Sunday, September 11, 2016

September Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: WHAT OUR FATHERS DID: A NAZI LEGACY -- two Nazi sons and a Jew burdened by history

The writer and co-producer of this odd holocaust film, available now on DVD and via Netflix streaming, is a most accomplished fellow -- Philippe Sands, international human rights lawyer, law professor, prolific author, the latest work of which is: East West Street: On the origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.

Published in May 2016 to a torrent of praise (press title, above, for review) it contains the material that led to our film plus the stories of two Nuremberg prosecutors whose work created the basis for the prosecution of war criminals.

The film itself,  WHAT OUR FATHERS DIDA NAZI LEGACY (2015), has won top prizes at several film festivals and a British film award. It is thus with ambivalence that I quarrel with it because Sands's body of work is completely admirable and the film is engrossing and thought-provoking.

Directed by Sands's friend, David Evans (of Downton Abbey, above), it begins as the story of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter, whose two highly placed Nazi fathers, Hans Frank and Otto von Wachter, executed the entire Jewish population under their jurisdiction in Poland and Ukraine. The film morphs into a warm yet toxic relationship among the three men -- Wachter, Sands, Frank (l - r, below).

The viewer goes along as the world and crimes of the two fathers are revealed until the viewer begins to feel unwillingly drawn into the relentless, emotional "right-fight" (I'm entirely right; you're entirely wrong) that escalates pitting Sands and Niklas against Horst. (One columnist wrote that the film should have been titled "Making Horst Crack".)

Sands is painfully connected to his subjects: his paternal grandfather was the sole survivor of a family of 80 Jews from western Ukraine murdered by the two senior Nazis. Hans Frank was Hitler's personal lawyer and appointed governor of occupied Poland; he turned it into a killing field. Frank's mandates were carried out by Otto von Wachter -- an Austrian lawyer who served as civil administrator of Krakow and Galicia (Ukraine). (Below, front row, Frank, l, with Hitler.)

We learn through Sands's interviews with each son (both born in 1939 and now nearing 80) that Hans Frank and his wife were cold, estranged parents. Niklas learned kindness from his nurse; he matured clear-eyed about the crimes of his father having already been primed by the indifference of both parents. He described his father once as 'a slime-hole of a Hitler fanatic' ; his book, Der Vater (1987) was a controversial bestseller in Germany -- said to have been the first time a child of a high-ranking Nazi broke the silence of Nazi descendants.

Horst, on the other hand, grew up in a loving family (above). "I know that the whole system was criminal and that he was part of it, but I don't think he was criminal....." he says. Horst claims his father believed and even told Hitler that his racial policies could not endure. Otto's views appeared to have concerned his superiors enough for Heinrich Himmler to have offered him the option to change posts; dutiful Otto stayed on the job and carried out Hans Frank's extermination directive. Hans was executed following the Nuremberg trials. Otto fled, taking refuge in the Vatican and dying of illness at 49 while under its protection.

At the overgrown killing field where his relatives were executed and their bones remain (above), Sands confronts Horst with his father's 1942 signed paperwork and continues to press Horst to admit his father's guilt. Niklas joins in and all three grow obstinate. Frank and von Wachter both had command authority over the mass murder but Horst remains mealy-mouthed -- his father was not evil. Niklas declares that Horst is a Nazi at heart and renounces their friendship from childhood (below, an almost proud Niklas with photo of his executed father).

The film reveals that Horst chose not to follow the professional path for which he was groomed. Refusing to go to law school, he found employment as an assistant to a Jewish artist, assuaging his soul, at least, that his daily life served as protest against anti-Semitism. Horst retains an empathic view of Judiasm but no matter the evidence, cannot bring himself to condemn his father.

It's too easy to condemn Horst for being in denial of his father's guilt and to applaud Niklas's clarity about his father's crimes -- it means none of the familial ties or the environmental conditioning have been factored in, such as the coldness of the Franks that led a son to hate a father nor the relent-less pressure of conformity by the Nazi culture that carried Otto in its tide.

The mindset that was to govern Germany originated in a Prussian Calvinism practiced by Wilhelm I (1797-1888) King of Prussia, ('the soldier king,' with his wife Augusta, at right), the first German head of state of a united Germany (Prussia was a territory/ kingdom that combined with others to form the German empire). "Soldatic virtues" included duty, discipline, subordination, loyalty. Prussian men were instilled with a range of strictures that were to infiltrate the character of a united Germany. And when Hitler came to power in 1933, education and public opinion were commandeered entirely; the force of Nazism suppressed or replaced the individuality, empathy, and objectivity required for public opposition.

In a recent interview with the aged (105) secretary of Joseph Geobbels, Brunhilde Pomsel, she describes herself as a product of Prussian discipline and sense of duty: "... After the rise of the Nazi party, the whole country was as if under a kind of spell...the idealism of youth might easily have led to you having your neck broken." In effect, for an individual to oppose Nazism went against the human instinct to seek safety and protection in the prevailing wind. Humans bond together for survival.

Philippe Sands, his family having been murdered by the two fathers, is an understandably emotionally-fraught narrator as he presses Horst, the troubled, guilt-ridden older man, to 'crack' -- not Sands's finest moment. Oddly, at least one virtue of this film is in its revelation of myopia that freezes belief like a dragonfly fixed in amber.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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