Tribeca Interviews — ‘A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did’ Asks: Could You Forgive Your Dad If He Was a Nazi?
Horst von Wächter, Niklas Frank and Philippe Sands at the site of a mass grave outside Zhovkva, Ukraine. Photo: Sam Hardy.
Hearing the name “Hitler” inspires a visceral reaction combined with automatic feelings of hatred, disgust and repulsion. But as much as he was the mastermind behind the Holocaust and countless other horrific tragedies of WWII, he did not act alone. Hitler enlisted a senior group of Nazis, including his confidantes Otto von Wächter (civil administrator of captured territories Kraków and Galicia as well as head of the German Military Administration in Fascist Italy) and Hans Frank (legal adviser to Hitler and the eventual Governor-General of occupied Poland), to help him execute his plans.
Carrying out orders, they systematically targeted and murdered those of Jewish descent as well as their sympathizers, contributing to millions of deaths during WWII. It’s easy for us to accept that these were men of non-negotiable flawed character. But for the children of these Nazi leaders, was it as easy to condemn their fathers for these crimes?
In A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, Philippe Sands, a lawyer and professor of international law, befriends two sons of Nazis — the very same Nazis that killed his grandfather’s family. He ascribes no blame to their children, but is interested in the perceptions of their parents and how they have chosen to live with the memories — a family history watermarked with the attempted extermination of a race. Director David Evans says that at face value it may appear like this is a movie about Nazis. In reality, it’s the relationship between “memory, justice and love.”
Despite their parents committing the same crimes, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter have very different opinions of their fathers. Niklas is a journalist and author, vehemently abhorrent of his father’s actions — enough to write a book about it. Published in English in 1991, In the Shadow of the Reich depicts his father as a coward and a murderer. In the film, Niklas spoke about his fractured relationship with his parents. He believes that “everything human in him,” lessons of morality, were taught by his nurse Hilda. Meanwhile, the only pleasant childhood memory of his father was Hans putting a dollop of shaving cream on his nose and smiling. His mother wasn’t much better, she took him on trips to the Jewish ghetto where she bought fur coats and had a personal enough relationship with Hitler to write him a letter asking that a divorce Hans wanted not be allowed until after the war (Hitler agreed).
Contrastingly, in Horst’s family archives there’s a book with an inscription dedicated to Otto, “With my best wishes on your birthday,” signed by Heinrich Himmler (chief of the German police and leading member of the Nazi Party). While Horst agrees that the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy, he has not gotten rid of the Nazi relics that remind him of his father. Instead of being filled with shame and wanting to throw the book out, it has become a treasured possession to him. When the camera follows Horst in that moment, he can be seen showing Philippe scrapbooks with pictures of family vacations spent skiing and swimming, alongside a home video of his father lifting him up on his shoulders for a better view of the lake. He tells Philippe, “I dropped out of normality because of my father.”
These two men have completely opposite impressions of their fathers, despite the fact that both had a heavy hand in what is arguably one of the biggest human rights tragedies of the 20th century. Justice was served in different ways: Hans was convicted by the Nuremberg tribunal for war crimes and was subsequently executed in 1946. Otto hid for years before finding sanctuary in the outskirts of Rome, dying peacefully at a hospital in 1949.
Perhaps what this film does best lies in its ability in eliciting raw emotion from all three protagonists. In the film, Philippe, Niklas and Horst visit a field near Lviv, outside of Zhovkva, Ukraine. This is the field where Philippe’s family was executed and unceremoniously tossed into a mass grave. Horst takes off his hat and picks apart a flower, while Niklas stares straight ahead, stoic. Remarkably, Philippe has been able to keep his composure during most of the film but in this moment, he shifts his back to the camera and one can faintly hear his soft sobs. Niklas turns to Horst and says, “You told me once that I should make peace with my father, and I did because I acknowledged his crime.”
Horst doesn’t deny the horrors of WWII; he simply refuses to attach any responsibility to his father. He insists that his father wasn’t anti-Semitic and was merely a pawn in a Nazi regime that would have killed him if he rebelled. His denial of the evidence is reminiscent of a child putting his hands over his face and saying, “You can’t see me if I can’t see you.” Unfortunately, history cannot be rewritten or reversed, but it can certainly repeat itself. Hence, it is up to such stories to serve as a constant reminder, so that there will never be a time when Nazi atrocities are forgotten or given the opportunity to destroy lives again.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with both protagonist and writer Philippe Sands and filmmaker David Evans on April 19. As we settled into our seats at the Smyth Hotel in New York City, before the film’s premiere that night, we spoke about the friendships, the raw emotions felt, and how the film could be seen as a catharsis for the individuals involved.
