Nazi progeny confront ghosts and guilt in evocative film

Rational people believe that the sins of the fathers shouldn’t be visited on their children. Does our enlightened attitude extend to the offspring of high-level Nazis?

After meeting the men and women who renounce and denounce their infamous relatives in “Hitler’s Children,” Chanoch Ze’evi’s evocative and essential documentary, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

One just wishes their thoughtful and often anguished words could reach the neo-Nazis who continue to persist here and abroad.


Rainer Hoess (left), grandson of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hess, meets a survivor.

By the end of the film, it appears that Ze’evi’s goal is to challenge Jews too easily reassured by German apologies rather than to drive a stake through the heart of racist ideas and fascistic acts.


“Hitler’s Children” screens Nov. 4 in the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival. Israeli filmmaker Ze’evi will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening.

This is a film mostly about the third generation, and it reflects a slightly more distanced, dispassionate and thoughtful relationship to the Third Reich than we’re used to. One consequence is that we are encouraged to think about guilt and responsibility and the implications of our own smug judgments in a way that most other Holocaust films have not asked of us.

Take Rainer Hoess, the adult grandson of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hess, who has never come to terms with the boyhood photographs of his smiling father, playing outside the family house unaware of and oblivious to the activities on the other side of the wall.

Rainer can’t separate the image of banal family life from the mass murders, and he can’t understand how his father, even years later, was able to do so.

He’s never visited Auschwitz, and is encouraged to take the train with Eldad Beck, a journalist and the grandson of survivors who likewise has avoided the camp.

This is just one thread in “Hitler’s Children,” but it is the most contemporary in the sense that Rainer confronts his ghosts, and himself, in a way he never had.

In contrast, Herman Goering’s grandniece Bettina, who lives outside Santa Fe, N.M., has reconciled with her past as well as the present: She and her brother sterilized themselves so there wouldn’t be any more Goerings.

Heinrich Himmler’s grandniece Katrin confides that she learned foreign languages as a teenager so she could pass as non-German when she traveled abroad. She eventually wrote a book about her family and, improbably, married a child of survivors.

We aren’t told if she has children, but she declares with impeccable logic, “I was never really afraid that I might have inherited something or that my genes might contain something like ‘Heinrich’s bad blood.’ If I thought that, I’d be confirming what the Nazis believed in their ridiculous ideology, that everything depends on bloodlines.”

Niklas Frank has visited schools throughout Germany for many years, reading from his lacerating books about his parents and answering questions. His father, Hans, was responsible for ghettos and death camps as governor-general of occupied Poland; he was convicted at Nuremberg and hanged.

“We really must do justice to parents like that,” says Frank, whose life’s work feels like a combination of brave research, honorable testimony and self-therapy.

After some 70 minutes of comments like this, capped by an emotional visit to Auschwitz with Rainer Hoess, Eldad Beck gets the last word.

Cautioning viewers against satisfying illusions, and reminding us (without actually saying it) that there is no such thing as a make-good for 6 million murders, he says, “But not every story has a happy ending. Very often, there’s no ending at all.”

“Hitler’s Children” screens at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Camera 12 in San Jose. In German, English and Hebrew with English subtitles. (Not rated, 80 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.