How we regard the sins of the fathers is shown to be an inescapably personal matter in “What Our Fathers Did,” director David Evans and writer Philippe Sands’ study of denial, wartime responsibility and the challenge of dealing with a monster in the family. The monsters in question are two long-dead, once high-ranking Nazi Party officials whose sons have chosen to respond to their horrific legacy in dramatically different ways; one of them, unable to accept the depth of his father’s complicity, gives the film its painfully insistent central thrust. Simply structured and narrowly focused, yet replete with unsettling and resonant questions about the difficulty of seeing our loved ones for who they truly are, this troubling, absorbing documentary (now in Stateside theatrical release) offers a sufficiently provocative angle to stand out in the crowded field of Holocaust memorials on screen.
“Imagine what it must be like to grow up the child of a mass murderer,” the film begins, before introducing two men — both born in the fateful year of 1939 — who allow us to do more than just imagine. The first is Niklas Frank, who has spent much of his life denouncing the actions of his father, Hans Frank, a German lawyer who served as Hitler’s personal attorney before becoming governor-general of Nazi-occupied Polish territories during WWII. Convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg and executed, though not before converting to Catholicism and expressing remorse, Hans is remembered here as a figure of unambiguous evil, not least by Niklas himself.
The second subject, Horst von Wachter, is not so willing to condemn his Austrian-born father, Otto von Wachter, an Austrian lawyer who served as governor of Krakow, Poland, and Galicia, Ukraine, at different points during WWII. Unlike Hans, to whom he was subordinate, Otto was never brought to justice before his death in 1949, a fact in which Horst takes refuge. As becomes clear over the course of the documentary, the men’s opinions have been inevitably shaped by their family histories: Whereas Niklas had no relationship to speak of with his cold, unaffectionate dad, Horst recalls a warm, loving upbringing, which he has difficulty reconciling with the reality of his father’s hand in implementing the cruel machinery of the Final Solution.
Making matters even more personal is the figure of Sands, an international lawyer specializing in cases involving genocide and other human-rights abuses, whose article profiling Niklas and Horst served as the basis for Evans’ film. As Sands notes upfront, his family includes many Ukrainian Jews who were rounded up and destroyed as a direct result of Hans Frank and Otto von Wachter’s actions. The tension — and the fascination — of “What Our Fathers Did” lies in the sight of these three men discussing their intertwined histories, always civilly, but not always without discomfort or anger. Sands visits both men’s childhood homes and pores with them over old family photographs (some of which feature Hitler himself), applying calm yet never detached insight as he leads them on a sobering trek down memory lane. In their moments together and apart, Niklas and Horst regard one another as friends who have come to accept the distance between them, though that chasm may be growing too large for them to sustain their friendship for much longer.
Accented by haunting archival footage of the Krakow ghetto — with a pointed focus on the children smiling in the streets, seemingly unaware of the horrors to come — the film builds to three crucial sequences of gradually mounting intensity. The first is a public conversation in London, where attendees take vocal issue with Horst’s refusal to acknowledge Otto’s wrongdoing. In the second, the three men visit the burnt-out ruin of a Jewish synagogue in Zhovkva, Ukraine, followed by the third, in which they walk to the site where 3,500 Jews were murdered, including much of Sands’ family. The key impulse behind these moments — to force Horst von Wachter to face the enormity of his father’s crimes – can seem single-minded, even bludgeoning. Sands, a seasoned and eloquent interlocutor, is not above employing his rhetorical talents in a passionately confrontational manner; given his connection to the matter at hand, you can hardly blame him.
Yet something extraordinary transpires in these moments before the camera, which weaves in and around the three men in long, unbroken takes, observing their exchanges and reactions with an almost unbearable intimacy. Niklas becomes the film’s voice of conscience as he joins Sands in his mournful condemnation of the acts that transpired in these now-haunted spaces. Yet it’s the quietly conflicted figure of Horst that lingers: His evasions can be infuriatingly mealy-mouthed, as he calls for an impossible burden of proof (yielding some insights from Sands about “command responsibility”) and remembers Otto as a fundamentally kind, decent man. His refusal to surrender his image of his father invites our disgust, perhaps, but also our recognition of an all-too-human conundrum — and turns “What Our Fathers Did” into an implicit rumination on what we might have done in his place.