Chanoch Ze'evi's documentary, Hitler's Children, now playing in limited release and shortly available through other platforms, seems like such an obvious topic for a film that it's surprising no one else has made it before.
Essentially, Ze'evi tracks down survivors of the top command of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. He talks to them about the lives they've led, their awareness of their own family history and what it has meant to their personal existences.
What they've made of the world is unique from person to person and raises questions in the viewer, as well: What if one of my immediate forebears -- my great-uncle, say, or worse, my father -- had been a Nazi war criminal, directly responsible for Holocaust? How does a family deal with a stain and a shame like that? What are the new generations -- tots at best while this was happening -- supposed to feel about it? What can they do?
In the case of Bettina Goering, grandniece of Hermann Goering, Hitler's second-in-command, she left Germany for the United States. She lives in a sort of exile near Santa Fe, somewhere that she's unlikely to have someone say, "Oh, you look exactly like your uncle."
On the other hand, Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, who was executed after Nuremberg for war crimes, spends his time traveling the country speaking out against his father and the Third Reich. His actions have made him a pariah in his own family, which still tries to deny Frank's part in the Nazi regime.
The film works best when it lets these people simply talk to the camera. Katrin Himmler talks about writing a book about her great-uncle Heinrich Himmler and the effect his belief in Nazi racial theories seeped into the rest of her family, including her grandfather.
As a child, Monika Goeth, daughter of Amon Goeth, who ran a concentration camp in occupied Poland and killed tens of thousands of Jews (he was played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List), had no clue about her father until she met a survivor of his camp. She recalls that seeing Steven Spielberg's film opened her eyes anew -- and she conveys the sorrow and shame she still feels.
Most of these people talk about the guilt they felt for their relatives' actions and the way some of their families threw up a wall of denial that continues to this day - even about the concentration camps themselves. Rainer Hoess, grandson of the man who ran Auschwitz, knew nothing about his grandfather until he was 12; in the film, the filmmaker accompanies him as he makes his first-ever visit to the Auschwitz memorial, where he encounters descendants of people who didn't survive his grandfather's murderous command.
It's an uncomfortable scene, as it should be. But what may be even more unsettling is the glazed look on the faces of young German students, as they try to feign interest in Niklas Frank's presentation. Yah, yah -- tell me something that happened in THIS century, their faces seem to say.
Hitler's Children doesn't take you anywhere unexpected but it does raise issues that never get old. Nor should we stop talking about them.
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Correction: A previous version of this post referred to a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland as a "Polish concentration camp" and has since been corrected.