Adolf Hitler didn’t have any officially recognized direct descendants, but the subjects of Hitler’s Children, a documentary by Israeli filmmaker Chanoch Zeevi, bear the surnames of many of his senior officials. They are the relatives of Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Höss, Hans Frank, and Amon Goeth, men who founded the Gestapo or headed up the SS, who ruled over Auschwitz or occupied Poland. It isn’t the kind of legacy that lends itself to cheery family reunions at amusement parks, and how these men and women have chosen to face this inherited burden directly or flee from it creates a fascinating spectrum the film explores via quietly intimate interviews.
The subjects of Hitler’s Children all speak about the actions of their infamous forebears with shame, shock, or disgust, but they also make it clear this isn’t true of everyone in their families. A pattern emerges from their descriptions of their childhoods: one of traditions of silence or flat-out denial from the previous generation. Monika Goeth, the daughter of Płaszów commandant Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List), describes her mother beating her with an electric cable when she asked for details about what her father did at the camp. She got a better sense of the true extent of his practices after a former internee she befriended at a bar recoiled in horror upon learning about her parentage.
The interviewees know they aren’t responsible for what their relatives did, but guilt has nevertheless shaped their lives. Bettina Göring, living in the Southwestern U.S., speaks flatly of how she and her brother both got sterilized to end their line, while Niklas Frank does readings from his book denouncing his father, a “typical German monster,” to audiences around the country. The film treats their discomfort and distress with their heritage with an empathy that’s only soured by a late interview with Israeli journalist Eldad Beck, who accompanies Rainer Höss to his first visit to Auschwitz. Speaking afterward about an emotional moment in which Höss answers questions from a group of visiting Israeli youth and is embraced by a Holocaust survivor, Beck says that he “didn’t feel connected to it—it lacked depth.” While the reaction no doubt represents a point of view held by others as well, the suggestion that a life lived in self-castigation is still not enough feels, in context, uncomfortably harsh.