I let you off easy with last week’s Tab Hunter Confidential. This week, I am afraid to say, we’re back in deadly serious territory with What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, a valuable if rather depressing documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday Nov. 13.
Directed by David Evans ( “Downton Abbey”), the film brings together three very different people — two children of Nazi bigwigs, and one dedicated human-rights lawyer. Their mission: to come to terms with the terrible crimes committed by – and against — their fathers during the Second World War.
In addition to being one of the world’s renowned legal experts in genocide and crimes against humanity, Philippe Sands is also the author of several noteworthy books, including 2006’s ‘Lawless World’, which examined the Blair-Bush conspiracy to invade Iraq. With the exception of his father, who escaped to Britain, his extended family all died in the Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland.
In 2012, Sands met Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter. Frank’s father was Hans Frank, the notorious Governor-General of Occupied Poland; von Wächter’s father Otto was governor of Krakow and then governor of Galicia, a region of the Ukraine. Their fathers were colleagues and friends throughout the war.
Niklas and Horst (named, most unfortunately, after Nazi martyr Horst Wessel) were both born in 1939 and grew up in similar circumstances, but have dealt with their legacies quite differently. Niklas learned to hate his father, even writing a book condemning him (‘Der Vater: Eine Abrechnung’; published in English as ‘In the Shadow of the Reich’). Horst, on the other hand, still venerates his father’s memory, going so far as to profess that Dad wasn’t aware of the mass murder going in Krakow and Galicia.
The two men are friends, but as becomes clear throughout What Our Fathers Did, it’s an uneasy friendship at best. Supported by Sands, Niklas spends much of the film fruitlessly trying to convince Horst that Otto was just as guilty of war crimes as his own father.
The film makes for extremely discomfiting viewing. Despite accepting German responsibility for the Holocaust, Horst simply cannot acknowledge that his father was a willing participant. He wants documented proof of his father’s complicity; the fact that Otto supervised those who did the actual killing isn’t sufficient to convince him that he was anything but a moral, steadfast administrator.
Horst’s position is simply untenable – especially when one considers that his father was also involved in the 1934 assassination of Austrian chancellor Dollfus — and it’s deeply uncomfortable watching him stubbornly deny the obvious. At the same time, one must grudgingly admire his willingness to participate in such a soul-baring film project.
Produced in part by the BBC, What Our Fathers Did is stylistically very much a television documentary. It’s also a reminder that no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape history: in the film’s most disturbing sequence, we see the younger von Wächter being greeted by Ukrainian fascists who venerate his father’s memory. Seventy years later, the Second World War is still very much alive for these people, who wear Nazi uniforms and regalia when honoring their war dead.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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