The sins of the fathers have seldom weighed so heavy as in the odd, intriguing and ultimately moving “Hitler’s Children,” which asks what it’s like to have grown up a child of the Nazi elite, the architects of the Holocaust.Israeli helmer Chanoch Ze’evi tackles a nettlesome, volatile topic, interviewing subjects who can’t help but elicit sympathy as unwitting heirs to unspeakable crimes and unutterable guilt. A combination of the morbidly fascinating and the philosophically bewildering could make this docu an arthouse attraction.
Hitler never had children, but his underlings did. Among Ze’evi’s subjects are Bettina Goering, grand-niece of one of the highest-ranking Nazis, who led the Luftwaffe and committed suicide at Nuremberg; Katrin Himmler, whose great-uncle Heinrich was second in command to Hitler and masterminded the Final Solution; Rainier Hoess, whose grandfather Rudolph (not to be confused with Rudolph Hess) was commandant of Auschwitz; Monika Goeth, whose father Amon was the sadistic commander of Plaszow (and was played in “Schindler’s List” by Ralph Fiennes); and Niklas Frank, whose father was the governor-general of Poland, and engineered the use of that country as the home of most of the death camps.
The central issue of “Hitler’s Children,” though seldom articulated as such, is about how much blame can be visited upon people who might not have been born at the time of the Holocaust, but who nevertheless live with a guilt based in family connection and, often, name. Eldad Beck, an Israeli journalist and third-generation Holocaust survivor, is a baleful presence in the film, following Hoess on his trip to Auschwitz, where the Nazi’s grandson winds up answering questions for a group of visiting Israeli schoolkids. Beck doesn’t contribute much to the movie, except to note that the meeting between the students and Hoess was too quick, and had a “lack of depth.” That he thinks it might possibly have been otherwise illuminates the heartbreaking insolubility of the whole enterprise.
The Auschwitz sequence is disturbing enough. Outright chilling is a scene in which Goeth recalls the moment she discovered the truth about her father: A man she met years after the war, in a social setting, was a camp survivor. You must have known my father, she said innocently. The outcome of the conversation is close to horrifying.
Frank is one of the docu’s more melancholy characters, having devoted his life and writing to excoriating his parents, and lecturing to teenagers about the crimes of his family. Like the others, he never articulates the misery he so obviously feels, channeling his anger and secondhand regret toward the Nazi regime and away from his own story. Helmer Ze’evi does a masterful job of getting out of his subjects’ way, and allowing them to provide answers to questions that may be on his viewers’ minds.
Tech credits are fine, although Ophir Leibovitch’s music, notably in the scene featuring Goeth, is deployed with a heavy hand. Otherwise, though, it provides just the right eerie accent to a story teeming with ghosts and vapors.