‘The Commandant’s Shadow’ Tells the True Holocaust Story Behind ‘The Zone of Interest’

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From left: Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Höss and Hans-Jurgen Höss visit Auschwitz. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures via JTA.org

Jackie Hajdenberg

In “The Zone of Interest,” the Oscar-winning drama about life adjacent to Auschwitz, the children of Rudolf Höss, the Nazi concentration camp’s commandant, are only dimly aware of the horrors unfolding on the other side of the fence.

Now, a new documentary exploring what those real-life children knew, and when, is hitting theaters — and unlike “The Zone of Interest,” it includes voices of Jews imprisoned at Auschwitz.


“The Commandant’s Shadow,” directed by Daniela Volker and distributed by Warner Brothers, tells two parallel stories. One is about Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a German-Jewish cellist and Auschwitz survivor who played in the camp band. The other is about Hans-Jurgen Höss, Rudolf Höss’ son, who was 3 when Auschwitz was constructed and 7 when it was liberated, after more than a million people, almost all Jews, were murdered there. It hit theaters May 29 and 30 in the New York area.

Rudolf Höss, who was responsible for the implementation of Auschwitz’s gas chambers, was executed for his war crimes in 1947 at the camp, at the request of surviving prisoners.
The documentary features Hans-Jurgen Höss, son and Rudolf Höss’ grandson, Kai — a pastor at a church in Stuttgart that serves the U.S. military — as he pushes his father to stare down his own father’s role in the Holocaust.

“I can talk about the trauma in my family, how having suppressed the truth, my dad and I never talked about it at home,” Kai Höss said. “But still it has very negative effects. And that’s what happens when terrible things are not talked about and you don’t work through these things, and you just somehow try to pretend it didn’t happen. It was never denied in my home, but we just kept it quiet.”

Throughout the film, Hans-Jurgen Höss, who initially says he can’t imagine his father “doing more than paperwork,” reads his father’s autobiography — written while Rudolf Höss awaited execution — for the first time and learns the full extent of his involvement in the Final Solution. The film shows him feeling shocked by the level of detail with which his father wrote about the mass murder he supervised and the banality with which he pivoted to writing about his home life with his wife and children at the end of the day. But Hans-Jurgen Höss doesn’t fully understand the horrors of Auschwitz — where he says he “had the best part of my life” — until he visits the camp for the first time and sees the gas chambers for himself.

The film also shows Hans-Jurgen Höss reuniting with his older sister Inge-Brigitt after 55 years of estrangement. He suggests that they both may have dealt with their trauma better if they had reunited sooner, but Brigitte, a former model for Balenciaga who lived quietly as Brigitte for decades in the Washington, D.C., area, suggests that she is untroubled at present by their family’s history.

Asked on camera whether she is in denial about her father’s responsibility for the deaths of over a million people, Brigitte says, “No, why? It was the way it was. It was the Third Reich. It was a long time ago.”

She adds, “All that’s history, I think. What can I do? What can I say?”

Since the documentary was filmed, Brigitte has died; Hans-Jurgen Höss, now 87, still lives in Germany. His other son, Rainer, had previously reckoned publicly with their family’s Holocaust past, becoming a prominent anti-Nazi activist and being symbolically “adopted” by an Auschwitz survivor, Eva Mozes Kor, who was subjected to Josef Mengele’s medical abuse on twins. Rainer receded from public view after a 2020 report finding that he had been convicted multiple times of fraud, and does not appear in the documentary. Mozes Kor, who died in 2019, distanced herself from Rainer after she learned about his fraudulence.

“The Commandant’s Shadow” arrives as the Höss family’s prominence in the public narrative about Auschwitz has expanded because of “The Zone of Interest.” According to its director, it’s also aiming to evade the kind of controversy that “Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer generated when he used his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards to denounce the “occupation” and “dehumanization” that he said has led to the loss of life in both Israel and Gaza.

“He made a film about the Holocaust,” Volker said. “Whether it’s a good idea to talk about events happening now is up to him to decide. But I know that created a lot of controversy. And in a way, it’s a shame because it detracts from the movie. People now talk about the Oscars speech.”

“The Commandant’s Shadow” is executive produced by Neil Blair, one of the creative forces behind bringing the Harry Potter book series to film, and David Zaslav, who also served as executive producer on “The Zone of Interest.”

For Blair, Glazer’s speech also looms large. Moments before “The Commandant’s Shadow” was shown at its world premiere in Manhattan, Blair, who is Jewish, referred to a widespread misinterpretation of Glazer’s speech to indicate his pride in the movie he produced.

“In contrast to Jonathan Glazer, no one is revoking their Judaism,” Blair said. (Glazer said he and his colleagues “refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict” but some listeners, including prominent Jewish voices, thought that he had rejected his Jewish identity.)

The Jewish subjects of the documentary say they do not see the story — about finding a way forward while reconciling with the past — as uniquely Jewish.

“This awful subject remains a question for everybody because it is not a Jewish problem,” Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Anita’s daughter, said. “It’s a human problem. And this isn’t a Holocaust film. It’s a film about humanity.”

Maya Lasker-Wallfisch moves from London to Berlin during the film, adding some friction to her already tenuous relationship with her mother. Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, a psychotherapist and author of “Letter to Breslau,” which was published only in German and tells the story of their family, wants to reclaim a piece of her family history.

When Maya Lasker-Wallfisch presents her mother with the chance to meet the son and grandson of Rudolf Höss at Auschwitz, with whom she connected while writing her memoir, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch resists — but only because of the location. “I have nothing against meeting the son of Höss,” she says. “I’m pretty disabled. But if he wants to come to my house …”

Hans-Jurgen Höss, Kai Höss and Maya Lasker-Wallfisch visit Auschwitz together, where Hans-Jurgen Höss finally understands the extent of what his father has done.
“It’s horrendous to see what he did here,” he says about his father, “because we knew him as a different person.”

“We can only hope that this won’t happen again and that we’ve learned from it,” he adds.
Kai Höss points out that it’s clear society hasn’t learned. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be antisemitism right now,” he says.

Hans-Jurgen Höss and Kai Höss travel to England to visit the Lasker-Wallfisches, where they share rugelach and coffee. The former says it is his first time meeting a Holocaust survivor. (Anita Lasker-Wallfisch is now 98 and one of an estimated 245,000 survivors who remain alive.)

“I think what’s important is that the movie also shows a way out. Reconciliation, hope, forgiveness, love, trying again, grace,” Kai Höss said. “When Anita invited us to her home, that was really sweet. I really enjoyed that. It just really blessed me to be able to give this lady a hug, although I wasn’t around when it all happened.”

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