Chilling documentary My Nazi Legacy explores how the darkest chapter in human history still casts its shadow 70 years later, writes Francine Wolfisz
Poring over old black-and-white photographs of his late father, Horst von Wächter smiles at the thought of happier times from his childhood: Frolicking in the snow on skiing trips, enjoying al fresco lunches with friends, or his father playfully lifting his little son onto his shoulders.
But these images alone belie the truth behind Horst’s formative years. Every so often, the pages are interspersed with images initialled “AH” for Adolph Hitler, day trips to Dachau and Warsaw and portraits of his father, Otto, looking smart and distinguished in his military uniform.
Indeed Horst is the son of a senior Nazi officer – and proudly so.
The same cannot be said for his lifelong friend, Niklas. His father, Hans Frank, was Hitler’s personal lawyer and von Wächter’s senior.
Niklas has nothing but contempt for the man who was his biological father. Still today filled with vitriol, Niklas was the first child of a high-ranking Nazi to publically condemn the actions of his father in the best-selling 1987 memoir, Der Vater.
Like Horst, he too possesses an archive of family home movies showing “day trips” to the Krakow ghetto with his father. Chillingly, one of the colour films shows an image of a girl in a red dress – not unlike the poignant image Spielberg evoked in his film, Schindler’s List.
But unlike Horst, Niklas keeps a photograph in his wallet taken minutes after his father was hanged at Nuremberg – he carries it around with him, he says, as “a reminder of what can go wrong in the world.”
Horst and Niklas’ differing views are joined by a third: Philippe Sands, an international lawyer whose own Jewish family was destroyed by the actions of Frank and von Wächter.
Together, the three men explore how the past has spread its shadow across all their lives, in the provocative and thought-provoking documentary, My Nazi Legacy, released in cinemas tomorrow (Friday).
The documentary includes never-before-seen footage from the Frank family, some of which has been donated to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.
All three men were brought together after Philippe began researching a book about Lviv, the city where his grandfather was born.
Due to be published next May, East West Street tells the stories of four men – his grandfather, Hans Frank – who famously gave an anti-Semitic speech in Lviv in August 1942 announcing the implementation of the Final Solution – and two international lawyers born in the city, who went on to successfully prosecute Frank at Nuremberg in 1946.
Philippe says making the documentary, which is directed by Downton Abbey director David Evans, helped him realise how children can somehow bear the guilt – or adversely, not face up to – the deeds of their fathers.
“They should not feel guilt,” he says. “I can’t hold them responsible for what their fathers did, but I do worry about how people in that position engage with the past. There’s no doubt they live in the shadows of their fathers’ wrongdoings.”
In the case of Horst, who lives in a dilapidated 16th century castle in Hagenberg, north of Vienna, he remains proud of his father, despite his Nazi past.
“I don’t struggle to understand why Horst wanted to find the good in his father. I actually really understand that,” explains Philippe. “I don’t think human beings are binary, that they are either good or evil. I think it’s possible to do absolutely terrible things, but also good things.”
The veneration Horst retains for his father comes to the fore when the three men travel just outside Lviv to attend a yearly celebration marking the formation of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division. It was set up in 1943 by Otto von Wächter to fight the Bolsheviks when he was the governor of the region.
Surrounded by Ukranians, many of whom are wearing SS uniforms, Horst discovers that his father is considered a hero. Without hesitation, he smiles, shakes the veterans’ hands, poses for photographs and even jumps into the back seat of the Nazi car his father once rode in. As Philippe describes it, Horst “buys into his father’s identity”.
“It’s a tough viewing experience,” admits Philippe. “When the interpreter asks how Horst wants to be introduced, he said, ‘as the son of the governor’. He loved it.”
Towards the documentary’s end, the 55-year-old lawyer tries a final time to remove the rose-tinted lenses through which Horst views his father’s past.
The group first visit the woods outside Zolkiew, where more than 3,000 Jewish men, women and children were marched to the edge of a pit and shot, one by one – including members of Philippe’s family.
Later, Philippe presents Horst with a series of indictments from the Department of Justice in Washington that are “absolutely compelling of his father’s guilt”. But Horst refuses to change his view.
Philippe adds: “I got really irritated, but I eventually reached the conclusion that Horst really doesn’t want to confront the negatives. He takes refuge in the positives and he does that to get through the day.”
Unlike Frank, von Wächter was never arrested: he was “part of the rat run to South America” alongside Mengele and Eichmann and was hidden by the Vatican in the aftermath of the war. However, von Wächter never made it abroad and in fact died in 1949 in “mysterious circumstances”.
For Niklaus however, his father’s guilt is clear-cut. The former Governor-General of Poland was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
These remarkable colour images from the Frank family archives, many of which have been donated to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, show life behind the walls of the Krakow Ghetto. Remarkably, one shows a girl in a red coat, eerily echoing the same image evoked by Spielberg in his 1993 film, Schindler’s ListStanding inside the Nuremberg courtroom where his father was sentenced to death by hanging, Niklaus looks around and proclaims “it’s a happy room for me – and the world”.
I ask Philippe if perhaps the documentary had helped soften Niklaus’ otherwise bitter feelings towards his father.
“At no point in the three years I had known Niklaus had there been anything other than what you see on screen. But when we went to Nuremberg and visited his father’s old prison cell, there was a certain moment of tenderness. We were very touched by that. It did suggest a chink of humanity, that Niklaus had somehow come to a different realisation about his father.”
Horst and Niklaus, now both in their seventies, have gone through life pondering the actions of their fathers – and come out with very differing views. I ask Philippe what he feels the documentary can best tell us about legacy?
“A single crucial lesson is that the legacy of wrongdoing and silence continues over generations. These things do not go away, they do not disappear, they do not end. On my side, my family’s inability to talk about the past generated in me an interest to find out what happened. On the side of Niklaus and Horst, the actions of the past clearly have consequences for today.
“So you can’t just say it was a long time ago and this doesn’t matter anymore. These things in fact cast their net very wide.”
My Nazi Legacy (PG) is released in cinemas on Friday