'A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did': Tribeca Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
An involving case study in how we deal with family shame

Two elderly sons of Nazi criminals confront the past

Is it possible to be raised as a child by a high-level Nazi, embrace Jewish culture after the war, and grow up to be a decent human being without ever admitting your father was a monster? That's the most provocative of many questions raised in A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, David Evans's account of a friendship between two elderly sons of Nazi criminals and a younger human rights lawyer researching international law. A fairly specialized picture in a sea of Holocaust material, Legacy is novel and professionally made enough to have value at fests and on video; it also offers psychological insights of interest to those who have no interest in another WWII-related doc.

Lawyer Philippe Sands was researching a book on the origins of international law when he befriended Niklas Frank, whose father Hans was executed after being found guilty of war crimes by the Nuremberg tribunal. Niklas introduced him to his longtime friend Horst von Wachter, whose father Otto was also a high-ranking Nazi in occupied Poland. The two shared old family photo albums and home movies (seen here for the first time) in which generic childhood moments occurred against a backdrop of uniformed German officials.

Fascinated by the dissonance between happy family memories and the horrors they obscure, Sands spends more time with the two men, writing an article for the Financial Times and eventually going with them on a trip through the area their fathers helped govern. Though he finds both likable and neither anti-Semitic, he grows more and more perplexed by their contrasting attitudes toward their fathers: Niklas, who had an unhappy childhood, came very easily to view his father as a villain, and speaks volubly about the "criminals" he grew up with; but Horst, despite condemning the Final Solution and other atrocities, remains convinced that his loving father was a good man, who was trying to "do something good" within the constraints of a government doing so much evil.

What begins as a friendly trip grows increasingly tense as the men visit sites of mass murder. Horst acknowledges what took place but insists, infuriatingly, that there is no direct evidence that his father signed off on any of it. Whether his internal capacity for denial is that strong or he simply can't publicly denounce the man he loved is hard to say, but watching him wrestle with this dilemma is painfully fascinating. As Niklas puts it to Horst in a contentious public forum, "as you know, I like you. But I don't like your brains and the thoughts in your brains."


Production company: Wildgaze Films Ltd

Director: David Evans

Screenwriter: Philippe Sands

Producers: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey

Executive Producers: Philippe Sands, Nick Fraser, David Evans

Directors of photography: Sam Hardy, Philipp Blaubach

Editor: David Charap

Music: Malcolm Lindsay

Sales: Andrew Herwitz, The Film Sales Company


No rating, 96 minutes