Aging sons of Nazi brass still struggle with fathers deeds

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You don’t have to be a psychologist to recognize that Horst von Wachter is in denial.

The 70-something son of Austrian lawyer and Nazi administrator Otto von Wachter acknowledges that his father’s hands were stained with ink. But blood? He’ll never accept that without incontrovertible proof.

For long stretches, the verité British documentary “What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy” feels like it should have been called “Making Horst Crack.” I won’t say whether the audience gets that catharsis, but the film does deliver another payoff at the end of its trans-European journey.

Horst von Wachter (left) and Niklas Frank photo/courtesy oscilloscope pictures

“What Our Fathers Did,” which screened at last summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opens Friday, Nov. 13 in San Francisco and Berkeley.

The intimate though artless film pairs von Wachter with longtime friend Niklas Frank, whose consistent and public condemnations of his own father set him poles apart from von Wachter. Hans Frank oversaw the ghettos and the camps as governor-general of Poland. He was convicted at Nuremberg and hung in 1946.

The film follows Horst von Wachter and Niklas Frank from a forum on a London stage to the enormous synagogue in Lviv, Ukraine, which the Nazis and their helpers torched. As the friends are filmed visiting a quiet field outside Lviv where hundreds of Jews were shot one by one, Frank continues to lobby von Wachter to put aside his happy childhood memories and confront his father’s murderous obedience to the Reich.

Otto von Wachter was governor of the district of Krakow for the first two years of World War II and governor of Galicia, Ukraine, for the next two. But Horst von Wachter has never seen a document signed by his father that authorized murders, and he’s certain his dad wasn’t present when Jews were killed.

Horst von Wachter manages to politely deflect not only Frank’s entreaties but those of Philippe Sands, the British human rights lawyer whose entire family on one side, with the sole exception of his grandfather, was killed in Lviv. Sands proceeds in the course of the film from gentle nudges to flabbergasted harangues, trying to get von Wachter to accept his father’s complicity in the Final Solution. (Otto von Wachter dodged the Allies after the war and made his way to Rome with the help of contacts in the Vatican. He died in 1949.)

Horst von Wachter’s introspection — as far as he’s able and willing to contemplate his “inheritance” — is nowhere near as affecting or educational as the range of responses expressed by Nazi offspring in the powerful 2011 documentary “Hitler’s Children.” Their moral dilemmas were palpable, heightened by the anguished need in some cases to make amends (admittedly an impossible task).

For much of “What Our Fathers Did,” the overriding question is whether it matters if one aging man fully accepts his father’s participation in genocide.

Although we yearn for Horst von Wachter to do the right thing, we recognize that he poses no danger to Jews and civilization compared with the many younger people enamored of racism and fascism. Even when Frank tells Sands that he is convinced Horst von Wachter is a Nazi, we feel a chill but no tangible threat.

Frank goes on to say that his old friend’s refusal to disavow his father places von Wachter on the path to neo-Nazism. Whatever Sands’ intent was when he embarked on this project, inspired to a certain degree by his personal loss, the present has superseded the past.

In this moment, the seekers come to the conclusion that so many others have: The denial of evildoing — the rewriting or ignoring of history — is the first step toward future horrors.

“What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy” opens Friday, Nov. 13 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. (unrated, 92 minutes, in English)

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.