The first time that British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands met Horst Von Wächter—the son of Nazi officer Otto Von Wächter—the two men looked through Horst’s family albums, flipping past snapshots labeled “A.H.,” for Adolf Hitler. In David Evans’ documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, Sands says that he felt like he was looking at pictures of the people who exterminated his Ukrainian Jewish ancestors. His host, meanwhile, was just seeing his beloved father Otto, and the friendly Nazis who were always around when he was a boy. Throughout A Nazi Legacy, the lawyer argues with his new friend, trying to persuade him into a different perspective on his own past. But while he’s working to change Von Wächter’s mind, he’s missing a potentially rich story about what it was actually like to grow up a Nazi.
Sands is an academic and activist who has written controversial books about modern war crimes. While researching how the roots of current international law lead back to the aftermath of WWII, he met Von Wächter, a kindly septuagenarian who for his entire life has clung to the fact that his dad was indicted but never convicted of anything (primarily because he died under Vatican protection before he could be tried), and therefore may have just been “part of the system” and not personally responsible for genocide. Sands also met one of Von Wächter’s boyhood friends, Niklas Frank, whose father Hans worked and socialized with Otto Von Wächter, but didn’t escape justice like his colleague. He was found guilty at the Nuremberg trials, and executed.
Niklas Frank harbors no illusions about Hans’ heroism. He’s written about his shame and disgust with his family, and he’s spent decades sparring with Horst about whether their dads deserve to be excoriated. In A Nazi Legacy, Sands serves as a go-between between the two men—first moderating a public forum in the U.K., and then taking them on a trip to Lviv in Ukraine, where Hans Frank once gave a famous anti-semitic speech, and where Otto Von Wächter governed for the Germans and then stuck around after the war to try and keep the country free from Soviet control. (Horst frequently points to that struggle as proof that his father was a good man.) But Sands’ not-so-hidden motive is to get Horst to own up to Otto’s complicity in The Final Solution, by showing him burned synagogues and mass graves in Lviv, and then ambushing him with paperwork that proves the elder Von Wächter ordered the violence. And still, the son stands by his dad, coming up with fresh justifications and denials.
The most obvious analog to My Nazi Legacy is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing/The Look Of Silence diptych, which similarly documents the way that architects of genocide and their offspring keep dodging responsibility. Evans’ work is nowhere near as accomplished as Oppenheimer’s, which is no surprise, because few documentaries are. Still, it’s hard to ignore how much more blunt A Nazi Legacy is, largely due to the way the filmmakers keeps trying to catch Von Wächter off-guard. Sands executive produced the movie and wrote the narration, and his doggedness forces the film to be one thing and one thing only: a sort of cinematic intervention for Horst Von Wächter.
Back in that first scene in Von Wächter’s home, Sands mentions via voice-over how rare it is to meet someone who may have been in the same room as Hitler. Yet rather than just letting the man talk (as he mostly does with Frank), Sands keeps steering the conversation towards a comeuppance. And after a while that starts to seem unnecessary, given how often Von Wächter seems to indict himself without anyone’s help. Horst keeps framing his denialism as optimism, putting a positive spin on everything from Nazi-strewn home movies to the wreckage of Lviv’s old Jewish quarter. (In Von Wächter’s view, the survivors should be proud of what their parents built, and stop dwelling on the bad stuff.)
A Nazi Legacy is often very dramatic, with confrontations that unfold in front of the camera more or less as they happen. And Evans and Sands get a lot of mileage out of the differences between Von Wächter’s and Frank’s respective childhoods, noting how the latter’s combative relationship with his father may have made it easier to renounce him. But there’s a rigidity of purpose here that keeps A Nazi Legacy from ever becoming startling or revelatory. The way that Sands and Frank both keep badgering Von Wächter has the effect of telling the audience—over and over—what we’re supposed to think.