Its awkward title notwithstanding, NSU German History X, a new Netflix original drama, is addictively compelling.
Unfolding in German, with English sub-titles, this three-part series deconstructs the rise and fall of the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terrorist organization in Germany which murdered eight Turkish German citizens and one Greek immigrant between 2000 and 2006.
Based in eastern Germany, the NSU was dedicated to creating a new fascist state based on Nazi principles and Germany’s enlarged pre-war borders.
The story, inspired by true events, is told from three overlapping points of view — from the perspective of a band of neo-Nazis in eastern Germany, of a Turkish family whose breadwinner is killed by these thugs, and of a police and intelligence services investigation of their crimes.
The neo-Nazis are portrayed as a bunch of hooligans who fancy themselves to be members of a master race, who are at war with “the system” and who rage against foreigners, asylum seekers and Jews.
Beate Zschape, a young, aimless malcontent from the city of Jena, is introduced to the neo-Nazi “scene” by her loutish boyfriend. As she becomes one of its most fanatical acolytes, she cracks a tasteless joke about the former Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and throws eggs at a monument honoring the victims of Nazism.
Her rowdy fellow travellers describe Jews disparagingly, refer to “Jewish finance” as a force to be fought and condemn reunified Germany as a “fucking Jewified state.”
Their motto is “Action, not words.” Their ideological objective is to reach “Day X, when Germany will be “strong” and “free” again.
Influenced by The Turner Diaries, an American neo-Nazi tract whose plot is predicated on a race war that ends with a white supremacist victory, the NSU plots to assemble a bomb. It’s hell-bent on making a “statement” to the authorities. The neo-Nazis also intend to inflict harm on Ignatz Bubis, a leader of Germany’s Jewish community.
In the end, their targets are mostly Muslims. Their first victim, Enver Semsek, is a Turkish florist who’s fatally shot as he kneels on his prayer rug. The film focuses on his family’s reaction to his death, paying special attention to his teen-aged daughter’s grief and response to his senseless murder. The stories of the eight other victims are completely glossed over.
The police and intelligence services launch an investigation of the Semsek case, but it’s embarrassingly clumsy and amateurish. Instead of turning their gaze on the neo-Nazis, they initially look elsewhere for clues. When they finally come to their senses, they’re shocked to learn that their probe has been compromised by a neo-Nazi mole.
NSU German History X moves back and forth in time as it connects the dots and fleshes out the characters, some of whom are nasty in the extreme. The German and Turkish actors who portray them rise to the occasion in stellar performances that are never mannered and always realistic.
Although it dramatizes the events in question, it sometimes feels like a documentary by virtue of the fact that actual newsreel footage is woven into the fabric of the narrative. In one clip, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promises that justice will prevail.
Right-wing radicalism in postwar Germany has been a recurring and disturbing phenomenon. This taut Netflix series hammers home the point that Germany cannot afford to underestimate the threat from the lunatic right.