David Evans’ My Nazi Legacy (2015) opens with a potent challenge – to imagine what it would be like to grow up as the child of a mass murderer. This hard proposal is just the beginning of what is a harrowing, complex documentary that expertly explores the legacy of the Holocaust through the intertwining history of three men. Philippe Sands is a human rights lawyer, who when researching into the Nuremberg Trials discovered that a son of a Nazi governor was still alive.
This man is Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, also known as ‘The Butcher of Poland’ and who worked as Hitler’s personal lawyer and Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland. Frank, who openly spoke with Sands, introduced him to Horst von Wächter, whose father Otto, another high-ranking Nazi official and subordinate of Hans Frank, was the governor of Krakow and subsequently in Galicia. These two men were responsible for the systematic murder of millions of Jews and Polish citizens during the war. Niklas recognises the horror of his father’s actions; Horst, however, struggles to accept the truth. It is with this triptych of characters that the thrust of the film lies, contrasting the two views of the sons, with Sands’ navigating the space in between.
There is a personal element to this story, as Sands is of Ukrainian-Jewish descent and lost over eighty members of his family when they were murdered under the governorships of both von Wächter and Frank. Throughout the documentary Sands is composed, but not without emotion, revealing to both men the reality of who their fathers were and what they did. Both are now well into their seventies, are forthcoming, and the conversations they share with Sands are civil. However, there is an uneasy tension with von Wächter, who in the face of insurmountable evidence, refuses to accept the historical facts of what his father did, and, more worryingly, at times appears to show pride in his father, who he views as an honest and decent man, who was just doing his job.
Among the key strengths of the film is that it is devoid of agenda; Sands and Evans have no interesting holding these men responsible for the sins of their fathers. However, they do wish to make the men recognise the truth of what happened. Frank has little problem with accepting who his father was – he shows no sadness and is, in fact, glad that he was executed for his crimes. von Wächter escaped capture and found refuge in Italy before dying in 1949; his son, conversely, is glad that he was never brought to trial. It is the revealing of family lives, rather than the facts of the crimes, that gives the documentary force. Horst recalls his father as a loving and kind man, who provided a blessed upbringing, a fact that no doubt influences how he feels about his father today. Niklas meanwhile, who for years has actively spoken out against his father’s action, only recalls a cold childhood absent of love.
Initially, the an investigation into the history and personal life of these two prominent Nazis through their sons for an article for the Financial Times, the focus moves towards a war of minds as Sands attempts to understand why Horst is incapable of accepting the atrocities committed by his father. In one particularly potent moment, Sand’s takes von Wächter and Frank to a burnt-out synagogue. Evans makes key use of silence, letting the imagery of husk of the once rich place of community and worship speak for itself. Sands then takes them to a field, now a place of natural beauty, but actually the site where Nazis executed Jews and buried them in mass graves, including members of Sands family. This moment is painful to watch on many levels, firstly for never-ending horror of the barbaric crimes committed under the Nazi occupation, but also for how von Wächter refuses to accept that there is any concrete evidence that his father was directly responsible. My Nazi Legacy is a harrowing watch, and a remarkable study in the horrors and legacy of the Holocaust, with it becoming harder and harder to watch von Wächter deny the truth.