A man shows up at a small hotel in a German town and signs in as Mr. Schmidt. But the hotel clerk recognizes him as an SS officer who used to work at the local concentration camp during World War II (this story is taking place in 1960s Germany).
In the next scene the man is dropped off at the camp (Dachau) and walks around smiling and reminiscing about the death and torture he doled out during his time as Captain Lutze of the SS. In the middle of his reverie he hears a door open and he sees a man dressed in the garb of one of the concentration camp prisoners of seventeen years ago. And in fact, he remembers the man’s name was Becker. Lutze commends Becker on his youthful appearance saying he looks very much as he remembered him seventeen years ago. He asks Becker if he is a caretaker of the site and Becker evasively says that in a manner of speaking, he is.
Lutze attempts to convince Becker to put aside the past and accept that Lutze was only following orders when he worked at the camp. Becker refuses this reasoning and instead characterizes Lutze as not a soldier but a sadist who relished his activities. He lists Lutze’s crimes in the various areas of the camps. The gallows where men were hanged by the neck or left hanging by their limbs in agony. The medical building where vivisection of men, women and children was carried out. The gate where men were machine gunned down in crowds. Becker names all these things and then he reveals to Lutze that a trial will be conducted and judged by the men whom Lutze mistreated.
And as Lutze looks around one of the barracks, he sees the other prisoners in their uniforms looking at him with expressions that accused him of these high crimes. As the charges are enumerated, Lutze panics and passes out.
When Lutze awakes Becker informs him that the trial is over and he has been found guilty. Now Lutze becomes angry and arrogant dismissing Becker’s talk of punishment as foolish but as Lutze begins to act threateningly toward Becker, he stops short and seems shocked. Becker smiles and tells Lutze that he has remembered correctly that Lutze killed him seventeen years ago just as the Americans were liberating the camp. And so, it doesn’t seem as if Lutze will be able to murder his way out of this situation. Now Becker speaks clearly about what is happening. The ghosts of the men Lutze murdered haunt the camp and now that he has returned, they will pass judgement on him.
Becker pronounces the sentence. He says Lutze will now experience all the agonies that he doled out against the prisoners of the camp for the rest of his life. And that this pain would render him insane. And finally, Becker ends by saying, “This is not hatred. This is retribution. This is not revenge. This is justice. But this is only the beginning, Captain. Only the beginning. Your final judgment will come from God.”
Lutze goes insane and in the last scene a doctor and the police are gathering up Lutze and the doctor says of the camp, “Dachau. Why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?”
In his epilogue Serling says all the camps must remain because, “they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”
Let me first address the artistic aspect of this episode. Oscar Beregi plays Captain Lutze and I am not familiar with him. Becker is played by Joseph Schildkraut who I best remember from a much lighter but memorable part he played in the depression era comedy, “The Shop Around the Corner.” Both men did an admirable job with their decidedly difficult parts.
With respect to the didactic aspect of the episode I’ll address a couple of points.
This episode is said to be a reaction to the contemporary trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann had been the architect of the concentration camp system and Serling used this episode to make sure that the world had not forgotten the Nazi genocide of the European Jews. When he says that keeping the camps around will prevent men from forgetting the lesson they teach, I’m afraid that is an overly optimistic assessment. Even at the time, the USSR and the USA were poised with tens of thousands of ICBMs with a combined killing power to make the Holocaust look like a slipshod affair. And as the Rwanda genocide showed us many years later you don’t have to be a Nazi (or even ever have heard of them) to butcher your fellow man on a wholesale basis.
My second comment has to do with Becker’s statement about Lutze’s sentence, “This is not hatred. This is retribution. This is not revenge. This is justice.” This seems unlikely. For there not to be hatred and revenge associated with the victims of such atrocities would be non-human. Even a saint would revolt at foregoing hatred and revenge for such evil.