Evans and Sands' Riveting What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy Now in Theaters
(from Sag Harbor Express Online on November 5, 2015)
By Danny Peary
What Our Fathers Did :A Nazi Legacy fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. I wrote the same thing after it played at the Tribeca Film Festival in April before its main title and subtitle were flipped to how it is now. When I first posted I wrote:
“I predict this stirring documentary by English director David Evans (Fever Pitch, TV’s Downton Abbey and Shameless) will be playing all over world for years to come.” This Friday it is getting its theatrical release, in New York at the Lincoln Plaza at 1886 Broadway and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow. Try not to miss it because, as I wrote then: “It takes its place in the pantheon of documentaries about how the Holocaust is viewed by people today, including by those whose parents and grandparents experienced it firsthand.”
Geoffrey Gilmore, the Director of the Tribeca Film Festival, wrote [the bracketed additions are mine], “Can you imagine what it means to grow up as a child of a mass murderer? Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were indicted as war criminals for their roles in WWII. Nazi Governors [in Ukraine] and consultants to Hitler himself, the two were collectively responsible for thousands of deaths. But what stood out to Philippe Sands [who narrates the film and is one of the film’s three central figures] were the impressions they left on their sons. While researching the Nuremberg trials, the human rights lawyer came across the two men who re-focused his studies: Nikolas Frank [who reviles Hans for being an uncaring father and because of his war crimes] and Horst von Wächter [who shrugs off evidence and insists his father tried only to help Jews]. The men hold polar opposite view on the men who raised them.”
This is how Evans summarized his film for Indiewire: “Three men journey through Europe to the killing fields of war-time Poland; one of them is Jewish [the British Sands, whose grandfather’s family was exterminated in Ukraine], the other two are sons of senior Nazis. It’s about the massive swells of historical destiny and the tiny moments that stay in a person’s memory forever: about the roots of Ukrainian nationalism in the bloody turmoil of the Second World War, and about the time when an unloving father dabbed a bit of shaving foam on his little son’s nose; about a happy childhood shattered because Hitler was defeated, and about the origins of international criminal law as we now know it; about a Jewish man who escapes the Nazis, and his grandson, who wanted this story to be told.”
Evans and Sands are now promoting this important documentary. I am fortunate to have had this conversation with them during the Tribeca Film Festival.
Danny Peary: I was really moved by your film. I saw it as soon as I could, at a pre-festival screening.
Philippe Sands: I’m curious why you sought it out.
DP: There were a couple of reasons. Foremost, the denial theme fascinates me. There was a great Israeli film here four years ago called The Flat by Aaron Goldfinger.
PS: I did see it. It is a great film.
DP: If you remember, the daughter of a former Nazi was helping Goldfinger piece together the strange story of his own Jewish grandparents, who kept up a friendship with the Nazi and his wife long after the war. She claims her father was just a bureaucrat, but when he confronts her with evidence that her father was a high-level Nazi who worked closely with Adolf Eichmann, she has this sick look beneath her shaky smile. I wondered what she was feeling all through her body.
PS: I remember that well.
DP: Also intriguing about your movie is the idea of Nazis carrying on their everyday lives while atrocities go on right down the road. Some of the images in the film of these smiling Nazis really struck me hard. David, tell me why you wanted to include that.
David Evans: Because the film is about domesticity, it’s about families. Almost to an extreme the initial appeal of the film to the audience, if you like, is that it’s about a family and a familial relationship, where some members of the family happen to be senior Nazis. That was always going to be the unique spectacle of the film, right from the very beginning when Philippe said he met this guy who told him amazing stories of his childhood. Immediately you start to hear the things that Nikolas Frank says about his kindly nurse who cared for him when he was young boy and in his little story he says, “Whenever my mother came back she said, ‘I just want it to be me and the children,’ but after five minutes, she was telling the nurse, ‘No, no, no, it’s making me too nervous. you need to take them away.” Without needing to try very hard, you are immediately starting to make connections with Nikolas’s family. That’s because his stories make you think about your own parents; or you have some personal, familial connection to what his domestic life was like. So there’s this momentary forgetfulness that the person he’s talking about is the wife of a mass murderer. That’s the way into the film.
