Human Rights lawyer Philippe Sands lost almost eighty family members in the Holocaust. In My Nazi Legacy, Sands travels to the scene of the atrocities with the sons of two senior Nazi’s involved in the killings. The documentary, the first directed by David Evans (Fever Pitch), probes individual responsibility and complicity in war crimes as the two sons cope with their father’s guilt.
Sands unearthed the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter while researching the Nuremberg trials. In the film’s opening sequence he describes the experience of seeing their family photo albums and home movies for the first time:
‘I’m curious about details and people. I want to know why things happen, why people act as they do, how they can engage in mass killing and then spend an evening with their families. Yet watching these images felt dirty, as though I was complicit in a voyeuristic sort of way, looking on the inside of horror’.
Vanessa Lapa’s documentary The Decent One reflected on the personal diaries and letters of Final Solution mastermind Heinrich Himmler with similar fascination, lingering on the words of his children and the letters to his wife. While Lapa’s cherry-picked quotations allows us to peer somewhat morbidly into the mind of a mass murderer, My Nazi Legacy stings with the very tangible pain of two men coping with the long-term legacy of their father’s crimes. Hans Frank, the father of Niklas, was politically responsible for the ghettoes and concentration camps in Poland and sentenced to death at Nuremberg. Horst’s father worked under Frank as the Governor of Krakow.
My Nazi Legacy opens with the sons’ personal recollections of their fathers during the war – a visit to the Krakow ghetto and the unloading of bombs into a nearby lake – but Niklas and Horst achieve an unexpected degree of self-examination when Sands asks them to confront their fathers’ crimes publicly. Astonishingly both Niklas and Horst agree to a public debate and Evans awards it significant coverage. The difference in their attitudes is striking – Niklas condemns his father while Horst refuses to admit guilt – but Evans steers clear of making this a psychological analysis that simply attributes the differences to early childhood experiences.
Regardless of his attitude, Horst’s openness is difficult to condemn. From here Niklas and Sands begin a determined campaign to persuade Horst of his father’s guilt. Horst’s discomfort is palpable and the very definition of ‘guilt’ comes under Sands’ magnifying glass.
In one of the most arresting scenes, the three men visit the Parliament of Galicia (Poland) where the area’s Final Solution was affectively announced: a summit both fathers attended. Here Sands accelerates his cross-examination of Horst – ‘seventy-five thousand people were killed, so that’s a father one can love, that’s an honourable man?’ – but Sands falls short of the point and, perhaps unintentionally, highlights the film’s complexity. To Sands, Horst’s self-deception means condoning the killing of his family. For Horst – who in every other way shuns the Nazi war crimes – there remains a duty and attachment to the father who provided him with a happy home. To both men, the reconciliation of criminal and father is impossible: the circle cannot be squared.
Under increasing pressure from his companions and faced with the ruins of a torched synagogue, Horst insists somewhat despairingly, ‘I don’t see my father here… I can’t see him like this’. There are echoes of Leopold von Mildenstein’s daughter in Arnon Goldfinger’s 2011 documentary The Flat (in which Goldfinger traces the friendship of his Zionist grandparents with the Nazi propagandist) but My Nazi Legacy drills deeper into this pit of emotion. It’s hard to watch Horst grapple with the damning evidence, afflicted by Sands no-holds-barred questioning. As in The Last Nazi’s: Children Of The Master Race, generational guilt and disappointment are painful to observe.
Horst is undoubtedly Evans’ most fascinating subject. As he clings to his father’s ‘decent character’, his self-deception becoming ever more illogical, My Nazi Legacy examines the importance of ‘command’ and moral responsibility. The questions are complex and all three men offer differing perspectives: did the Holocaust’s creeping inevitability preclude those complicit in it from blame? Horst’s reliance upon a lack of signed orders as evidence of his father’s innocence is particularly interesting in light of recent shifts towards the prosecution of those indirectly involved in Nazi crimes.
Horst’s attitude is difficult to comprehend, yet Sands shows a remarkable willingness to try. My Nazi Legacy pays great attention to Horst’s optimism. Horst’s ability to place events in a continuum of human history and his desire to look forward towards a ‘new period’ when his father’s crimes are long past, is presented free of judgement leaving audiences to decide for themselves whether this is hopeful or yet another means of self-preservation. My Nazi Legacy is a worthwhile but gruelling, often excruciating journey that leaves us, quite excusably, without any real resolution.
My Nazi Legacy is available on DVD and digital download now. There are a number of screenings taking place around the UK on January 27 – Holocaust Memorial Day – Details of screening locations.