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Retired Jewish guard recalls his experiences of Nazi Germany through his cartoon work, in this documentary of admirable beauty

This is a documentary about Nathan Hilu, a retired Jewish guard who drew cartoons in his spare time. As it happens, the cartoons double as a memory box: a portal into Hilu’s perspective of WW2, inviting audiences in to witness some of his interactions with leading Nazi figures Albert Speer. Hilu was instructed to guard Nazi Criminals at the “Trial of the Century”: The Nuremberg Trials. Keenly aware of his age, Hilu commits his thoughts to page, illustrating the absurdity of the era with a flair that’s admittedly more maladroit than proficient. Hilu was born in 1925 and died in 2019, before the film was completed. The documentary crew reproduce segments of his funeral with impressive tact and perspective.

Former Israeli soldier and first-time director, Elan Golod leads the charge, and doesn’t shy away from some of the stumbling blocks that stood in his way. In one fiery exchange, Hilu suggests that they abandon the film (“I was there for God’s sake,” Hilu shouts. “Where else could I have been?”) when the questions get too challenging for him. The crew are right to be sceptical, as some of Hilu’s tales don’t correlate with some of the historical documents at their disposal, and with his diminishing memory, they turn to some of the interviews he gave in the 1970s in order to corroborate his tale. The answers prove inconclusive, but this leads to an interesting dialogue on art, and the validity of Hilu’s art outside of the paradigm of truth.

There’s no denying Hilu’s charm: He recalls conversations he had with German architect Albert Speer, commending the Nazi’s conviction and honesty (“The only one who said he was guilty,” Hilu says.)There’s a twinkle in his eye, which never dims, even as the subject grows more unpleasant, and Golod enjoys his company, even when the irascible soldier tells him off.

The film is also notable for its use of animation: Hilu’s body is transformed into one of his creations, the luminous use of colour decorating the screen with kinaesthetic, kaleidoscopic aplomb. It veers on Gilliam-esque (some of the creations look like something out of 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), but the film never spends too long in the cartooniverse, which is fitting; the film is focused on reality, and what we do with it.

Clearly, Hilu feels it is his duty to commit his memories to film, thanking the director for his co-operation and guidance. Golod speaks to his subject with reverence, but feels duty bound to point out to him that archivist Lori Berdak Miller was unable to verify his story (Hilu’s record as a soldier was purportedly destroyed in a fire during the 1970s.) The film also points out that Holocaust denial is on the rise, despite the boxes of footage that depicted the camps, experiments and nefarious behaviour during the time. There will come a time in the not too distant future when everyone who set foot in the camps will have left this mortal coil, and all that will be left are documents from the time. Like everything else, there will come a time when some will dispute this section of history as little more than folk-tales and idle gossip.

Which is why Hilu’s perspective is an incredibly valid one, outlining his view of a particularly turbulent moment in time. His cartoons offer a portal into his mind, but the film offers an exhibition of something far more important: the artist. It’s a pity the film doesn’t divulge further into Hilu’s psyche as a soldier-turned-artist; maybe subject was too old to discuss such a philosophical question. Nathan-ism is a film of admirable beauty and restraint.

Nathan-ism premiered at Hot Docs in 2023.

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