In many places and for many people, the legacy of World War II still hangs heavy. The war in both the Pacific and Europe ended by the early fall of 1945, but several of the countries involved remained caught in desperate power plays for decades afterward (some formerly Soviet block countries still are). But for many, the longest shadows cast by the war are the inexpressibly dark remembrances of the Holocaust, filled with dismayed wonder at how such a catastrophe ever happened.
Philippe Sands is a lawyer and professor of international law at University College London. The author of several books, in 2012 Sands took on the task of writing about The Nuremberg Trials. In the process, he met Niklas Frank, the son of prominent Nazi governor, Hans Frank. Niklas introduced Sands to Horst von Wächter, son of Otto von Wächter, another prominent Nazi. What Sands — a Jew whose grandfather barely survived the Holocaust — discovered was two men who saw their fathers, men with similar stories, in very different lights.
“What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy” follows Sands as he attempts to uncover what Niklas and Horst feel about their fathers. Both men were born in the spring of 1939 and raised as Nazis. Both were old enough to feel their worlds rocked in 1945 when the war, and the world as they knew it, ended. But somehow, both interpreted what their fathers did, or were perhaps forced to do, in very different ways. The film opens with two extended scenes, first Niklas and then Horst, giving Sands a tour of prominent houses from their respective childhoods. Archival footage of each of the men as boys, playing with their fathers, with their siblings, everyone laughing, is cut throughout, and the sensation of seeing men responsible for so much death relaxing with their families is unsettling, while at the same time highlights some small vestige of the humanity of both fathers.
From the outset, ‘What Our Fathers Did’ doesn’t have much narrative thrust. The film makes it clear that it is more interested in the process than any end goal. But the process of what exactly is a question that gnaws unanswered for the first third of the documentary. Sands, who narrates the film, and seems to be calling most of the shots, appears most interested in putting Niklas and Horst, who are longtime friends, into situations where they inevitably disagree, and where Sands and Niklas can attempt to sway Horst into seeing his father as the villain they both view him as.
On the surface, and in many scenes, this is captivating stuff. Horst loves his father. Otto von Wächter was never tried for his actions, but rather died suddenly under the protection of the Vatican. In Horst’s eyes, this means he wasn’t guilty. He is certain that if his father had stood trial, it would have come out that he was merely acting on orders. But Sands and Niklas oppose even this, saying that it doesn’t matter if he didn’t agree with his orders, the fact is he still carried them out.
What starts under the veil of study, as an in-depth look at the lasting impact of a murderous legacy upon two innocent men, turns slowly, as the three men travel to England for a public conversation sponsored by a local newspaper, to Ukraine, where they visit several key locations, into a quest to convince Horst that his father was a monster. While it’s fascinating to watch Horst dance around each bit of evidence, at times it begins to feel tedious, as though it isn’t clear that no amount of proof will change his mind.
What this constant push does do, though the doc does not consciously direct them, is open up several intriguing questions: Why does it matter to Sands and Niklas what Horst thinks? What does it say about the world, and love, if a man can love his murderous father? What does it say about the power of denial?
For all the inherent tension and emotion that ‘What Our Fathers Did’ has preloaded into its content, much of the film’s run feels aimless, which is not to say it’s uninteresting. Each individual scene manages to find a compelling gem of legacy, morality, and humanity to touch upon. But there is no formal narrative arc, and though one is not necessary in many cases, here it gives the film a limp quality at times, as though its sum is not as great as its parts.
Directed by David Evans, it is very much Sands’ film, and it shows. His presence is overarching, and whenever he isn’t on screen, he’s narrating, at times a bit needlessly. In spite of the film’s several flaws and follies, it is Niklas, with the heavy burden he inherited, and his desire to see the world become a better place and to be a better man, that gives ‘What Our Fathers Did’ its true resonance. [B]