Plumbing Germany’s strange political cross-currents since World War II, “Lost Sons” is a unique look at how movements and history can divide father and son. Swedish documaker Fredrik von Krusenstjerna casts his cool, perceptive lens on former East German radio propagandist Hans Canje and his son, Ingo Hasselbach, who became the leader of the German neo-Nazi movement in 1989. As they have not spoken to each other for nearly a decade, Krusenstjerna’s extraordinary film is the closest we’ll get to a father-son conversation, and to an understanding of the German propensity for political extremism. Pic is assured of considerable Euro TV play and, with its naturally dramatic subject and fine English-lingo narration, deserves wide fest and cable exposure in North America.
The film establishes its cinematic p.o.v. from the start, as it cross-cuts between Canje and Hasselbach shopping and walking around Berlin during Christmas, making it seem as if they might meet each other at any moment.
Canje edits an anti-fascist publication out of the hulking former headquarters of Communist daily organ Neues Deutschland. Hasselbach basks in the glow of media attention that began when he renounced Nazism in 1992 and published three books describing his time as “the Fuhrer of Berlin,” as he was dubbed.
Perhaps groomed by his hundreds of TV chatshow appearances, the tall, ultra-Aryan-looking Hasselbach has decided to try his hand at movie acting, and it’s impossible not to think that he’s using his time in front of Krusenstjerna’s camera as practice.
The film then methodically examines the father’s and son’s backgrounds. Where neither party (especially Canje) is forthcoming, others such as journalist Burkhard Schroder, who spent time with Hasselbach during his years as a terrorizing thug and skinhead leader, fill in the blanks.
Schroder notes Hasselbach symbolizes the fact that “normal people can become Nazis,” and that Canje’s resistance to meeting with his son is due, as much as anything, to not wanting to see his own life reflected back at him.
That’s because Canje reveals he was trained as a Hitler Youth during World War II. A post-war meeting with Kurt Goldstein, a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust’s web, turned Canje into a devout Communist, which led to his imprisonment in West Germany, where the Communist party was outlawed during the height of the Cold War.
Canje ended up being one of the few West Germans who actually defected to East Germany, where he fell in love with Hasselbach’s mother and had his son out of wedlock. The boy was raised by his stepfather and felt an increasing distance from everyone in his splintered family.
Though no one actually articulates the point, it is easy to conclude Hasselbach’s rebellious behavior was actually that of a frustrated son. He even called out during a public gathering to tear down the Berlin Wall, and his subsequent arrest led him — like the father — to prison, where he bonded with Nazi inmates as a teen.
Rejecting his family name was only the start of Hasselbach’s extreme response to his father’s Communism. Hasselbach says his main beef now with Canje is that he has never come to terms with the evils of the East German regime, as Hasselbach himself has with the evil of the neo-Nazis.
As the father predicts, the film doesn’t have a happy ending, but “a German ending,” where — despite the best efforts of Schroder and Krusenstjerna to bring about a reunion — Canje and Hasselbach never meet. What emerges is not only the sheer stubbornness of two men, sure in their convictions and as alike as they are different, but of two German generations feeling more split than ever, even as the east-west division has been eliminated on the map.
Outstanding lensing keeps static, talking-heads approach to a minimum in favor of a more feature-like pace and framing, lending docu the feeling of a political detective story. First-person narration, which could have easily lapsed into the indulgent, proves critical as a device to navigate the stormy seas between father and son.