DP: Philippe, in terms of writing the script, how did you go about it? Was it written to be chronological or were you prepared to move text from one place to another as events unfolded? And how much could you predict in advance?
PS: I think the “written by” part of it is generous. I’d been researching a book to come out next year, about two different men [the international lawyers who prosecuted Nikolas Frank’s father Hans Frank, at Nuremberg, leading to his execution]. And out of that spun an article for the Financial Times. That was about my meeting with Horst von Wächter. And David read the article and thought it would made an interesting film. And what we used was the raw material from my article to construct a narrative that then wrote itself. The film originally was going to end with the scene in the Purcell Room in London, when Horst, Nikolas, and I were on the stage for a public discussion. Firstly, they had originally bailed out of such a thing, so I thought it wouldn’t happen.
DP: They both bailed?
PS: Horst bailed. And then Horst said, “No, I’ll do it.” So my “writing” is: me saying, “Come on, let’s the three of us go to London.”
DE: To be honest, it’s not the most important thing about the film but we took a lot of care over how to credit Philippe. And I think he’s being too modest because we never would have had a platform to make this film had there not been this vast reservoir of data that Philippe had already accessed—maybe doing research for his book. But when we started filming the one-on-one interviews with Nikolas and Horst, which form the backbone of the first twenty to thirty minutes of the film, we were basing them on the huge amount of information that Philippe already knew about both of their fathers’ lives.
PS: I knew exactly what I wanted.
DE: So he went to interview them with an agenda of questions, which was the basis for the rest of the film. So yes, Philippe is right that there was a jumping-off point from all that–but that was a script, really. At one stage we thought—given the huge amount of stuff you shoot for documentaries—that we could have made a very interesting film by merely expanding that first section into something more comprehensive than we allowed it to be. That could have been the entire film, but it would have been a different film. But Philippe was a writer in that respect, vis-à-vis the whole issue about him now saying, it’s not quite right to call him the writer.
PS (laughing): I thought it was “generous,” not “not quite right.”
DE: I’m not quite sure how we could better describe it, but I knew I didn’t want Philippe to be credited in any way as the presenter of the film. Philippe began by expecting not to be in the movie at all. Originally, he thought he would be the unseen person asking the questions.
DP: That’s what your role is.
DE: Yes, I ended up being that guy, but originally it was going to be Philippe. When he moved in front of the camera I was very resistant to–and I still am–people assuming that whatever he says is in total concert with what the film is saying, like it is when Simon Schema is in front of the camera on the BBC and whatever he says is meant to express the truth of the story. But I think it’s much stronger that Philippe is allowed to be a kind of free agent in front of the camera and have has his own emotional reasons for saying certain things and pursuing certain lines. When you get beyond the opening section of the film, I hope it’s evident to the audience that just because Philippe says something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the 100% truth of the film.
DP: An extremely emotional moment is when Philippe is at the Ukraine grave site and is in obvious distress. Did you ever feel the urge to walk in front of the camera and see if he was okay?
PS: No, absolutely not.
DP: Were you then thinking of yourself as being objective rather than subjective?
DE: Nearly all of the time I’m a dramatist rather than a documentary-maker. My actual bread and butter filmmaking experience is entirely television drama, and has been for years. So I felt subjective, I certainly didn’t feel objective, but my subjective gaze had to do with truth to character rather than anything else. So I never would have dreamt of intruding in a moment that was clearly intensely dramatic. Why would I do that?
DP: I know you wouldn’t do it, but I wondered if you had the urge.
DE: No! Well, I had the urge to make this moment last as long as possible, without interrupting. But you should ask Philippe about that moment.
DP: Philippe, you were in the meadow outside Lvov in Ukraine, where there is a marker to commemorate the 3,500 Jews, including your grandfather’s family, who were shot dead by the Nazis under orders given by both men’s fathers. You are standing with your back to the camera and to Nikolas and Horst, who is refusing to admit his father was in any way responsible. You were in your own space and I am sure you were angry at Horst. What was going on in my mind?
PS: That was the third time I had been to that site. The first two times I did been with a local Ukrainian friend. The three of us had just had the rather intense session in the destroyed synagogue, a scene in the film. And I was pissed at Horst, really pissed. And it was baking hot, 90 degrees, and we were being bitten to death by mosquitoes. So I’m very uncomfortable, and at that point I’m thinking, I’m with the sons of the two men who were most responsible for the massacre. I wasn’t thinking any more, I zoned out, and just moved closer to the victims in my family.
