“A sociopath can live among you your whole life, and you won’t see it until he eats you.” By now, so many stories about all sorts of crimes have come out that everyone will agree that they don’t really know who their neighbours are. The most heinous of crimes have been committed by the people that everyone thought were the nicest, quietest people they knew, that they couldn’t have hurt a fly. And yet, they are accused of unimaginable horrors that have been inflicted upon others. Sometimes, the truth comes to light. Other times, it is buried in the graves with a perpetual ambiguity upon the accused and the crime itself.
In its latest true-crime documentary, Netflix focuses on a crime that is, undoubtedly, the most horrible thing to have happened in recent human history, and on the stand is a man who could be the perpetrator of this evil or the victim of mistaken identity. Whatever the truth might have been, you’ll be left with a sickening feeling after you’re done watching ‘The Devil Next Door’.
It begins with a man called John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American autoworker, an immigrant who came to the USA after the Second World War and had created a good life for himself and his family in the years hence. However, more than thirty years later, he is charged with war crimes, especially the ones that got him the infamous title of Ivan the Terrible. The case that unfolded over a span of decades is explored over the course of five episodes in this docuseries and presents the viewers with the evidence for as well as against the charges levied on Demjanjuk.
For the ones who are by now addicted to the true-crime drama slate that Netflix is the exclusive provider of, ‘The Devil Next Door’ is another great addition to its library. Staying concise, and hence effective in communicating the emotions of sorrow and horror, it keeps you occupied with the mystery from the beginning to the end: was John Demjanjuk really the devil everyone was making him out to be? Could a simple man from a suburb in America, an upstanding citizen and a highly religious person really have such monstrous secrets in his past?
The conditions of the Holocaust, as we read about them now, seem too dreadful for a person to survive. When six million people have been killed by one thing, you wonder how could anyone possibly escape that fate? And yet, some survived, either out of their sheer will or due to someone’s kindness or due to a stroke of luck. It is through their accounts that we have come to know that humans are capable of doing such things to each other, their truth becomes a mirror to humanity’s hideous form. And if these people tell their story, you have to listen. “It’s not about how they can remember something that happened forty or fifty years ago? It’s about how they can possibly forget something like that?”
So yes, when a survivor points a finger at someone and says this is the devil who tortured them, you are bound to believe it. But, can there be discrepancies in their own accounts? ‘The Devil Next Door’ keeps the mystery around Demjanjuk alive by covering all grounds that the prosecution and the defendant trod upon while he was being tried in court. It doesn’t give in to the sentimentality that the viewers can, and most probably will, develop, especially if they, or someone in their family, has a history in this matter. And who can blame them? Digging out the gruesome reality of the Holocaust will make any normal person shiver.
The documentary makers, however, have tried to keep themselves as detached from passing judgement as possible. This in no way means that they haven’t exhibited the pain of the survivors or disputed their demand for justice. But the documentary does create a clear line between the want for justice and the crucifixion of an innocent man just so it serves the purpose. Justice should come to all, but not to one at the cost of the other, and while watching ‘The Devil Next Door’, this is what we ask ourselves: who is paying the price?
Apart from the emotional punch that it delivers from time to time, the docuseries also manages to keep you engaged till the finale. Even when there is a five-episode mark, each chapter of the story unwinds itself in less than 50 minutes, and the episodes just breeze past you. In a sense, it works like any other unresolved true-crime drama that demands an answer from you rather than serving it to you on a silver platter. But here, you have a biting uncertainty. If John was Ivan the Terrible, did he get what he deserved? And if he wasn’t, did he suffer for someone else’s crime? Either way, it doesn’t have a happy ending.