Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank were idolized for being the sons of their famous fathers. People praised them, wanted to take pictures with them and get their autographs.
Their fathers were Nazis.
British human rights international lawyer Philippe Sands wrote the documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, which explores the lives of these two men, each of whom are the children of high-ranking Nazi officials prominent during the Holocaust. However, the now 70-something-year-olds differ radically in their feelings toward their fathers.
Sands narrates the documentary through his interviews with the men and his own firsthand experiences with them while traveling across Europe.
The idea for the documentary, which opens at the Ritz at the Bourse on Nov. 13, arose after Sands learned about Hans Frank, who was tried and executed at Nuremberg, during his research on a book about the origins of international law. Sands met Frank’s son Niklas, who then introduced him to Horst von Wächter, son of Otto von Wächter, who at one point was head of the Civil Administration in Krakow.
Throughout the film, Niklas fully condemns his father for his actions, but Horst remains skeptical and refuses to do so without definitive proof, which creates a tension that escalates as the film progresses.
Sands had his friend David Evans direct the documentary. Evans, best known for his work on Downton Abbey and other British television dramas and comedies, said the film asks viewers to dwell on his or her own conscience and open themselves up to a history lesson. But throughout filming, he did not want Horst or Niklas to be depicted in a demonizing way but, rather, in a sympathetic one.
“I want the audience to think about how they would feel if their parents had been perpetrators of a terrible historical injustice at that scale, if they felt they had reason to hold their own parents to judgement, how capable they would be of doing that,” he said.
Although some moments of the film were frustrating or uncomfortable, Evans embodied the professional persona of an unbiased director.
“If I allowed my feelings to get the better of me when I was actually filming, I wouldn’t be able to do my job properly,” he said. “You put stuff on hold and just shoot. If you’re going to make a film about these folks, you need to make a journey yourself to try and find some way to empathize or else you’re not a good filmmaker.”
Evans added that as a convert to Judaism, he has a more straightforward connection to the film’s story and, as a director, he doesn’t put as much focus on the atrocities discussed in the film as a non-Jewish director might.
“One thing I learned by making this film,” he continued, “is that nobody who lives in a liberal democracy with the kind of rights we take for granted can really stand in judgment of people whose moral balance was so deeply compromised by the events they were living through without a huge amount of self-examination.”
As the film progresses, Sands develops a deeper connection to Horst and Niklas. The three travel to Lviv, Ukraine, where Sands reveals that his grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from that same town that was subjected to their fathers’ reign.
Sands managed to maintain his patience during his conversations with Horst in particular, who still denied his father’s involvement while standing on the mass grave Sands presented to him in Lviv, now uncared for and overgrown with grass.
“The more connected you are with my kind of background — in other words, people who in some way would have been on the receiving end of the horrors — get very impatient with Horst,” Sands said. “I ceased to be a patient, probing lawyer and became a slightly more emotional human being. It’s very difficult in those kinds of places to separate yourself from where you are, from what happened there 70 years ago and from your own family situation.”
Horst is the complex pivot of the film, but Sands said his subject’s attitude toward his father is based on his generation, the community he grew up in and the life he has lived.
“In essence, the whole of Horst’s subsequent life has been an effort to understand what went wrong and how his normality disappeared,” Sands added. “But I understand why he, as a child, tries to find the good in his father.”
The film offers a complex viewpoint of how far and also how little we’ve come since then. But Sands commended Horst for sharing his story, who has since been disowned by some of his family members and has donated old Nazi documents to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“A lot of people leave the cinema a little bit confused. On the one hand, they do not like what [Horst] says. On the other hand, they feel a certain empathy for him as a human being,” Sands said.
Although the film focuses on the events that took place in Poland, Ukraine and Germany during the 1940s, Sands said the film is really a universal story about the relationship between fathers and sons.
“The issues that have happened 70 years ago continue to have consequences today, and the legacy of how you deal with those kinds of situations goes on and on and on,” Sands said.
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