What a fascinating yet simple documentary this is. My Nazi Legacy**** follows human rights lawyer Philippe Sands as he travels to meet with the now-elderly sons of two formerly prominent Nazis.
Niklas Frank’s father was Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and a high-ranking officer in Poland; Horst von Wächter’s father was Otto von Wächter who organised the ghettoisation of Jews and the subsequent programmes of concentration camps in Poland.
Both men were born in 1939 and thus grew up while their fathers carried out their war crimes. Sands pores over these men’s personal family photo albums with them and it’s literally: Yes, there’s Mum with Hitler (or A.H. as they label him in the album), this is when Himmler came for dinner, that’s Dad with Goerring…
Frank tells an amazing story about going shopping with him Mum in the Krakow ghetto, where she used to buy furs from Jewish department stores, we imagine at a very favourable price, in the hope that friendship with the Nazis might afford the businessmen preferential treatment of some kind. No such luck, of course.
Their childhoods are stories of castles and marble bathrooms, privilege and nannies and skiing, all healthy outdoor pursuits in the lakes and mountains, with the occasional treasure of stolen art turning up in the library – a Da Vinci, for example. Meanwhile, their fathers were organising mass murder on an industrial scale.
Frank, it turns out, has dealt with his father and hates all that he did. He’s pretty unemotional about recalling seeing his Dad imprisoned in Nuremberg. Von Wachter, however, sheds tears when he recall the shattering of his childhood idyll by British and American bombers.
He can’t bring himself to believe his father did anything wrong and Sands spends much of the film trying to present Horst with concrete evidence of his father’s complicity in the worst of all crimes. As far as Horst is concerned, his Dad was a smashing chap, everyone said so, and he loved Hitler and he loved the Nazi party. “Right from the beginning,” says Horst, practically echoing Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, “my father was a complete Nazi.”
Eventually, the trio journey to Lvov, where Sands’ own family met with their deaths at the hands of von Wächter’s policies.
The beauty and power of this film, directed by David Evans, is that it puts a human face on horror. It’s a battle of hearts over statistics, a moving history versus the twistable, ineluctable agglomeration of facts.
There’s a poignant moment of the men around a monument over mass grave of Jews, where the monument is hidden away in the forest, overgrown, hard to find, practically lost, overtaken by time and nature. This is what is happening to the Holocaust, says this film. It is being forgotten, consigned to just another historical detail, another statistic in the long march of human atrocities.
I found all this utterly devastating, of course, and yet the film is admirably even-handed, even as we meet Ukrainian neo-Nazis who to this day celebrate von Wächter as a hero – something about which his son seems content, even proud.
We’re left to reflect on these men, their families, and the tide of time and history, as well as the state of modern Europe, which consists of all of these people and all of their stories, shaped and marked by all of their actions and destinies. It is some legacy.
I’m hosting two screenings and QnAs with Philippe Sands and director David Evans on November 26, first at Picturehouse Central at 630pm and at the Tricycle in Kilburn at 815pm. Also to find out more about My Nazi Legacy and where to see the documentary click here.