GALO: No one ever thinks about what the children of Nazis must feel like in knowing that their parents were murderers. Noting that this must be a sensitive topic for you, Philippe, especially in terms of family history, how did you manage to meet Horst and Niklas?
Philippe Sands: I’m writing a book, which will come out next year, and in my research I got interested in Hans Frank. He was Hitler’s lawyer and became the Governor-General of Nazi occupied Poland. I came across a book by his son and I devoured it because it’s a vicious attack on his father. So I tried to track him down. When I found him, I called him out of the blue and asked if we could meet. He said, “Let’s get together in Hamburg.” We spent three hours together, which was weird to begin with…because it just is — and then we became friends. One day he said, “You must meet my friend Horst.” And the reason he introduced me to Horst is he said that not everyone was like him.
GALO: Did Niklas ever tell you how he met Horst?
PS: It turns out that all the children of senior Nazis are in touch with each other. Horst got in touch with him because they were all curious to know about who their parents had been in touch with. He’s known Horst for quite a long time.
David Evans: He’s actually known Horst since they were children.
GALO: It was interesting to kind of see their friendship deteriorate as the film went on. I think the one part that stuck out to me was when you, Philippe, had asked Niklas, “Would you consider Horst to be a Nazi?” And he said, “Yes.” That moment was very striking. Niklas had said previously, “I like Horst personally, but I don’t like the brains in his head.” It certainly felt like this was a severe transition for them. At some point, though, you do have to associate what someone thinks with who they actually are, I think.
PS: For me, I was surprised that he said that, actually. It began with me saying to Niklas, “Do you think that Horst is an apologist?” And he said, “Yes.” The second question I asked tentatively was, “Do you think he’s a Nazi?” And he said, “Yes.” I wonder, actually, if that goes too far, and I said so in the film. I feel, in a weird way, slightly protective of Horst. It came right at the end of a year of working together.
DE: Well, the film is about an emotional journey that all three of the protagonists make, Philippe as much as the other two guys. But that comment Niklas makes was made on the strength of the weekend filming, which was kind of the most intense part — that cluster of visits to various places in Ukraine happened during a short space of time, and that was a moment of terrible discovery for Niklas about a well-liked acquaintance of his. Niklas — and probably Philippe, too — assumed that when the evidence was stacked up against his father, Horst would even, if only reluctantly, concede that his father was a Nazi who should have been tried and suffered the same fate as Hans Frank.
It might have been Niklas being impulsive calling him a Nazi, but that’s what the film is about — deep-seated emotional states of what you think about your parents. That can completely restore or change your attitude about history. No matter the significance of the historical event, if it had to do with people you loved or who loved you, you just lose perspective.
GALO: Surprisingly, Horst is a hard person to hate. I noticed that when Horst was in the field outside of Zhovkva, he was the first person to take off his hat.
PS: You could see that Horst was struggling with his emotions. And yet, as Niklas and I were focusing on the 3,500 Jews that had been killed in this field and that are still there in an unmarked grave, Horst said, “Well, there are Austrians that were killed here 100 years ago.” So there’s him constantly looking for a way out, and I think that caused Niklas to snap and it very much almost caused me to snap.
GALO: How did you manage your emotions when Horst was continuously denying what his father had done? How did you reel yourself back?
PS: With difficulty. I was conscious that I wanted to be very fair to both men equally and not disclose too much, if possible, my empathies toward one or the other. Because I knew that if that happened, the triangular relationship would be fragmented, so that was very important. I’m a courtroom litigator, so one of the golden rules of litigation is that you don’t show your own personal emotions. Partly because during cross-examination, the moment you show your own emotions, the person you’re cross-examining clams up. You get a lot more out of someone if you withhold your own emotions.
GALO: So do you feel like you were able to keep that personal professionalism throughout most of the time?
PS: Most of the time, yes. When I was in the courtroom holding up a document condemning 100,000 Poles to death with Otto Wächter’s signature, Horst looked at the document and said, “Yes, but it says Poles, not Jews.” That was probably the closest I got to going pretty crazy.
DE: More so, the thing that made it so interesting about these three men to film is, perhaps unexpectedly, the amount of warmth, friendship and mutual trust that there is. So that moment when Philippe confronts Horst more emotionally, it felt to me like a progression of their friendship rather than deterioration, because it felt like it was based on a fundamental respect man-to-man.