DP: You’re literally on top.
PS: It’s a huge sandpit that is filled with water, not earth. You could dive in there and pick up bones. And so it was my desire to be close to the victims. We were all miked up and if you listen very attentively, you hear a sound, and it’s not clear what it is. Actually I’m crying. And the two of them have gone to look at what is an unmarked grave. A private person put that thing up, and every five years it gets destroyed, and the private person has to pay for it to be put back.
DP: Still near Lvov, you soon attend a gathering of Nazis who are burying the newly discovered remains of German and Ukranian soldiers who were killed in World War II. And they treat Horst royally because they so admire his father. How were you able to handle that without instantly needing to shower?
PS: That was shocking. That was shocking. We drove out there because it was Horst’s idea. He said, “Our visit coincides with the 71st anniversary of the Galica SS division. We’ve gone to the burned down synagogue and we’ve gone out to the mass grave, and he’s feeling pretty beaten up by the whole thing. And then all of a sudden, there are these guys who think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread–and “your dad’s great!” They were giving out photographs of his dad and they didn’t know we were coming! We turned up and they were suspicious of us—and Horst turns up as the all-conquering hero, the son of the famous governor.
DP: After watching Horst enjoy being made a hero of these Nazis, Niklas states Horst is a Nazi. Were you agreeing?
PS: No, I say later on that I don’t think Horst is a Nazi. I think he may be a weak person who justifies mass murder. I think he’s a damaged person, I think he’s a shy person. And he’s an apologist for what his father did. No doubt about that. And if being an apologist makes you a Nazi, then…
DP: You don’t think he’s going to go home and contemplate his experience with you and see the film and change his mind?
DE: There is zero chance of Horst ever changing his mind.
DP: Talk about Horst. It seems to me that he wants to be challenged over and over again about his denying his father was monster, and he doesn’t want you or Niklas to give up and go away. He’s the most infuriatingly stubborn person in the world, but he doesn’t hide. Instead he stays with you and says, “hit me again, hit me again and I’ll see if I can still ward you off.” That seems to be his personality to me. Does that make sense to you?
PS: That’s very interesting. When I met Horst for the first time, I was amazed that he would see me and then I was amazed that he opened himself up completely. He gave me access to anything I wanted to look at, he has never once said no, quite the opposite. And I really respected that. I really admired that. [Note: Horst has since donated his entire family archives in the digital form to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.]
DP: Do you feel protective of Horst?
PS: I disagree with a lot of his interpretations of what’s real, but while I’m not actually protective, I feel a protective instinct in particular because of that moment in the film when he describes being at his birthday party when he is six years old. That caught me, and I think David, very unexpectedly. That really made it clear that, “Wow, this guy is seriously traumatized by what happened. “
DE: He wants love.
PS: He is desperate for love.
DP: He misses his mother, not just his father.
PS: For me, that’s the heart of it. It’s not about his father. There’s a moment when Niklas says his mother was a perfect Nazi, and she always thought what his father did was great. But Horst loves his mother. To me, that’s the key to Horst.
DP: Now let me ask about Niklas. At the end of the last scene, after a whole film of his saying only negative things about his father–except for one time Hans Frank tenderly and inexplicably put shaving cream on his nose–there’s suddenly a moment when he starts to be a little apologetic about him. Was that a shock to you when he did that?
DE: Niklas is a funny mixture, and watching that part of film always reminds me very, very vividly of his very enigmatic disposition. All the time we were making the film, I was scrutinizing the three of them, when I was filming and when I wasn’t filming. I was thinking, “What kind of mood are they in, what kind of material are we likely to get?” And often Niklas was at the same time very giving and open and equally very unpredictable in terms of the kinds of emotions that flickered through him.
DP: He seems consistent in the movie until the end, so is that true?
