What stories can be left to tell about World War II? With the 2015 documentary What Our Fathers Did, writer Philippe Sands and director David Evans have found a new angle on history that viewers might assume they already know — only the history here refuses to stay settled, as the filmmakers are well aware. A dual character study of the sons of two high-ranking Nazi officials, the movie is a fascinating but disquieting coda to historical events of 70-odd years ago.
The two protagonists here are Niklas Frank, a Bavarian who is the son of Hans Frank, Hitler’s onetime lawyer who became the Governor General of occupied Poland; and Horst von Wächter, an Austrian who is the son of Otto von Wächter, the Nazi general who ordered the construction of the Krakow ghetto. Frank and von Wächter were both 74 when the movie was filmed, and their respective childhoods were inextricably bound up with their fathers’ service to the Nazi cause. But they’re a study in contrasts, to say the least.
Niklas Frank, the German, describes his father Hans in stingingly contemptuous terms. Niklas says he never cried for his father; on the contrary, he calls him a coward who deserved to die. His reminiscences about his childhood are entirely caustic, without a shred of sentimentality or illusion. While he comes off as level headed and at peace with himself in the present day, the paintings he made as a teenager in the 1950s — grim, gory depictions of inmates suffering in the camps — suggest an anguished youth.
And then there’s Horst von Wächter, like Frank a dignified septuagenarian. But by his own admission, von Wächter is proud of his Nazi childhood: “I was raised as a young Nazi boy, and everything was right.” (He was named after the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel.) The film even includes antique home-movie footage from when von Wächter was 5 or 6, shots of carefree blond children playing by a tranquil Alpine lake — the imagery is so idyllic that the footage might as well be staged National Socialist propaganda. Von Wächter says his “normality” was destroyed in 1945: Allied planes bombed the region of that lake, and even at the age of 6, he felt that “everything is finished, there’s no future for you.”
His father Otto was an SS Oberführer who played a role in the murder of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. After the war, Otto was indicted but never tried, because he took refuge in the Vatican, where he died in 1949. This last detail of Otto von Wächter’s biography cries out to be explored more in What Our Fathers Did; all we hear is that Otto had “connections” in the Vatican.
The young Horst apparently grew up to be an aimless young man. His father’s cronies offered to help him land a prestigious job, but circa the late 1960s Horst ended up as an assistant to the painter Hundertswasser. A brief home-movie clip of the shaggy Hundertswasser strolling around naked on his houseboat suggests the young Horst was immersed in full-blown hippie bohemia, thus it’s a puzzle as to how he got to where he is in 2014, a walking study in cognitive dissonance. Not only does he refuse to speak ill, or believe anything negative about his father, he all but worships Otto’s memory.
The most uncomfortable moments of What Our Fathers Did are the discussions between Horst von Wächter and Philippe Sands, the movie’s writer and on-camera moderator. Sands is an English human rights lawyer whose Jewish ancestors were killed by the Nazis in what is now the Ukrainian city of Lviv (a.k.a. Lvov, a.k.a. Lemberg) in 1941. When Sands travels with von Wächter and Frank to Lviv in 2014, he is insistent on the historical record. As a prosecutor would, he uses a trail of evidence to establish Otto von Wächter’s legal and moral culpability in the deaths of tens of thousands of Poles and Jews.
But Horst won’t hear of it. No matter what documents are presented or cited to him, he responds with platitudes about his father being a good man in a bad system — or he takes off into flights of pseudo-poetry, gazing off into the distance as he spouts solemn nonsense about the nature of mankind.
It’s clear von Wächter will never disown his father. Was it cruel, wittingly or not, of Sands and director Evans to bring this elderly man in front of the camera? Earlier in the movie Sands hosts a panel discussion in London between Frank and von Wächter, and as the latter staunchly defends his father before the audience, there’s just the hint of a freak show about it: this old man engaging in his denialism in front of a cosmopolitan 21st-century audience, whose members shake their heads in disbelief at what he has to say. (Throughout the film, von Wächter defends his father without denying the Holocaust itself. Consciously or not, he is careful to walk a legal fine line.) Another way to put it might be, is Horst more a pitiable figure or a contemptible one?
The question might seem a philosophical concern, were it not for the movie’s detour to a cemetery near Brody, Ukraine. Sands, Frank and von Wächter attend an annual commemoration where newly discovered remains of German-Ukrainian soldiers are interred, with much ceremony.
Here the sense of a freak show — or maybe just the world turned upside down — becomes far more pronounced, though any chuckles the scene inspires may die in the viewer’s throat. The burial ceremony is held in honor of Otto von Wächter’s Waffen-SS Galicia division, and guess who the guest of honor is this year? Horst is introduced as “the son of the governor,” and elderly veterans, their chests bedecked with medals, totter over to shake hands with him.
Also swarming the scene are younger men playing dress-up in fatigues and German helmets, some of them sporting swastikas and machine guns. They too marvel at the sight of Horst — a living link to the glorious past, right in their midst. Horst’s eyes swell with pride; all these years later, his father is vindicated as the noble person his son believes him to be. Sands points out in the narration that a few of these Ukrainian neo-Nazis took part in the Euromaidan protests of early 2014 that drove out the pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych; their participation allowed the Kremlin to paint all of the demonstrators as fascists.
It’s tempting to view Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter as embodying how their respective countries have, or haven’t, come to terms with their Nazi legacies. Though the movie doesn’t mention it, Niklas Frank pushed Germany’s process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”) along in the 1980s by writing an unsparing account of his father’s life, first as a serial in the newsweekly Stern, and then as a book, In the Shadow of the Reich. It’s instructive to watch the two men, to see how Frank has overcome a painful youth, whereas the film gives every impression that von Wächter lives in a haze of evasions and warped notions of bygone glory.
Von Wächter has plenty of company in his obstinate refusal to acknowledge the historical record of Nazism, of course. If I had watched What Our Fathers Did 10 or even five years ago, it almost certainly wouldn’t have felt as weirdly topical as it does in 2017. The past few years have seen far-right groups in Europe and the U.S. edge their way from the political fringes toward the center; as with Horst von Wächter, for these groups there’s no evidence about Nazism that can’t be rationalized away. Facts don’t matter.
What Our Fathers Did left me wondering, did Frank and von Wächter have children themselves? What kind of careers did they have? A few family snapshots in the end credits suggest Frank and von Wächter haven’t led isolated lives. As rich as the movie is, this story might require a nonfiction tome to do its subject justice.