Skip To Content

7 Questions For Barry Avrich, Director Of ‘Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World Of Ben Ferencz’

Only a day after he learned about Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, filmmaker Barry Avrich was in contact and getting ready to make a documentary about him. The resulting film, “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz,” now playing at New York’s Cinema Village and opening in select cities Friday March 1, is a powerful chronicle of the 99-year-old Ferencz’s life and legacy. At 27, in his first trial, Ferencz prosecuted members of the Einsatzgruppen death squads. After the war he helped broker the Reparations Agreement between West Germany and Israel. He remains one of the most vocal advocates of the International Criminal Court, an institution which he helped establish. The Forward spoke with Avrich, also the director of 2011’s “Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project” about the notorious temper of the disgraced mogul and 2018’s “The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret” which disclosed Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct, about Ferencz’s bottomless energy and optimism and why the world needs to hear his story now.

PJ GRISAR: What got you started on this project? Had you been aware of Ben Ferencz before?

BARRY AVRICH: I was not aware of Ben Ferencz at all. I was watching “60 Minutes” in May of 2017 and I saw a segment on Ben and immediately knew that I had to make a film about him. I assumed that there were probably about a dozen features in the works on Ben. But I fortuitously was able to reach him literally 24 hours after watching the segment and told Ben that I wanted to do this feature documentary on him and he agreed. Within two months we were filming and about seven months later I was showing him a rough cut of the film. We moved very quickly. It was my ambition to ensure that Ben got to see this film – I worry about him at his age – and he did.

Ben is one of these guys who should be as lauded and honored and heralded as Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King for that matter, and he’s not because what he stands for is pretty much against the politics of Washington in terms of being involved in the International Criminal Court. So they would never honor him as they should. He should have the Presidential Medal of Freedom not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize. I wanted to make sure the world knew who he was and that his place in history was solidified.

You mention the ICC, an international tribunal that prosecutes genocide, crimes against humanity, international crime and war crimes. Despite Ferencz’s lobbying for the U.S. to be part of the court and answerable to it, this country is still not a member. Of course you’re in Canada, but should America’s membership be a top priority?

It should, but nobody will do it. You look at the world – and I would not consider myself being so far away in Canada, there’s no wall between our countries – and it is frightening that it hasn’t been ratified. But Washington will always feel that they want the right to be able to go into a country and invade. Had the United States been signatories to the ICC then Bush would have been prosecuted, convicted for going into Iraq. So it’s not going to happen in Ben’s lifetime or mine. There was going to be an opportunity with Obama. And it was shocking that he really had nothing to do with Ben Ferencz because that was sort of the great last hope.

Part of what’s so captivating about Ferencz’s story was his youth. He was just 27 when he prosecuted the Einsatzgruppen at Nuremberg. He found the evidence of their mass murder campaigns and rallied for their prosecution being added to the caseload. And it was his first ever case. There were a dozen subsequent trials at Nuremberg after the first trial holding Nazi leaders accountable. What made Ferencz’s one so monumental?

At the time Germany had had enough of these trials. They didn’t like seeing their military heroes and leaders being prosecuted. So for Ben to come along and prosecute some of the worst offenders and successfully convince the court to allow him to a) prosecute and b) have another trial was quite staggering. Watching the trial as I have in its entirety and reading the transcripts, it was staggering how great Ben was. He understood data, he was able to do it without getting emotionally caught up and so it was an extraordinary piece of jurisprudence and litigation. He didn’t have to call witnesses, the facts were the facts. Even if he had done nothing for the rest of his life after that he would have been a hero for doing what he had done. But he just kept going and keeps going even at his age.

You saw him on “60 Minutes,” so you knew that he was sharp. Was there anything that surprised you when you met him? How was he as a subject?

He’s extraordinarily engaging. My role was to make sure people heard his story and that the film was properly illustrated and punctuated to articulate and communicate Ben’s life. As a subject he was tireless and unyielding in his energy. I had told him that we intended to spend eight hours a day with him for two days filming him and he said “no, no, no I think we can get it done in one day.” And I said “Ben, it’s impossible! [We’re documenting] 98 years of a life.” But we managed to film I think close to 10 hours with one half-hour break for lunch. And I said, “well I wanna come back tomorrow and get you swimming.” And he said “no, let’s do it now.” And we did. We shot in the pool for a couple of hours. He’s amazing. He met me in the Hague for a screening for the International Criminal Court and traveled himself. We’ve done many panels together and he is not only a testament as a human being of righteousness and doing what’s right, he is also a flag and an anthem to anyone who’s aging. My mom is 90 and I’m constantly holding Ben up as a guy who stays young, relevant, active.

He’s still hard at work. He says in the film he doesn’t understand retirement. What is he working on?

He’s continuing to write op-ed pieces, he’s continuing to lecture, continuing to consult on all kinds of human rights issues and certainly still active with the International Criminal Court. His work is not done. The most amazing thing about him is that even with human rights abuses happening all over the world he remains encouraged.

It’s not at all tribal with him either. He was a Jew and he was there when the camps were liberated, but it appalled him as a human being. The issue transcends “us” and “them.” He never thought a Jewish genocide had any primacy over other atrocities.

No, he never saw it that way and whether they were Jews or they were not, this was cold-blooded murder and systematic and he wanted to make sure that the head guys got their due. It’s an incredible story. We’re working on a feature film based on him and we’ll see where that goes, but out of over 45 films that I made this was easily the most fulfilling work.

With over 10 hours of footage for a film that’s less than 90 minutes a lot is left on the cutting room floor. He speaks a bit about current events in what we see. Did he say what concerns him about the state of the country at this moment?

He looks at the state of the world with incredible caution. He does worry about the ability to engage in cyber war and the fact that entire communications and electrical grids could be turned down and shut off anywhere in the world remotely and that can cause mayhem and destruction. And he’s worried about the fact that people pick up a gun before they communicate or make any attempt to resolve or sit down. He’s been concerned about that his entire life.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected].

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.