Ben Ferencz should be a household name. That idea is effectively and energetically argued in the documentary “Prosecuting Evil,” directed by Barry Avrich. 98-year-old lawyer Ferencz is the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, and an icon of international criminal justice. At 27, he prosecuted and won his first case — the biggest murder trial of the 20th century (and hopefully, ever), against 24 members of the notorious Nazi death squads known as the Einsatzgruppen. The determined and fiery Ferencz still works every day fighting for peace, the very manifestation of what we might call “The Greatest Generation.”
Ferencz is also emblematic of that all-too-elusive American Dream story. His Jewish family fled Transylvania to escape persecution when Ferencz was a baby, seeking a better life in America. Growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen was harsh, but the gifted Ferencz benefited from attentive teachers, educational programs, scholarships and plain-old hard work, ascending to Harvard Law School. Like many other young men, he volunteered for World War II, where served in an anti-aircraft artillery unit and ultimately investigated war crimes during the liberation of the concentration camps. What he witnessed there motivated his work bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, and continues to motivate him to fight for peace to this day.
Avrich is lucky in that he has such a captivating subject. Ferencz is bright-eyed, energetic, and articulate. He is frequently moved to tears and speechlessness while recounting the horrors he witnessed during the war, and he passionately recounts the more dramatic moments of his career. Avrich doesn’t do much to adorn the content or push the form: This is straightforward talking-head style documentary filmmaking that benefits from an amazing true story, a compelling subject and reams of archival materials.
Ferencz also has more than a few colleagues and admirers willing to testify on his behalf, including lawyers from the International Criminal Court, which he helped establish. Although Ferencz urged President Bill Clinton to sign a treaty including the U.S. in the ICC, President George W. Bush subsequently pulled out of the organization. Prosecutors, four-star generals, judges, human rights advocates and more attest to Ferencz’s enormous influence on history in setting a judicial precedent for prosecuting atrocities and crimes against humanity. Ferencz’s belief is the law is the key to peace. Disputes and conflict should be settled in court, through the rule of law, not with weaponry or violence. It’s an idea that is both astonishingly civilized and radical in its simplicity.
“Prosecuting Evil” is a necessary documentation of this remarkable man, capturing the titan reflecting on his life and career in his own words, with vivid detail and emotion. The film is unfortunately slight, and there is so much more to dive into. Hopefully, it inspires audiences to seek out and research more about Ferencz, or inspires a Hollywood producer to consider his story for a biopic. But Ferencz’s deeply hopeful message of peace shines through as brightly as his spirit.