The reason Philippe seems so irritated is that he can’t believe this man [Horst], whose intelligence he respects as well as his compassionate attitude toward the world in general — how could he have a blind spot about this one thing? So it strikes me, like all the best moments in the film, as the emotional timbre of it. It’s a positive one, even though the events that are being disputed are horrific. There’s something very dignified about the relationship among all three of them.
PS: The reason for that is this is not a film about the Nazis. This is a film about a son and a father. If my father had committed those crimes, which way would I go? I can’t put my hand over my heart and say I would go Niklas’ way. I really understand that Horst is desperately trying to find the good in his father. And I respect that, I really do. I think he takes it a little far, but that underlying and very human, very basic sentiment is one that I respect.
I don’t think Horst is a bad person, I think he’s a fundamentally decent person, but he’s very damaged by an experience. The moment that chokes me up every time I watch it is when he goes back to being a six-year-old and describes everything being lost — and that was so raw, everything was unexpected. We didn’t do one take, two takes, three takes; everything you’ve seen is just what came out. And at that moment, he revealed that there was some sort of fracture in his life and he’s never recovered. It’s a sentiment that transcends a particular situation. It’s a universalizing thing, a child confronting something that’s falling apart. It touches all of us.
GALO: I think one of the parts that effectively sum up Horst’s position was him saying, “Yes, he was a Nazi. But he was my father.” Philippe, I believe there was a hint of irony when you and Horst were looking through his scrapbooks and you said, “Oh, another skiing vacation,” as he proudly turned the pages. If you’re that young, you almost can’t associate war crimes with the lake, the ski resort. They’re completely dichotomous.
PS: They even went on family trips to the ghetto. I had never seen anything like this before. That’s part of his life and that was a shock to see it, I never thought of him as living with all these relics. You have family albums that go back generation-to-generation and we’ve all got them, but his are signed by Himmler and Hitler. That’s pretty weird.
GALO: David, we know that the reason Philippe was personally invested in the film was because of his grandfather’s family. Why were you were drawn to direct, though?
DE: Only that I’m friends with Philippe, we’re university friends…the idea of going on this kind of odyssey with him. In retrospect, it now has that satisfying quality where it looks as if it was always intended to look that way, but I had no expectations at all of what the film would be like.
PS: We didn’t know where it would end up, it all started with an article I wrote for The Financial Times, [“My father, the good Nazi,” 2013]. And what happened after that came out was a very strong reaction. David and his wife came over for a dinner party and we had a conversation about it. The next morning, my wife says to me, “I think David would like to make a film.” And I said, “Well, he didn’t say that to me.” And she said, “No, Abigail [David’s wife] had told me.” [Laughs]
DG: They’re friends separately [laughs].
GALO: So, really, it’s the wives that got the ball rolling on the film, actually!
PS: You could definitely say that. We had decided that the main idea for the film [would be] to get the two men together in a debate.
DE: We thought that would be it. And furthermore, Philippe thought that at that stage, once they had done that confrontation, neither of them would want to do more filming — and that Horst certainly wouldn’t want to. Niklas kind of tears him [Horst] to pieces in front of a paying audience in London, and we thought that Horst wouldn’t want to continue, so [much so] that we [thought] we’d have to get as many interviews in before the Purcell Room [at Southbank Centre, London] to capture their memories about their fathers on film. But, in fact, it was kind of like the springboard, it was only the beginning — because after that, they just wanted to do more and more.
GALO: Maybe it served as their own form of catharsis to do the debate then?
PS: And I think Horst came out of it thinking that he did very well.
DE: That’s undoubtedly true, which he did. There was that moment when the woman in the audience attacks him, but there were lots of people who, like you, said, “I understand where Horst is coming from, he only knew good things about his parents.” He’s very emotionally accessible.
GALO: He’s a hard guy to hate. I think part of it was that he was so open to you about his past, allowing any question, whereas you can see with Niklas that he just hates both of his parents. He had a fractured relationship, and for good reasons. And the paternity thing was kind of a shock, too. I think when I was watching it, everyone around me was thinking, ‘What do you mean his dad’s best friend could have been his real dad…?’ [Laughs] So that just added another layer of scandal to an obviously terrible issue.
PS: That was a very strong feeling in the Purcell Room. We were surprised, actually. A lot of people were psychoanalyzing it. But then, what was unexpected was that we said, “Let’s go to the city where it all happened.” And Horst said, “That would be great! They’re actually celebrating my father, it would be great if we brought cameras to that.” So it followed a trail that we had not imagined.
