The case of John Demjanjuk, an auto worker from the suburbs of Cleveland, caused a huge media splash in the mid 1980s. He was accused of being notorious Nazi concentration camp guard Ivan the Terrible, and it seemed like the case against him was ironclad. But, as things turned out, it was far from that. A new docuseries takes a look at Demjanjuk’s trial and its aftermath. Read on for more about The Devil Next Door…
THE DEVIL NEXT DOOR: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: An overhead shot of the suburban areas of Cleveland. A graphic says “CLEVELAND, 1985”.
The Gist: John Demjanjuk was a Ukranian who came to the U.S. after World War II, worked in a Ford factory outside Cleveland, became a naturalized citizen, and by all accounts was a good family man. But starting in the early 1980s, Israel had been looking to get Demjanjuk extradited to stand trial for war crimes.
Why? Because they were convinced that Demjanjuk was “Ivan the Terrible,” one of the most ruthless guards at the Treblinka concentration camp during the Holocaust. The docuseries The Devil Next Door recounts the case, concentrating on his 1987 trial in Israel and its aftermath. Directed by Yossi Bloch and Daniel Sivan, the five-part miniseries takes us through the trial, using archival footage of both the trial and the horrors that took place during the Holocaust, and also interviews Demjanjuk’s family and key players in the case.
If you remember this case playing out in the news media back in 1985, when the accusations against Demjanjuk first came to light, the first hurdle to him standing trial in Israel was that his U.S. citizenship had to be revoked before Israel was allowed to extradite him (they were able to do so via the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment law, passed in 1950). The media circus that followed Demjanjuk, who steadfastly denied that he was Ivan the Terrible, was crushing even by 1980s standards, and only got worse when his citizenship was revoked and he was extradited to stand trial in Israel.
Mark O’Connor, who is one of the people interviewed in the docuseries, took on Demjanjuk’s defense in the U.S. once his family showed him evidence that an ID card with a picture of what looks like a young Demjanjuk could have been a forgery by the Soviets, designed to drive a wedge between the anti-Soviet Ukranian and Jewish populations in the U.S.
And even though Demjanjuk was still extradited, O’Connor felt strongly enough about the case to travel to Israel and try to find co-counsel for the trial. He spent weeks, and not one Israeli attorney would agree to take on the case, for fairly obvious reasons. But one attorney, Yoram Sheftel, ultimately did. He truly believed that Demjanjuk was framed but his taking the case and showy nature made him look like a traitor in the eyes of Israeli legal officials.
Our Take: The Devil Next Door is one of those docuseries that serves two purposes: If you’re too young to remember the Demjanjuk case, or it just slipped your memory, the series will be a revelation for you. But if, like us, you remember the crush of media coverage around Demjanjuk’s deportation hearing and the trial in Israel, this series will remind you of the details, and also give you a more rounded picture of just what the case against Demjanjuk was… including the case’s weaknesses.
The most effective, and harrowing, part of the series’ first episode was to show graphic pictures of what went on at Treblinka and other concentration camps. Piles of naked dead bodies of people that looked like they had been starved before being sent to the gas chambers en masse. Mountains of personal possessions like shoes and those striped uniforms that the camp’s prisoners war. Bloch and Sivan show those pictures to show you what was at stake, and why people on both sides of the Demjanjuk case felt so strongly about his guilt or innocence.
Because the first episode dives right into the meat of the case, and doesn’t really go into Demjanjuk’s background or the history of the investigation into his Nazi role and Israel seeking his deportation, this context is important. There’s a reason why there were Jewish and other protesters outside his house, and why O’Connor had a hard time finding co-counsel. Ivan the Terrible wasn’t just a guard; he seemed to take glee in shoving starving people, including women and children, into the gas chambers, and his cruelty knew no bounds. For Israel to bring him to account, especially 40 years after the war ended, was a critical event for the Jewish state.
But the filmmakers also know, given the case’s history, that Israel’s evidence wasn’t solid. And the examination of how the horrors of the Holocaust buts up against mob mentality, combined with a man who may not have been Ivan, but wasn’t as innocent as he maintained, makes for a fascinating series. Demjanjuk died in 2012, technically a free man. So, yes, you could look up the case online; but seeing the twists and turns pay out via the footage and interviews makes for great drama.
Parting Shot: We see the alleged shot of a young Demjanjuk, while Sheftel says, “I see a lot of value in revenge against the proper person, not against a retired auto worker who was mistakenly thought to be Ivan the Terrible, as a victim of a conspiracy.”
Sleeper Star: Dmjanjuk’s family, who we mostly see through archival footage, was very sure that their patriarch wasn’t Ivan the Terrible. And while they seemed like your typical midwestern working-class family, they had more than enough information to throw the case into doubt.
Most Pilot-y Line: Showing Sheftel getting dressed, with his purple shoes and massive Star of David pendant, might have been a touch frivolous given the heavy subject matter. But then again, it shows his outlandish personality.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Devil Next Door is a good revisiting of a case that has faded from a lot of people’s minds. But to those who remember it, or even those who weren’t around back then, it’ll bring this important case back to life.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, FastCompany.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.
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