What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy: In the Name of the Sons, by Craig Schroeder
Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank are both men who have to reckon their lives against unspeakable evil. Born in the twilight of World War II, they escaped Nazi Germany to live full lives. Now in their sixties, nearly every aspect of their lives is informed by formative years spent in Nazi-occupied Europe. Both Wächter and Frank are the sons of high ranking Nazi officials. Wächter—son of Otto von Wächter, Governor of the District of Galicia—and Frank—son of Hans Frank, Hitler’s Governor General of Occupied Poland—have eerily similar upbringings. But while Frank is able to see his father for the monster he was, Wächter is unable to separate the doting father from the man implicit in implementing Hitler’s Final Solution. The documentary What Our Fathers Did, directed by David Evans and written by the film’s on-camera narrator Phillipe Sands, is a thrilling character study, nuanced in the different approaches taken by two men—largely victimized in their own right—in how they process their fathers’ legacies of depravity and malevolence.
Though the two men share equal screen time, Horst von Wächter is the star, unwittingly becoming both the film’s protagonist and its antagonist. Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence, he refuses to believe his father was an evil man, clinging to weak alibis and flimsy rationalizations (frequently citing that his father was never actually named at Nuremberg). Instead, he sees Otto von Wächter as a decent human, a man who found himself amidst evil but never succumbed to it, even claiming that his father was a frequent adversary to Hitler’s Final Solution. In reality, Otto von Wächter was an architect of the Final Solution and numerous other Nazi atrocities (his signature can be found on a number of incriminating documents, including the document that led to the formation of the Krakau Ghetto). Horst von Wächter is one of 2015’s most compelling characters. He is a paradox, a man who invites anger by defending one of the world’s most notorious Nazis, yet can’t help but generate sympathy for still being a boy who wants the one thing he can never have: a father worthy of admiration.
As the time gap between the Holocaust and modern society widens, it often becomes far too easy to relegate the atrocities as something relevant only to history books. What Our Fathers Did doesn’t merely recount the evil in the Holocaust but deftly weaves in the symptoms of the Hitler’s lasting effects, including dedicating a large portion of the film to the current conflict in the Ukraine. But the film’s greatest victory is stumbling upon a number of poignant themes that often dwell just below the surface of Holocaust cinema, including how evil coexists amongst beauty (Niklas Frank visits a museum to see da Vinci’s famed Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the same portrait that hung in his childhood home, stolen by his father) and how simple memories are filtered through brutal hindsight (Frank recalls his father playfully dabbing a bit of shaving cream on his nose while he was in the midst of implementing Hitler’s orders).
Despite generating some of the year’s most absorbing sequences (including the moment when Niklas Frank sits in the exact seat where his father learned his fate at the Nuremberg Trials), What Our Fathers Did suffers mightily at the hands of an overeager narrator. Phillipe Sands is a British international lawyer and a descendent of Polish Jews (the film’s best sequence sees Sands, Wächter and Frank embark on a journey to a notorious mass grave; now just an empty field with a single monument commemorating the deaths of some three thousand Jews, including members of Sands’ family). Sands wears many hats, acting as the film’s writer, narrator and—for lack of a better word—co-star. But Sands often can’t figure out how to balance his roles as filmmaker and subject, able to expertly rebut Wächter’s insistence of his father’s innocence but often fumbling the film’s more powerful theme: a man who is sympathizing with a Nazi as a means of hanging on to some semblance of a father. At one point it seems like Wächter is finally going to admit his father’s complicity in the Holocaust, but Sands’ dogged pursuit of this cathartic moment puts Wächter on his heels and a moment of revelation is lost to impatient filmmaking. Sands often lets his frustration with Wächter bubble over and it results in a film that frequently sprints towards brilliance while stumbling at critical thematic moments, incapable of overcoming its own editorializing.