As World War II stretches further in the past, its history remains no less striking. This writer understands the horrors of the war at least secondhand, as I have stated in earlier posts (Labyrinth of Lies uses high production value to tell compelling story of post-WWII Germany and Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story). Yes, my father fought on the German side, but he was not a Nazi. He told me stories of refusing the cult-like scene of the Hitler Youth at 12 years old, and he was harassed for it. His family tried to flee Hitler, but he was drafted into the Wehrmacht when he was 16. Though he rose up the ranks to sergeant, he refused invitations to apply for officer positions, and, in the end, he used his English skills to help the Americans, something he was most proud of doing at the end of the war.
My father is far from the kind of fathers the two men filmmaker David Evans examines in his new documentary, What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy. He follows renowned British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who also holds the film’s writing credit, as he both individually examines and brings together two different men, Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank, whose fathers were high-ranking officials in Hitler’s Nazi party. While overseeing conquered territories from a castle that is now part of the Ukraine, these Nazi officials shared responsibility in the brutal massacres of Jews in the region, many of whom were related to Sands.
If that’s not dynamic enough, the two men share very different views on their fathers. Niklas is the son of Hans Frank, who became Governor-General for the region of Poland under Hitler. Horst is the son of Otto von Wächter, Hans Frank’s deputy. Niklas has little sympathy for his father, a former lawyer who hanged for his crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. “I could not forgive him. He was brought up as a Catholic. He studied law in Weimar Democracy, so he knew by heart what was right and what was wrong.” Meanwhile, Horst only makes excuses using that famous ridiculous argument that his father was just obeying orders.
Against a dark history of our recent “civilized” past, Evans, a filmmaker most popularly known for having directed episodes of Downton Abbey, presents a rather striking story churning with layers of psychological torment. Horst prefers to hang on to his childlike nostalgia of growing up with a loving family and refusing to believe his father made a conscious decision to commit atrocities. Niklas shares no love lost for his father, a man, he says, who loved Hitler more than his family. Sands is also a key player. Even though he is a well-known lawyer who fights for human rights, he seems a bit swayed to handle Horst with kid gloves. It’s almost as if Horst has found a state of arrested development that he has found peace in, and it’s a bit disarming.
Niklas stands out as pushing against Horst more aggressively. It makes for a strange kind of drama of conflicting strategies of coping with similar pasts. Toward the end of the film comes the real wedge between the two German men, when the trio attend an annual celebration commemorating the deaths of Germans and their allies in a small Ukrainian town. These zealots dress in vintage German uniforms and even carry vintage weapons. It’s an opportunity for Sands to turn his inquisitiveness on these people. The outcome is scarily similar to the rationale some U.S. Southerners have for standing by the Confederate flag. But more revealing is Horst’s reaction to these people learning about his Nazi legacy. It speaks to how fine a line he was walking in his reasoning.
The film demonstrates a variety of coping mechanisms for dealing with the past by all these subjects. Evans and Sands present personal archival films and photos from Horst and Niklas alongside more familiar vintage images of Hitler and vivid scenes from the Jewish ghettos. Interspersed are the strange and often stark confessions. While Niklas says, “My father deserved to die,” Horst says, “I don’t want to get stuck somewhere full of shame.” Both men are treated with sympathy. Indeed these two were children, brought into something no child should be able to comprehend. Growing up with this speaks to the burden of the past and how the past entangles itself with individual identity. If you think World War II died with the defeat of Germany, consider this intimate battle for reconciliation between these three men, still inextricably connected by a war that has defined their psyches in profound ways.
What Our Fathers Did runs 92 minutes and is not rated (it contains some disturbing images and discussion). It opens this Friday, Nov. 13, in our Miami area at the following theaters:
Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami
O-Cinema Miami Shores
AMC Aventura 24
Living Room Boca Raton
For other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Oscilloscope Pictures provided a preview screening link for the purpose of this review. They also provided all images in this post, credited as follows:
Photo 1: Horst Von Wächter, Philippe Sands (In Background) and Niklas Frank at the site of a mass grave outside Zolkiew, Ukraine in My Nazi Legacy. Photography by: Sam Hardy
Photo 2: Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940. Image courtesy of Niklas Frank.