If there’s one thing Netflix can rely on as it faces increased competition from the likes of Apple TV+, Disney+, and HBO Max, is that the one-time streaming giant has a dedicated fan base in its compelling true-crime docuseries. After making a splash with the likes of Making A Murderer, Netflix followed that zeitgeist-y hit with a number of well made and fascinating explorations of real-life crimes and the lives that were irrevocably changed as a result. The list is almost too long to repeat, but standouts include Evil Genius, The Staircase, and Wild Wild Country. The Devil Next Door is the latest in the streamer’s long line of docuseries. It’s also one of the most fascinating, despite being somewhat mechanically told.
Unlike Making a Murderer, whose success was no doubt due in part to the present-day efforts to scrutinize and possibly overturn the convictions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, for the murder of Theresa Halbach, The Devil Next Door primarily recounts the events of a trial that unfolded decades ago, taking viewers along on a ride that was either a case of mistaken identity or the history-making court case of a naturalized U.S. citizen who happened to be a Nazi war criminal.
The appeal of The Devil Next Door is in the logline. The case of a seemingly humble Ukranian immigrant to not only be tied to an atrocity such as the Holocaust, but to be accused of being one the most brutal participants of such an act of inhumanity, is destined to pique the interest of most viewers. And for directors Daniel Sivan and Yossi Bloch, that story is one that spans decades, features a high-profile international trial, and also includes accusations of an enormous conspiracy cooked up by the KGB. Essentially, The Devil Next Door has all the elements of a thrilling true-crime docuseries, but it also has so much more.
Because the man at the center of the accusations, John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American autoworker living in Ohio is now deceased, the series feel less urgent than Making a Murderer. But Sivan and Bloch use this to their advantage, as it presents the viewer with an question that for many is still unanswered: Was John Demjanjuk the prison guard at the Sobibor Nazi camp who came to be known as Ivan the Terrible?
Though that is the question at the heart of the series and at the heart of the trial that, with the help of many hours of archival footage, The Devil Next Door recounts in remarkable detail, it isn’t necessarily the series’ primary objective. The documentary probes notions of history, recollection, memory, and opportunity, as its subjects must grapple with the horrors of the Holocaust and of World War II, as well as ongoing battle against anti-semitism, in the U.S. and abroad. But it also looks at the case through the lens of the two men who chose to defend Demjanjuk, first in the U.S. and again in Israel. Those men, New York attorney Mark J. O’Connor and Israeli attorney Yoram Sheftel are on hand to recount their experiences defending a man no one else would, and the tumultuous relationship between them that ultimately left O’Connor out in the cold.
If viewers have never heard of John Demjanjuk until now, or if they’re only tangentially aware of the case against him, they can head to the internet to find out everything there is to know about him. They can read about his first trial, his second trial, and his death. They can also read about the lengths to which his defense attorneys went to offer a reasonable doubt that he was not the man referred to as Ivan the Terrible for his predilection toward brutality in Nazi death camps. But doing so would rob them of the chance to have the story retold as thrilling television. Though the subject matter might make the idea of entertainment seem somewhat gauche, it might also be the best way to synthesize this sensational story and get as many eyes on it as possible.
The series is helped greatly by the participation of O’Connor and Sheftel, both of whom are candid and frank — almost to a fault — about the trial and their roles in it, as well in understanding the media scrutiny they both came under. And in the case of Sheftel, the series takes on another layer of intrigue as he uses a rather unconventional approach to defend his client while also, it could be said, capitalizing on his newfound fame.
In the end, The Devil Next Door may not achieve the same immediacy as other Netflix docuseries, but it is fascinating to watch, and it does cover themes that are unfortunately still relevant today. Though the use of archival footage from Demjanjuk’s trial can feel like a crutch at times, it also gives the viewer a clearer understanding of what, exactly, was at stake during the trial.
The Devil Next Door will stream exclusively on Netflix on Monday, November 4.