With recent in-the-moment documentaries like The Jinx, Citizenfour and HBO’s upcoming Thought Crimes, where events are documented as they’re unfolding, it’s hard to create something based on events long past and still have it work the same way, especially when those events are already out in the public eye. The Act of Killing overcame this hurdle by focusing on its subject’s emotional journey, as opposed to the events he had perpetrated decades earlier, revealing the ugly nature of how far we’re willing to go in the name of justifying our actions. A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers did feels a lot like that film’s spiritual cousin, in that it’s not so much about events long past (The Holocaust, something we’re all quite familiar with) as it is about people’s connection to them.
Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were each indicted for their high-ranking involvement with the Nazi party, with Frank being executed and Wächter fleeing to Rome. Almost 70 years later, British lawyer Phillip Sands decided to investigate the histories of those found guilty of war crimes during WWII, and came across friends Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, the sons of Hans and Otto. What begins is the sort of standard, factual documentary you might’ve dreaded watching in school, ripe with bland, clinical voiceover from Sands (who is neither an actor nor a documentarian), alongside interviews with Niklas and Horst, and walk-throughs of their childhood homes as they recount memories, look at photographs, and talk about their parents in the most vague and removed manner possible. None of the questions feel like they’re leading anywhere, and the whole thing has a sort of numbing effect, with nothing more than fact after fact tossed our way like something aired during the afternoon on Discovery or National Geographic.
After a good half hour of this approach, the film moves into a public debate setting, where Sands interviews Niklas and Horst in front of an audience, as they each recount their relationships with their fathers. Niklas’ resentment stems from knowing full well what his father did, and perhaps his father’s mistreatment of him, and Horst seems to be in denial of what his father was complicit in, claiming that he was merely following orders, and would’ve saved (more?) people if he could. The two men have vastly different views of history, and of their fathers, each informed by a bias of the most personal and deep-seated nature, and it’s here that the film decides to throw a curve-ball. Niklas publicly calls out his friend Horst, challenging him to see his father for who history says he was.
Soon, Sands’ role in the film comes to light as well, and his seemingly emotionless voiceover takes the form of haunting stoicism hiding the pain of generations when his own connections to the events of World War II are revealed – his own family were victims of the Holocaust, several of them killed at the behest of Otto von Wächter himself. Sands brings the two men to his family’s old synagogue, which was burnt down by the Nazis just before von Wächter’s capture, and he even leads them to a mass grave nearby, where the remains of his grandparents, and thousands of other Jews, still remain. Even as they stand atop this place of horrifying significance, Horst refuses to see his father in any other light than the one he’s seen him in for the last seven decades.
Niklas and Sands grow increasingly frustrated with Horsts’ insistence that his father was a good man, despite documents proving his role in the atrocities, but the film also offers a certain amount of sympathy towards Horst, a man whose only line of defense against being connected to the Holocaust is denying his father’s connection. At times, Niklas and Sands insistence that Horst accept his father’s role feels like a belligerent attack that won’t have much impact, even if this old man does accept what appears to be the truth. Then again, how can you blame them for trying? Everyone in the film is personally connected to the events of one of the darkest periods in human history, and they each have their own ways to cope with it. For some, it’s outright rejection. Niklas considers his father an irredeemable, inhumane man. Horst knows this, and uses it against him. Horst on the other hand, holds on to the perfect family photos and the smiles of his youth, using his memories of his father to justify the rejection of his guilt.
As new evidence piles up, Horst continues to deny, and Niklas and Sands continue to push, even as they stand in the very places their fathers were last seen in public. Horst clings to the idea that his father was a good man, because after all, the very same blood runs through his veins, whereas Niklas rejects the idea that his father was a father at all. He also believes that Horst’s complacency and his willingness to compartmentalize his father’s actions, giving them any and all possible justification, is precedent for calling Horst a Nazi. It’s a bold accusation, but Niklas’ explanation is wrapped in sound logic. People will always find ways to justify the horrors of humanity. It’s why we have the phrase “Nuremberg defense” in reference to people claiming they were “doing [their] job” when committing atrocities, and until we begin to accept what we, and those we’re close to, are capable of, we won’t be able to stop the cycles of violence that have consumed us for centuries on end. So perhaps what comes across as two men teaming up to bully another into accepting history’s view as opposed to his own isn’t entirely without reason.
The film’s innocuous and admittedly boring first act is the kind of conventional low flame that bleeds ‘normality’ before turning its attention towards what’s lying just beneath the surface. While I can’t say any of the information at the outset feels particularly necessary, especially since it’s rehashed ad nauseam once the three men find themselves locked in heated debate, it does end up adding to the cyclic rut that the conversations become. Niklas denounces his father, Horst rejects Sands’ new evidence, and each man’s tone grows increasingly volatile as the conversation repeats itself in a more emotionally charged environment.
While the film has no definite conclusion, nor any sort of resounding, revelatory moment, its thesis statement is clear. Human beings are paradoxical creatures, and our will to do good is often trumped by our resistance to cognitive dissonance, the kind necessary for personal and societal growth. Niklas and Horst were extreme cases, friends whose differing views on history because of their connection to it resulted in the dissolution of their long friendship, but what of the rest of us who don’t have friends to tell us we’re wrong, and that we’re justifying things we shouldn’t be? It’s our job to introspect, but where do we even begin? There’s no real answer out there, even after seventy years of separation from the eradication of seven million. But we have to start somewhere.