Sins of the Father

Last year on a trip to Munich I visited Dachau concentration camp. Walking through the barracks, standing in the gas chambers, and looking into the crematoria deeply disturbed me. Yet one of the most unsettling things I remember was something the tour guide mentioned in describing the dismantling of the camp at the conclusion of the war: “Most guards honestly thought they could simply go home and live happy lives with their families as if nothing had happened.” How could someone “forget” about committing genocide? How could they live with themselves? Most of all, how could their own families ever love them again?

David Evans’ What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy deals with this dilemma, focusing on two sons of high-command Nazi leaders, Niklas Frank (son of Hans Frank, who served as Nazi appointed General-Governor of the occupied Polish territories) and Horst von Wächter (son of Otto von Wächter, who served as the Nazi appointed Governor of both Krakow, Poland and Galicia, Ukraine). This simple documentary, expertly narrated and explored by renowned legal scholar Philippe Sands, views the Holocaust through a unique and deeply troubling lens. It unlocks the profound emotions surrounding the sons’ attitudes toward their fathers and highlights the contrasting ways in which they confront their fathers’ crimes: Niklas’ absolute rejection and Horst’s delusional loyalty.

The documentary’s power derives not just from the interesting topic, but also from the way it presents Horst’s defense of his father. The film first introduces Niklas and Horst as individuals, but then gradually reveals the roles their fathers played in the Holocaust. Thus, by seeing Niklas’ “successful” acknowledgement of his father’s crimes, the audience is startled by the innocent picture Horst paints of his father, who lived out his final years as a wanted war criminal. We cannot immediately pinpoint what is distorting Horst’s examination of his father and what is holding him back from accepting his father’s culpability. Additionally, Horst’s wrong thinking manifests repeatedly, especially in the face of clear incriminating evidence. Horrified, we begin to wonder whether Horst has genuinely brainwashed himself or whether he subconsciously endorses his father’s behavior. By following Sands’ investigation of Horst, Evans gives us the chance to conduct our own analysis, as opposed to simply digesting information, as we might do watching a standard History Channel documentary.

Sands’ personal connection to the story of Horst’s father—his entire family, except his grandfather, was murdered by Nazis in the area under Otto von Wächter’s control—also amplifies the film’s significance. Standing in the ruins of the synagogue that stood at the center of the once-thriving Jewish community to which his family belonged, Sands comments, “It’s a heavy moment. My imagination is running very heavy.” In these words, he identifies what the audience is thinking: What was the community like? What would the community be like today? And most of all, how many? Sands himself embodies the impact of Nazi atrocities and spotlights the human loss connected to Otto von Wächter’s crimes. The juxtaposition of Sands’ family story and Horst’s denial of reality creates an added element of tension and uneasiness.

This thoughtful and incisive documentary further benefits from Sands’ astute ability to guide the investigation and conversations. In addition to providing pertinent facts and drawing on interesting archives, Sands asks penetrating questions and challenges the men, particularly Horst, when they need to be challenged. One moment sticks out in particular. In the very parliamentary building in which Hans Frank gave a speech and quipped to Otto von Wächter about the extermination of Jews (“I haven’t seen many of them today”) Sands confronts Horst and disputes his father’s innocence. It is these well-timed “strikes” that give the commentary extra color and substance.

Sands’ attempts to break Horst’s irrationality are complemented by Evans’ decision to include parts of a public talk among Sands, Niklas, and Horst, which took place in front of a live audience. This live audience not only confronts Horst and debunks his fallacious claims; it also gives the documentary’s audience the opportunity to question Horst vicariously. This technique makes the documentary interactive and further differentiates it from standard, lecture-like documentaries.

Paradoxically, the success of the documentary lies in its failure to correct the warped perception Horst has of his father. The film clearly demonstrates, through logical reasoning and official documentation, that Horst is simply delusional, unable to accept the truth about his father; even Niklas thinks that Horst is a Nazi. In sum, at the end of the film, the audience views Horst not as a noble and loyal son, but as a troubled person who is himself, on account of his blind defense of his father, guilty of a moral crime. Ultimately, What Our Fathers Did does a remarkable job not only tracing the history of Nazi crimes but also providing an alarming example of how that history can be ignored.

Grade: A-

Insightful and well-crafted analysis of a most disturbing character. The film will be released on iTunes on February 9, 2016.