Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter are friends and both are the sons of prominent Nazis. Frank’s father was the governor of occupied Poland and hanged after the Nuremberg trials. Wächter’s father was the governor of Galicia in Ukraine and after the war escaped to the Vatican where he died. The difference between the two is that Frank hates his father, sees him for the criminal he was; Wächter, in contrast, still respects his father and refuses to accept the overwhelming evidence that he was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. The difference between the two is at the heart of the film, Nazi Legacy, made by human rights lawyer Phillipe Sands.
The poignancy of the film is greatly increased by Sands’s family having almost all been murdered in Galicia. Of a family of 80 only one survived the war, Sands’s grandfather.
Sands took the two friends to the Ukraine to Lviv (Lemberg in German), the city of his family. They stood in the grand hall where Frank’s father had announced the mass killing of the Jews, making jokes as he did so. Wachter’s father was beside him on the platform, but Wachter refuses to accept that he had any responsibility for what happened. This angers both Sands and Frank who try to convince Wachter that his father, as governor of the province, must be guilty. Wachter holds out. He’s seen no documents, no proof.
We empathise with Wachter. The others are bullying him, and there is something noble about a son respecting and loving his father and refusing to acknowledge his crimes, extreme as they were.
The next scene is an ancient synagogue in Lviv. This is where Sands’s family prayed. The synagogue was set on fire. The Jews were taken from the synagogue to a field and shot, one by one, falling into a mass grave. “They are still there,” says Sands. The bodies were recently discovered. Sands attacks Wachter again, but one of his ways of holding out is to take the long view, which is encouraged by the age of the synagogue. Terrible things happen, but things come right.
The trio then travels to the field that contains the 3000 bodies. It’s still, hot, beautiful, and peaceful. There’s a small memorial. Sands gets angrier still with Wachter, but Wachter never wavers, never loses his cool or conviction. Is he fooling himself? People are caught up in events, history. The system not individuals is to blame.
Horribly Wachter’s father is still a hero among some extreme right wing Ukrainians. We see them. They dress in Nazi uniforms, wear swastikas. One old man remembers Wachter’s father who brought “freedom” to the Ukraine (in contrast to the Russians who brought serfdom). Wachter is pleased that at least somewhere his father is praised. Sands and Frank are appalled.
The film ends in the Nuremberg cell from which Frank’s father was taken to be hanged. At the last moment he knelt on the floor and made the sign of the cross on his forehead, as his mother had done for him when he was a child. Remembering that moment, Frank made some sort of human connection with his father. But he condemned Wachter, could no longer be his friend. “He is a Nazi.”
We know that Wachter is not a Nazi, and we end with sympathy for all three—Sands who lost almost his whole family and the two Germans, who had their lives blighted (but not destroyed) by what their fathers had done.
One scene in the film—from before the trip to the Ukraine—shows Sands interviewing the two Germans in London. The audience, many of them Jewish, are very attentive. “Could the difference between you,” asks a woman in the audience, “be explained by something as simple as one of you having a happy childhood and one not?” Frank dismisses the idea saying that his childhood was not unhappy, “I had everything.” But he didn’t have love, whereas Wachter did. Could that be the difference?
Read more from Sands at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/618f8ad4-622f-11e5-9846-de406ccb37f2.html