“My Nazi Legacy” (“What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy”)
Human Rights lawyer, Philippe Sands, looks at the complicated relationship between two men whose fathers were very high-ranking Nazi officials and who have contrasting attitudes toward them. As he does this, he delves into the story of his own grandfather who escaped the same town where the men’s fathers carried out mass killings. The three embark on an emotional journey together, as they travel through Europe and talk about the past, examining the sins of their fathers and providing a unique view of the father-son relationship. They ultimately coming to some very unexpected and difficult conclusions. As they travel across Europe together, they face difficult memories and we watch as the three men share their pasts emotionally and psychologically.
Sands came across the two men when he was doing research for a book he was writing about crimes against humanity. One was Niklas Frank whose father was Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and, from October 1939, governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, which came to include Galicia. The other man was Horst von Wächter, whose father was Otto von Wächter, one of Hans Frank’s deputies, and governor of Krakow and then Galicia. Between 1939 and 1945 the two men were responsible for actions that led to the deaths of millions of Jews and Poles.
The only member of Sands’ family to escape execution was his grandfather who refused to talk about events that led up to the annihilation of all his relatives. Sands wanted to find the details of how his own past had been shaped by his grandfather who would not speak about it. After persuading both von Wächter and Frank to open up to him about what they knew of their father’s crucial roles in the Nazi hierarchy, he took them on a journey to Ukraine where his family had perished.
Frank has channeled his feelings about his father by writing two no-holds barred books about his father’s exploits as ‘the Butcher of Poland’ as he was known, and has spent a great deal of time talking to schoolchildren about his father’s very important role in the Holocaust. With Sands he is equally blunt about his childhood with a cold distant father and his total distaste for the genocide that he acknowledges he had been responsible for.
Horst, on the other hand, is clinging bitterly to the past living in his old unheated dilapidated home and is still in total denial that his father was a mass murderer. He grasps at straws like the fact that his father escaped after the war and given safe refuge by an Austrian Cardinal within the Vatican where he lived until he died thus escaping a Nuremburg War Crimes Trial that had found Frank and other senior Nazis guilty of mass-murder.
At first, Sands and Frank argue with Horst gently and we think that perhaps he is just mistaken or confused or both but then he adamantly refuses to accept any of the evidence that he is shown and that proves that father was the Region’s Governor who was personally responsible for all the killings in the camps that he help set up and we understand that this is much more than stubborn denial, and shows that he probably is much more of a Nazi himself than he will ever admit too.
Near the end of the documentary, Sands, who has been calm and dispassionate throughout, takes the two men to the very synagogue and the field outside where his family and several other thousand Jews were killed one afternoon in cold blood. As they stand together and Sands reveals exactly why they have come there, even then neither he nor a very subdued Frank can persuade Horst to finally accept his father’s guilt.
The documentary was directed by David Evans and written and narrated by Sands. What is so interesting that its power comes from the clam and the reason of the film and in the way that Horst was dealt with by the use of dignified patience. He does not deserve especially when he talked on about having empathy for Jewish people. This is certainly not an easy film to watch but it is an important film.
To deal with a topic such as the Holocaust with two children of Nazi generals is a strong and different look at their terrible period of history. It could have easily been sensationalized, yet Evans’ simple, but effective approach gives us a composed and heartbreaking movie. This is a story of denial, acceptance, desperation and sadness— a persuasive film that presents something important, unique and affecting.
Sands’ research, and the film itself, thus remind us of how keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, and preventing another one from happening again, will require constant vigilance. It also reinforces not only the scale of the devastation wrecked by the Nazi war machine, but also that of the legacies left to the descendants.