Say your dad killed 75,000 people. He’s a mass murderer. Can you live with that? Or would it destroy your life?
David Evans’s documentary, “What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy,” explores this phenomenon with real examples: Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, the sons of two powerful Nazi officials, each father responsible for insanely high Jewish body counts.
In a phone interview with the Epoch Times, British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands (executive-producer and author of the film’s narration, as well as interviewer/moderator of these Nazi descendants) said, “Nature could not have found a more perfect pair than these two.”
Meaning, that as subjects, these men are diametrically opposed in their experiences and outlooks and therefore perfectly create the tension and conflict necessary to keep any line of storytelling interesting.
Philippe and the Photographs
The film opens with Sands (who is Jewish) looking at family photos in the home of Horst von Wächter, son of the notorious Nazi, Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter.
Philippe Sands was looking at what were, to him, chilling photos of a man responsible for wiping out all of Sand’s very own Ukrainian-Jewish forefathers. Sands felt “complicit looking at home movies, as if looking in on the inside of horror.”
Horst (born Vienna, April, 14, 1939), who enjoyed an idyllic childhood, looks at these same pictures of Nazi generals, along with photos of “A.H.” (take a wild guess), as cozy. Cozy! Horst refuses to see his father as anything less than slightly heroic.
He clings like a limpet in his mind to the fact that the elder von Wächter, while indicted, was never convicted (because he died while under the protection of the Vatican). So his take is that, while dear old dad might have been a cog in the Nazi war machine, in the end, he was not culpable of Jewish genocide.
Ja, sure he wasn’t—famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal claims to have seen Otto von Wächter, inside the ghetto of Lemberg, rounding up 4,000 elderly Jews (including Wiesenthal’s own mother), who were immediately transported to death camps.
The polar opposite of Horst, Niklas Frank had a bleak upbringing and despises dad’s dark deeds. Hans Frank, politically responsible for all the ghettos and concentration camps on Polish soil, was widely known by the ghastly moniker, “The Butcher of Poland.”
Niklas carries a photo of his dead father, taken directly after execution, one eye swollen shut from a hard swing into the wooden structure following the gallows-plummet. He keeps it on him at all times, as he says (not without gallows humor) “to make sure he’s really dead.”
But Niklas Frank has bravely done his emotional work around the subject. He looked at it all head-on, embraced the shame, allowed himself to feel disgust for “the criminals” he grew up with, as well as the righteous anger. And was thereby able to find peace in his life.
Just as their fathers knew each other, were colleagues, and sometimes socialized, Niklas and Horst have known each other for years and have often quarreled about their respective father’s responsibility in the war. As Niklas says to Horst onstage, in a public discussion, “I like you. But I don’t like your brains and the thoughts in your brains.”
In the film, Frank is convinced that, given the right situation, von Wächter could easily be turned into a Nazi in his own right. This reviewer is not so sure.
But Horst von Wächter certainly is, on the surface of it, the perfect example of an intensely obstinate, rampantly prevaricating, post-fascist Teutonic man; a German male ostrich with his head buried firmly in the sands—or more appropriately—in the Sandses’ ashes. He is, in a word, annoying. More accurately; infuriating.
Sands and Evans (and Frank) ride Horst hard. One could say ruthlessly. And why not? “Look what your monster dad did! Why can’t you man-up, face the facts, admit this thing, and apologize for the sins of your father?!” are the words Sand’s body-language seems to be screaming throughout the film. And again—why not? Von Wächter’s dad obliterated the entire Sands tribe.
Sands shows von Wächter a mass grave containing 3,500 Jews, whose bones lie there still, under the deep grass and the sighing trees, in Lviv.
He shows him a destroyed synagogue, with Hebraic characters faded on the stone walls, where Frank says how angry he is, imagining the furtive, frantic discussions held there, of Jews trying to think of ways to escape the freight train of death bearing down on them. Horst’s not having any of it.
A final ambush: Sands presents Horst with paperwork directly linking Otto von Wächter to the mass killings. Horst blithely waves it off, dismisses, excuses, feints, bobs, weaves, retreats, spins it, blithely tosses it off as an opportunity for Sands to be proud of what his forefathers built (the synagogue) and to try, in general, to think more positively. Positively maddening.
Look More Closely …
One quickly wants to jump on the bandwagon, gang up on von Wächter, and vengefully see the proverbial Shakespearian pound of flesh wrested from him in the form of an admission of guilt. But if one looks more closely—it’s already there. Along with an opportunity to grow one’s compassion.
Young Horst refused his mother’s plea for him to become a lawyer, fled into the wilderness, refused the easy path to a professorship, sought his own way. He, a shy person, wanted desperately to be of service to someone, first to “Hundertwasser,” a Jewish artist, and then later in his own embrace of Judaism. In Horst’s words, “I will be a Jew, and do service in the temple.”
And so we ultimately see a man whose knowing side suffers the crimes of his father deeply. Von Wächter sought to do penance. It’s just that he refuses, with every fiber of his being, to be publicly shamed.
Why? It very much appears that Horst is hanging onto his sanity by his fingernails, as well as to whatever shred of dignity he can conjure up in his mind. It looks like what would otherwise be up for Horst is a nervous breakdown, suicide, or both.
He at one point explains that he studies the Hermetic spiritual tradition, which clearly taught him that a beneficent God exists.
It’s furthermore instantly recognizable that, by way of his father’s ghoulish legacy, poor, kindly, haunted, spiritually beleaguered, 76 year-old Horst von Wächter, son of the demonic Otto Gustav von Wächter—has sought a path of spiritual enlightenment.
Epoch Times: Were there any major surprises for you during the making of this film?
Philippe Sands: That’s a great question. I suppose a major surprise was that we were all still talking to each other at the end.
Another surprise is that I never would have dreamed I would end up in a field in Poland with people jollying about, playing at being Nazis (a Nazi war re-enactment).
Epoch Times: I’m of the opinion, after having lived in Germany for five years, there are pockets outside of some major German cities where more than a little nostalgia for Nazism still exists.
Mr. Sands: This is very true.
Sands will continue to make films to remind humans not to forget the evil we’re capable of.
‘What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy’
Director: David Evans
Cast: Philippe Sands, Horst von Wächter, and Niklas Frank
Running Time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Release Date: Nov. 6
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5