Philippe Sands, an eminent London-based human rights lawyer, stands in a grassy field near Lvov, the Polish/Ukrainian home of his grandfather in the documentary, What our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy. By the end of the Holocaust, eighty members of his family had been murdered and disposed of in this place. He stands in this mass burial site with two men, each sons of high-ranking Nazis responsible for the murders in this area. Sands claims to want accountability: one of these sons, Niklas Frank, hated his father, and what he did. The other, Horst von Wachter, still cannot come to terms with his father's direct command of these horrors. Now in his 70's Horst laments the loss of his childhood from the time he was six, and little else. In the film, he is relieved, and pleased, when Ukrainians in nationalist Waffen SS uniforms congratulate Horst for his father's wartime actions. Unsettling viewing, this provocative documentary is a picture of the complexities that still dominate the psyche of those related to the Holocaust.
What Our Fathers Did asks, how would you respond if you knew that your father was responsible for the murder of hundreds, or thousands, or millions? The two men under scrutiny provide flip sides to the same coin. A nuance: Horst keeps referring to his father as a "decent man," a term illuminated in a documentary about another Nazi, Heinrich Himmler. The term "decent" (entshtendlich), found in Himmler's letters and other documents is one used to defend his decisions, no matter how onerous history finds them. This becomes an interesting choice of vocabulary in Horst's mouth, an attempt to soften, or make right, his view of his father's wartime work. He still wants proof, even after it is given.
At a special screening of What Our Fathers Did at the Museum of Jewish Heritage last week, the director David Evans spoke about what interested him in making the film with his friend Philippe Sands. We all know which one is right, he said referring to the two sons of Nazis. That's not an interesting film. What's interesting is the exploration of how an empathetic view of Horst makes one question our ideas of justice, and how our memory of the past is inflected by the relationship we have with those people. That is why it was important that Philippe not be an omniscient narrator. He has his own emotional agenda, as does Niklas in portraying his father's unredeemed evil. But maybe actions speak loudest. Sands said that Horst was giving his vast collection of memorabilia and archival material to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, much to the displeasure of his family who would prefer to keep their Nazi legacy under wraps.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.