Sunday, November 18, 2012

Chanoch Ze'evi's HITLER'S CHILDREN: best in a banner year's Holocaust documentaries

Enabling us to view the Holocaust anew, opening our eyes, mind and heart so that we can view one of history's most horrible events from a different angle, is no easy task, particularly in our current times, when we seem to have a new film on the subject -- narrative or documentary -- coming to theaters with each new week.  The beauty of young filmmaker Chanoch Ze'evi's new documentary, HITLER'S CHILDREN, is that it manages exactly this, while keeping us riveted intellectually and emotionally, hanging on every word uttered by the half-dozen participants interviewed by the filmmaker -- one of which, Eldad Beck (below), is an Israeli journalist now living in Germany and a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors, while the other five are the "children" of the title.

As any viewer, young or old, even mildly interested in WWII and the Holocaust will know, Adolf Hitler had no actual, fruit-of-his-loins children. The men and women we see here are the second- and third-generation offspring of some of the top Nazi officials immediately under Der Führer: Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hoess, Amon Goeth and Hans Frank.

We've had plenty of tales from Holocaust survivors (and now from the descen-dants of those survivors) and from the Germans who helped create or at least abetted this horror. Most often these are from what you might call "every-day folk" (were the Holocaust anything like an "everyday" occurrence). The difference with Hitler's Children is that here we have the descendants of those closest to Adolf Hitler and his gang: people whose guilt and shame, if undeserved, still clings to them like a second skin.

How do they deal with this? The filmmaker, pictured above, allows us to learn -- and in this learning, we're able to understand more -- to get our minds around a subject we may have imagined finished and closed. As it opens up again in front of us, we're forced to confront all sorts of subsidiary but important themes: parents, and how to properly "honor" them; DNA's connection to responsibility; the hereditary properties of good and evil; and more -- the centrifugal spin here is immense.

Göring's great-niece Bettina (above, who looks more like him than even his daughter did) retains a sense of humor and irony but had to get away from Germany and now lives in New Mexico. Make of it what you will (and the filmmaker simply allows us to learn this fact), but she and her brother had themselves sterilized so that the fami-ly line/name could not continue. This is guilt played out IMAX-size.

Katrin Himmler, grand-niece of Heinrich and now married to an Israeli Jew, tells us that her great uncle was such a monster that all other members of that family, who were also ardent Nazis, seemed so insignificant that nobody mentioned them or asked any questions. Feeling overwhelmed whenever she left Germany and had to face outsiders, she learned as many foreign languages as possible to obscure her German accent.

Adolf Hitler’s god son, Niklas Frank, was eight years old when his father, Hans was hung at Nuremburg for war crimes. His manner of honoring his father is to, fittingly, dishonor him both in a scathing book he wrote and in his visits to schools around his country, telling the students in no uncertain terms what his father did and what he, Niklas, thinks of that -- and of his dad. All this provides some of the most interesting footage in the film. If this is "penance," then more power to it!

Grandson of Rudolf Hoess -- Rainer -- makes his first trip to Auschwitz in the company of journalist Beck, and what happens there is doubly striking, both for what Hoess experiences and what Beck has to say about it. Finding "closure" -- every talk-show hosts' favorite goal -- is beginning to seem like a fool's errand, never more so than with a subject like this one. Mr. Beck, a third generation product, suggests that the Holocaust has no real ending. After all we've seen and continue to see, I'm inclined to agree. Think of Hitler's Children*, then, as one of the great "middles" of Holocaust film literature.

The documentary, from the ever-more-indispensible Film Movement and running just 80 minutes, opened theatrically in New York City this past Friday, November 16 for at least one week's run at the Quad Cinema and will open in the Miami area at the O Cinema on Thursday, November 29. As with all FM titles, a DVD will appear eventually.


*Hitler's Children is also the name of an interesting 1943 narrative movie, a pulpy piece of anti-Nazi propaganda that stars the very cute Bonita Granville as an American girl studying in Germany who is declared "German" by the government and so cannot return home. As a typically American, WWII look at Hitler Youth and the travails of the Nazi nightmare, it's fun in its slightly silly, lured-for-its-day, manner. Netflix seems not to have it, but you can catch it from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.


daniel gury said...

just wanted to add the site Hitler's Children DVD to this amazing detailed post

James van Maanen said...

Thanks, Daniel. I should have added this link myself, and would have if I'd been paying better attention, so thank you for doing it for me!