Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank with Philippe Sands at the site of a mass grave outside Zolkiew, Ukraine in Our Fathers, The Nazis
"Serves as a timely reminder of how keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, and preventing another one from happening again, will require constant vigilance." | Photo: Sam Hardy

It is common to speak of the long shadow of the Nazi legacy that hangs over modern Germany, but this uncomfortable but compelling documentary from director David Evans moves from the wider historical canvas to focus on the very personal experience of dealing with that shadow. The film sprang from human rights lawyer Philippe Sands’ research into the Nuremberg trials, during which he came across two men who re-focused his studies: Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter.

They were the sons of two key architects of Hitler’s policies in the eastern parts of the Nazi empire. Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were indicted as war criminals for their roles in the Second World War. Before their convictions, they had served as Nazi governors and consultants to Hitler himself serving across occupied Poland and Galicia, the two were collectively responsible for thousands of deaths. Evans’ documentary tracks Sands’ evolving relationship with the two sons of these Nazi figures.

The two men are clearly a valuable storehouse of information about the period, both in terms of their own memories, their family photos and archive films. But the real urgency of the film comes from Sand’s increasingly fraught relationship with von Wächter. It is revealed that, despite both men acknowledging the horrific crimes of the Nazi regime, that the two men hold quite different views on the actual responsibility of the men who raised them. While Frank condemns his father’s actions vigorously at all times and appears weighed down physically by the experience of looking his father’s complicity in the face, von Wächter seemingly can’t make the mental jump to think of his father as a willing murderer.

As we see the conversations between the three men continue over many months, Sands grows visibly more frustrated that von Wächter cannot sync his more recent historical knowledge with his memories of a warm and loving childhood. Von Wächter describes his father as an eternal optimist, not likely to have been taken in by the Nazi "untermensch" superiority theories, a man more interested in trying to help rebuild his country after the destruction of the First World War.

The divergent approaches of the two elder men are brought into stark contrast during an extremely uncomfortable section of the film when we see video footage of Sands bringing them together in a talk at London's Royal Festival Hall. The different attitudes the men have to their memories and the notion of moral responsibility results in a tense confrontation, partly driven by aggressive audience questioning. Frank ultimately accuses von Wächter, not for the first time, of dodging the responsibility of facing up to what his father did. When confronted in this way, a nervous von Wächter seems unable to equate what he sees as a misguided belief on the part of his father that Hitler would eventually realise persecuting the Jews was wrong, with the same kind of guilt as that you could attach to a senior Nazi wanting to actively exterminating them.

The film ultimately takes us with the three men on a journey to Poland, where members of Sands’ family were executed during the war, his father being the only survivor of some 80 relatives he left behind. Here von Wächter is more effectively pinned down between the two men in some tense scenes, Sands even taking them all back to the seat of the Galician parliament, where Niklas reads aloud a document recording his own father's speech made to an assembled Nazi throng, which makes explicit the ambitions of the Nazis to purge the region. Angrily, Frank questions his counterpart why he still cannot leap the final mental hurdle.

Though fascinating, it is also painful, enraging even, to watch von Wächter try to rationalise all the condemning documents he is confronted with as insufficient "generalisations" that do not for him place a smoking gun clearly in his father’s hand. Figuring out why he is fighting this rearguard action could well require the services of a psychiatrist. For his part, Frank does not, at least at first, accuse his colleague of being a Nazi, and even says he personally likes him. But von Wächter seemingly cannot accept, a Frank has, that a huge part of his life is forever tainted, any innocence gone forever. A disturbing example of human psychology, a form of deeply rooted defensive reaction, thus plays out before us. Von Wächter has his own (frankly less convincing) psychological theories about Frank, of course, believing his friend has been ‘annihilated’ by his father and thus has lost all objectivity.

Sands acknowledges that von Wächter fills him with despair; the fact that these events touch his own family obviously giving things a personal edge, and he clearly fears that even if von Wächter is not 'evil', the man’s refusal to acknowledge that his father truly crossed the line serves as a kind of warning of how the nature of the Holocaust might be lost from or obscured in cultural memory. Encountering Ukrainians who still think fondly of the Nazis and who still hold a torch for the old regiments that fought in the Second World War only confirms Frank and Sands’ fears, even if ironically the local’s warm memories of his father is a sort of comfort von Wächter.

Sands’ research, and the film itself, thus serves as a timely reminder of how keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, and preventing another one from happening again, will require constant vigilance. It is also a profoundly sad piece of documentary filmmaking, reinforcing not only the scale of the devastation wrecked by the Nazi war machine, but also that of the legacies left to the descendants.

Reviewed on: 07 Oct 2015
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A lawyer becomes fascinated with two men: both sons of famous Nazi Generals, and both with polar opposite views of their fathers’ hand in the war.
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Director: David Evans

Writer: Philippe Sands

Year: 2015

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: UK

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