DE: Well, I’ll give you an example from that sequence, which I think of as being very characteristic of Nik. He’s sitting there very, very gravely, and he said—and this is not some sort of distortion brought about by the editing–“Now that I find that I’m here in my father’s cell, I do feel a certain amount of pity.” And in response to that, Philippe, understandably empathizing: says, “Is it more intense given that we’re doing this on the actual anniversary of your father’s death?” And Nik says, “No!” Like: “What a dumb thing to ask, no it’s not!” He goes very blithely, “In fact by now he was already dead!” Then he says, “There’s another thing I want to tell you that’s really funny.” And now I’m thinking, “Oh, where is he going with this?” That was very much Nik’s personality. He looked like he was near tears, then he tells us a story about his father kneeling, and he’s very critical of organized religions, so he gets in a little jibe: “I bet that Catholic priest loved it when he opened the door and my father was kneeling.” That’s what I mean–one moment he’s very sad, then he cracks a joke, then he’s making jabs at the Catholic church. He’s just a bit hard to figure out..
DP: I’m surprised by that. Philippe, do you agree with David’s take on Niklas?
PS: Yeah. I’ve had to manage a very complex relationship with him. What David didn’t say is that Niklas also likes to be in control of what’s going on.
DP: And it frustrates him that Horst refuses to listen to him and change his mind about his father.
PS: Not just Horst, he was trying to get control of all of us. There were times when I’m wondering, “Is Nicklas playing me?” Or: “Is Horst playing me?” It’s not a hierarchical relationship Niklas and I have where I say what he should do; everything has to be worked out. There’s give and there’s take. So one moment Niklas will say, “Okay, you can use this video footage.” And then he’ll have second thoughts. And we’re like, “Oh my god, here we go again.” And then there’s a month and a half of trying to negotiate with him. Maybe, I’d send him an email with a comma in the wrong place, and he’d interpret it to mean something that was not intended. So you’re treading on broken glass.
DP: So Horst is actually an easier person.
PS: In a curious way. This did come up after the stage debate in the Purcell Room. We wondered whether Horst was just more comfortable—his life’s a bit easier. And yet at the end of the day I don’t think that’s where it ends up. Niklas is very tough on himself, and Horst is not in the same way, not in the same style.
DP: Usually when you make a documentary with living people you want them to see the film. Do you care if Niklas and Horst see the film?
DE: I may well be setting myself up for a fall here, but I wouldn’t like it if either of them felt like they had been misrepresented. The film was made in an atmosphere of mutual trust, which I’ve never ever tried to exploit in the editing process, during which I have a vast amount of power and nobody has the ability to go against my choices at that stage. But I don’t believe I’ve misrepresented Horst; in fact I went out of my way to make sure that whenever he said something that seemed completely, baselessly contentious, I really tried to go out on a limb to make sure that we gave him the opportunity to give what he said some sort of context so somebody watching the film would understand why he might have made that remark. Otherwise what he said could be used to make him look like a kind of black-hearted psychopath, which Philippe knows he is not. But sometimes he could be his own worst enemy, as when he suddenly turns around at the site the Jews were massacred and talks about Austrian casualties there in the first world war! Still I very much like to think that Horst would watch this film and recognize that the portrayal of him is fair.
DP: Is it meaningful for you two to be at Tribeca with the film?
PS: Very meaningful for me. My wife and I live in London but she is a New Yorker and our kids were born here in Manhattan. So it’s like being home. Of course given that there is a big Jewish theme, New York is a pretty logical place for it to play. But it’s not a film only about Jews and Nazis and Poles. It’s a film about a more universal theme–fathers and sons and how that complex relationship turns out.
DE: I have to say that we began this film with a great deal of enthusiasm, but with a very modest sense of what it might become. And to be here and to be having conversations like this one, and to have had the big premiere yesterday, it really feels like an accolade. I’m just delighted to have a premiere at a festival of this importance.
PS: It was incredibly intense yesterday. I’m a teacher in a classroom and a lawyer in a courtroom, and so I know when you’ve got a room and I know when you’ve lost a room. The room where we played our movie had real tension. You looked down on this sea of faces and you know from the way they are looking at you of the experiences they’ve been through.
DP: Finally, Philippe, on screen you are in despair that Horst won’t change his mind and admit to his father’s crimes, but is it important that he change his mind?
PS: No. I would have preferred that he change his mind because it would have made me less frustrated. But that he doesn’t makes for a better film.