Writer: Philippe Sands
Cast: Philippe Sands, Niklas Frank, Horst von Wachter
Running time: 90mins
What’s the story: Jewish international human rights lawyer Philippe Sands tours different countries with the sons of two Nazi war criminals. The men have very different opinions of their fathers’ wartime actions, which affects Sands personally when they travel to the Ukraine and the place where most of his family perished.
What’s the verdict: Director David Evans, a veteran of such heavyweight shows as Whitechapel and Downton Abbey, keeps My Nazi Legacy visually simple, the camera held at a respectful distance from its subjects and rare family photos and archive footage providing a grim look into the recent past.
The complexity comes in the film’s examination of guilt, memory and family ties that one of the men wants to sever and the other is happily bound within.
Niklas Frank was a “prince of Poland” when his father Hans became Governor-General of the country during the Nazi occupation. As the “butcher of Poland” Hans Frank ruled a country that housed Jewish ghettos and four out of the six death camps, and his involvement in Nazi crimes saw him executed at Nuremberg in 1946.
Horst von Wachter’s father Otto worked under Frank governing the Krakow and Galicia districts and was responsible for the “resettlement” (ie, murder) of 150,000 Jews in two months. With the assistance of the Vatican, the SS lieutenant general fled to Argentina and escaped justice.
Niklas Frank has spent his life decrying his father, a man he loathes still, carrying a photo of his dead body in his wallet. Horst von Wachter stubbornly defends his father, refuting a multitude of documents that point toward von Wachter’s involvement in Nazi atrocities.
Sands, whose voiceover grounds the film in compassionate reason, never allows emotion to overwhelm him. His grandfather was the sole survivor of the purges that consumed his family, but the lawyer patiently and calmly mounts his case that von Wachter’s hero worship is misplaced and dangerous.
The willpower required is sometimes visible on Sands’ face. Particularly when the three men visit the incongruously tranquil field in the Ukraine where Sands’ family were massacred, evidence firmly pointing toward von Wachter giving the order.
Horst von Wachter’s continued blinkeredness here is exasperating and becomes genuinely troubling when the old man is welcomed as a hero by locals who regard his father as a war hero who battled the Communist scourge. “He will become a Nazi in the end,” Frank declares bleakly.
Criticisms have been levelled at Sands and Evans’ supposed bullying of von Wachter, an elderly man innocent of his father’s crimes.
But, My Nazi Legacy is a balanced, fascinating and humane portrait of World War 2’s long shadow and the lives it destroyed. Sadly Niklas Frank does not seem to have discovered peace in recounting father’s crimes, the enormity of them clearly a burden he cannot shake.
The film is also a sobering reminder of the importance of keeping history alive, so skewed memory or cynical revisionism does not smother the truth.