DE: Absolutely. We couldn’t have foreseen that. I think a lot of it has to go to Philippe’s credit. It has partly to do with the filmmaking process but both of these men are quite wily, neither of them are naïve about media. Horst having worked for an artist, a lot of his job had to do with managing the artist with the media. Albeit, we’re talking about a long time ago, so it’s not as sophisticated as it is now, but still. He isn’t wet behind the ears; he knew how film crews worked. And Niklas had a very senior job with the media in Germany. So it’s not like either of them were in any way seduced by being on camera, or flattered or anything like that.
Genuinely, the film sort of facilitated a different and perhaps more openly curious inquiring kind of relationship between them and Philippe. Obviously, Philippe’s Jewish heritage is going to be a hot-button issue with the heritage that they have. Partly, though, it just has to do with personality. Philippe’s attitude toward them is always very warm and respectful. And they both needed that for different reasons.
PS: Which I expect may irritate some people that see the film, and particularly some from the Jewish community.
GALO: I think you’re right though, if you had come in guns blazing toward one specific side, you wouldn’t have gotten the opinions from Horst that would have made the film what it is, which is an honest portrayal about what sons think about their fathers despite their crimes against humanity.
PS: That’s definitely right. But it wasn’t a conscious decision, in a sense, to be like that. There was definitely a respect among all the men with each of their opinions; it was genuine.
DE: I’ll tell you what was interesting. By necessity of the job, there were different photographers. Some guy that we enjoyed working with was no longer able to do it, so we had a replacement — and one of them was German. Out of all of us involved in the making of the film, he was the one that when we said “cut,” he went, “Oh my God, I can’t believe Horst.” He was freaking out. He really found it hard. He said that he could hardly bear to hear it. Of course, he was a perfect professional, but off-camera he had more personal problems with what was said than anyone else.
GALO: Did you have to emotionally prepare yourself for any of the scenes, like when you went to the Zhovkva Synagogue and the nearby field? Did you feel like you needed to do something for yourself beforehand to remain composed?
PS: I had been to the places before, because in doing research for the book, I had spent time in this town. I knew both places. I think the synagogue I was fine about. I thought, “It is fine, it’s a building, there are no bodies here.” But I was anxious about the field. If you listen very carefully, because we were wearing these mics, you can hear sounds. I think Natalia, my wife, could tell I was weeping, but she didn’t tell me. [There I was], standing in a field with 3,500 bodies that are literally down there under the water, and they are there because of the actions of the Nazis, not their sons. I don’t ascribe any responsibility to Horst or Niklas, and I’ve been very clear about that. They are as innocent as anyone else. As we arrived, I felt that it was incredible that I came back to this place with these two men. I don’t know whether the viewer would know what sound they were truly hearing. Did you know, David?
DE: Yes, believe me, we struggled to save that sound in the final version that you haven’t seen yet. They got rid of that noise and I said, “no, you have to bring that back because that’s Philippe crying!”
PS: I just…that’s my family that was there. Niklas was very gentle and sensitive. I think Horst was too, in his own way. There was a scene with a flower and he’s ripping it apart — and I understand that he understands, but he can’t bring himself to say anything when Niklas says, “Come on, Horst. Accept what your father did, here of all places.” Then there was the unbearable heat and the flies. The flies, actually, were really terrible.
GALO: Just when you thought you couldn’t handle anymore aggravation.
DE: Exactly! [Laughs]
PS: It was really an extraordinary and intense moment.
GALO: Ultimately, what do you want people to take away from watching What Our Fathers Did?
DE: What I think the film is about most generally is the relationship between memory, justice and love. Those three things go round in my head. I never thought that something so specific and so historically important to Holocaust survivors would have this huge gravitational pull. It never occurred to me that at the end, what people would walk away with is a glimpse of human nature that they hadn’t seen in that way before.
PS: For me, it’s two things: one of them being the relationship between the child and the father, which is a complex thing that doesn’t lend itself easily to characterization. The second thing, which was a surprise, is that history goes round and round. Here I am in 2014 standing in a field with Ukrainians dressed up in Nazi uniforms regarding what happened 70 years ago. And at that very moment, Russia was invading Ukraine. The very same issues have returned. So there’s a sort of parallel process going on — the human experience, the child and the father, and then the bigger picture of how these events all repeat and connect. For me, it’s the interaction of the personal and the historical, which in a way is David’s more poetic way of saying “memory, love and justice.” History is personal and national, but it internationally connects us.
“A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did” had its world premiere on April 19 at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.