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Can you imagine what it means to grow up as the child of a mass murderer? Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were indicted as war criminals for their roles in WWII. Nazi Governors and consultants to Hitler himself, the two are collectively responsible for thousands of deaths. But what stood out to Philippe Sands were the impressions they left on their sons. While researching the Nuremberg trials, the human rights lawyer came across two men who re-focused his studies: Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter. The men hold polar opposite views on the men who raised them.
What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy movie full length review - Manipulative Documentary about the Legacy of Nazism
MY NAZI LEGACY (using the UK television release title) is a straightforward documentary in which human rights lawyer Philippe Sands confronts two elderly Germans (Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter) with evidence of their fathers' involvement in the "Final Solution" during the Second World War.
Together they travel to the city of Lviv, now in Poland, where thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths, and Sands interviews the two men as to what their feelings are about their fathers' behavior.
Frank is, to coin a phrase, brutally frank, about his father, a high-ranking officer in the Nazi hierarchy who willfully believed in the justice of the "Final Solution." One sequence taking place in an historic city building, which once served as the Nazi meeting- place, is especially gruesome, as Sands reads out the transcript of a speech given by Frank's father where he made a macabre joke about the number of people being sent to their deaths.
Von Wachter's reaction to his father's role in the war is a lot more complex. While acknowledging the Nazi Party's cruelty (which encourages him during his life to collaborate in any way he can with Jewish people), he does not believe for one moment that his father was culpable; rather he was a fundamentally good man forced to carry out his duties within a sadistic organization on pain of death. Despite all the evidence presented in front of him, Von Wachter remains resolute - so much so that the long-standing friendship between himself and Frank is put in grave danger.
Our reaction to this documentary is a complex one: while we understand and empathize with Sands's determination to make Von Wachter acknowledge his father's complicity (most of Sands's family had been wiped out as a result of the killings), we do get the feeling that he is putting undue pressure on an elderly man without acknowledging the complexity of Von Wachter's feelings. Having spent seven decades harboring a particular image of his father, it is obviously difficult for him to change it.
In the end we wonder what the purpose of the documentary actually is: were the filmmakers hoping for a Hollywood-style happy ending in which Von Wachter would break down and undergo a change of heart, thereby proving the justness of Sands's cause? Or did they deliberately manipulate the emotions of an old man so as to emphasize the fact that there were still neo-Nazis around, seven decades after the Second World War had ended? I am not condoning Von Wachter's responses in any way; but I do believe that the more pressure Sands put on him to change them, the less he was willing to do so.
MY NAZI LEGACY is a harrowing piece, but perhaps a little manipulative in its structure.