survivor, whose job was to carry victims’ bodies from the gas chamber to the death pit in order to burn their remains, is reduced to tears when he recounts how a 12-year old girl survived the gas chamber, and walked out of it crying for her mother. Ivan the Terrible dragged her over to the death pit and shot her dead without remorse. Another survivor is asked to identify Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible and requests that the judges have Demjanjuk remove his glasses so that he may stare into his eyes because he would never forget Ivan’s eyes. Demjanjuk abided, and as the survivor walks over to him, Demjanjuk extends his hand in a friendly greeting, without an ounce of sympathy in his actions. Demjanjuk was toying with a death camp survivor. Make no mistake, Demjanjuk is a monster—and the survivors never waver in their conviction that he, and he alone, is Ivan the Terrible.
Demjanjuk’s entire defense was that he wasn’t there—he was at another camp (although he later changed his story when he was put on the stand that he was a POW, and the records were conveniently lost or destroyed.) That time is running out, and both survivors and war criminals are starting to die of old age, is never lost on the audience or the filmmakers. Demjanjuk is in his mid-60s when he’s on trial, and the survivors are similarly aged. Everyone knows this is the last chance to hold him accountable, because eventually, there will be no more survivors left to bear witness, and no one left to stand trial.
This can’t be said enough, Demjanjuk is a monster. He never shows emotion of any kind when faced with the survivor testimony. He is cavalier in his attitude toward the trial in general, telling news crews he’s innocent so he has nothing to worry about and that he won’t hang for his crimes. At one point the series shows what Demjanjuk’s jail cell looked like during his trial—with hundreds, if not thousands, of postcards decorating his walls from people across the world professing their belief in his innocence. These people opted to believe one man against nearly a dozen survivors who swore Demjanjuk was the man who tortured them for months and played a direct role in killing their families. The casual evil on display here is sobering.
The trial is engrossing, and it makes up the bulk of the series, but ultimately The Devil Next Door is lacking context, and as a result, depth, surrounding the non-trial events taking place.
It doesn’t pose enough hard questions or follow through on answers, instead letting inferred situations linger in the background. It touches only briefly on the legitimate anti-Semitism accusations against Demjanjuk’s head counsel, Mark J. O’Connor, who is allowed to brush them off in a talking head interview but then proceeds to speak in veiled anti-Semitic tropes (“he conspired against me”) when speaking about the Israeli counsel who replaced him, Yoram Sheftel.
Additionally, it is briefly touched upon (but not explored nearly enough) that Demjanjuk’s legal defense fund that his family started was raised from anti-Semitic groups in America, with Pat Buchanan playing a key role, talking to the American media on his behalf. Never once is Demjanjuk’s family’s intentions delved into, allowing them to remain on the surface, playing out as devoted to their patriarch and convinced of his innocence. Their core beliefs and how they might have been shaped by Demjanjuk are never explored or even questioned.
The closest we get to any sort of answer for what kind of person Demjanjuk was, and how he was allowed to come to America and hide in plain sight for so long, was in the last episode via his supervisor at the Ford plant where he worked. The answer is simple and chilling: Demjanjuk was allowed into this country because he was viewed as a “good” Nazi by the American government, the benchmark for which was that he simply hated communism; he wasn’t the only one allowed in.
Rather than dive deep into contextualizing the events and clearly pointing out the undercurrent of virulent anti-Semitism that pervaded on the defense side, the series chooses to focus on the central question of whether Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible. Which is odd— there is very little doubt that Demjanjuk actively participated in the death camps, it was only a matter of which ones. Why then focus on which specific monster he was instead of the system and climate that allowed him to come to America and escape answering for his crimes for so long?
Not being familiar with the trial, as I was too young at the time, I found The Devil Next Door fascinating, but I wanted more from the series. It does a very good job of covering the Israeli trial, letting survivor testimony breathe and stand on its own, but falls flat investigating anything beyond that. This may be due to a limitation of the series run. It was a lot to fit into 5 episodes and could have benefitted with one or two additional eps in order to flesh out more of what was happening around the trial, instead of in it.
Despite this, The Devil Next Door is still worth your time, if you can stomach the subject matter. When our current President refers to American Nazis as “very fine people” it feels important to remember, as much as possible, what violent fascists are capable of and the atrocities they inflicted on innocent people, only 70 years ago.
Header Image Source: Netflix