Tribeca Fest Interview: Philippe Sands Talks Documentary ‘A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did’

Professor Philippe Sands
Professor Philippe Sands

I still have more films to see in the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, but the one I believe will stay with me the longest is a documentary called “A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did.” In it, Professor Philippe Sands, an eminent barrister who has been involved in many of the great cases of recent years at the International Criminal Court, goes on a journey to several locations with the sons of two senior Nazi officers who were both indicted as war criminals.

The result is a fascinating exploration of the long-term aftermath of the Holocaust and the complicated relationship between a parent and child when that parent has committed horrific acts.

Prof. Sands met the two men – Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter – when research on a book led him to discover that their fathers were personally responsible for the death of many members of Sands’ family. The fathers of these men actually ordered the killing of Sands’ grandfather’s entire family, leaving his grandfather as the only survivor.

Prof. Sands teaches international law at University College London and has not only been involved in the cases concerning genocide in Yugoslavia, the London proceedings against Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet and Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif, but he is a journalist and the author of two controversial books about American politics – “Lawless World” and “Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values.”

I felt privileged to sit across from him while he was in New York for the Festival and talk about “A Nazi Legacy.” Despite the fact that the documentary is about the Holocaust, Prof. Sands emphasizes that the main theme is fathers and sons. “It’s a universal thing,” he told me. “We’re taking the Nazi thing – it’s just the catalyst for a much bigger set of issues.”

In the film, we learn that Niklas Frank has no positive regard for his father whatsoever. Hans Frank was convicted at Nuremberg for the deaths of millions and hung for his crimes, while Otto von Wächter was indicted but hidden by the Vatican (yes, you read that correctly) until he died of natural causes, never facing trial.

Unlike Niklas, Horst von Wächter refuses to see his father, Otto, in any way other than as the gentle man he knew in his childhood. Even after he is presented with a great deal of evidence to the contrary – all caught on film – he remains adamant that Otto was forced to commit his acts of violence. As a result of this, denial becomes another main theme in the film.

“You sort of respect that because he wants somehow to find something good about his dad,” Prof. Sands told me. “And as a son and as a father, I understand that, so I don’t condemn him…. Horst is sort of a victim also. He’s not to blame for what happened.”

A photo of a ghetto in Krakow, Poland, courtesy of the collection of Niklas Frank
A photo of a ghetto in Krakow, Poland, courtesy of the collection of Niklas Frank

Horst had a loving relationship with his father, while Niklas had no such thing and is up front about it. Their mothers were also apparently very different, and Prof. Sands thinks their mothers are largely responsible for the differences in the way the two men view their childhoods. “We just didn’t have time in the film, but that side of it is incredibly interesting,” he said. “For me, a lot of understanding Horst is about understanding his relationship with his mother.”

Given Horst’s reluctance to see his father’s actions as an indication of his character, I asked Prof. Sands what he thought motivated Horst to be so open in the film, especially since, I was told, half his family is no longer speaking to him as a result of his involvement with the film. “That’s what I think is unique about this film,” Prof. Sands said. “There’s been a lot of films about the Himmler family – “The Decent One” [read my review of that film] – and Hitler’s children, but there is nothing with a Horst in it. There’s never been a film with someone who actually says, ‘Yeah, he was a Nazi. Yeah, he may have been involved with killing a half a million people, but he was a really good guy.’”

“What made him open up?” Prof. Sands continued. “I think he dug his heels in more and more as the film moved along. He started off just as part of an exploration. It was a parallel journey to mine in a sense. He sort of had these ideas, and he wanted to know more about it. He just interprets the documents differently from the way that I do. But he wanted to know…. And he doesn’t try to hide anything.”

The first time Prof. Sands met Horst, it was a bit nerve-wracking. His father, after all, was the governor of the town in Ukraine where Prof. Sands’ grandfather’s family was murdered – the man who ordered that they be shot. “I was anxious. And it was exactly as I describe in the beginning of the film. I’m with him for an hour, and then, he’s just giving me all these family albums,” he said.

“And I’m looking at these family albums, and actually, every time I look at them, I’m just stunned. Skiing, mountains, lakes. And he’s shown me home movies, which are incredibly beautiful, and they’re ordinary, mundane, daily family life. And then, there are pictures of AH [Adolph Hitler] and [SS Chief Heinrich] Himmler and swastikas and Dachau [Concentration Camp]. And it’s like, whoa whoa whoa whoa.”

During the course of the film, the three men visit the field in Ukraine where the remains of Prof. Sands’ family are still buried. “That scene has hit a lot of people very, very hard,” he said. “It was totally unscripted, totally undirected from every little bit of it. So, the fact that they both wore white, and I wore dark – it’s just what we wore in the morning.”

He had been to the field on two other occasions. “The first time was just very emotional. The second time, ‘OK, I’m going to be back next week with a camera and photographer.’ But [the third time] was qualitatively different because I’m there with the sons of the two men who made it happen basically,” he said.

He found himself heading for the water in the field, where he says the bones of the many who were murdered there remain, although you can’t see them because of the darkness of the water. “If you listen very attentively, we’re all miked up, and you’ll hear a sound which is … I’m actually crying in that moment. I’m sort of overwhelmed, and then, I compose myself. I’m not looking into camera. I’ve gone over there because I’ve started crying,” he said.

David Evans, director of "A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did"
David Evans, director of “A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did”

This area of Ukraine was called Lemberg when Prof. Sands’ grandfather’s family lived there and is now called Lviv. Most of his life, Prof. Sands was unaware of what happened to his grandfather there. “I didn’t know that he had a family of 80 people. He never talked about them. He never talked about anything. He never talked about his mother, his brothers, his sisters, his uncles, his aunts, his cousins, his nephews. And most of them are in that field,” he told me.

It was just five years ago, when he got an invitation to give a lecture on crimes against humanity and genocide in Lviv, that he decided to find out what he could about his grandfather’s early life and the family that was lost. “Then, I just immersed myself. I wanted to know everything – where he was born, where he lived, when he left. He lived until 98,” he said.

In the original concept for the film, Prof. Sands was not to be on camera. “I was going to be the voice behind it, asking the questions and taking the audience along…. Then, [the director and producers] felt it needed me on screen, which I was not very comfortable about. I have no desire to be on screen, but it emerged more and more that it was a three-way dance. So, [director] David Evans became the unspoken off-screen voice guiding the audience along. But we were very concerned to be fully respectful of everyone – not to present it in a skewed way.”

Prof. Sands’ new book will be released by Knopf next year. “It’s about four characters. It’s about Hans Frank; the man who invented the concept of crimes against humanity, Hersch Lauterpacht, a professor at Cambridge; Raphael Lemkin, who invented the concept of genocide; and my grandfather. The connection is the city [Lviv/Lemberg, Ukraine], which you see on camera a lot, and I’ve got to know that city very, very well. It’s a book about that city and what happened between 1914 and 1946, and the last third of the book is the Nuremberg trial when Lauterpacht and Lemkin are prosecuting Frank, and they discover mid-trial that Frank has killed their entire families,” he said.

“So, it’s about individuals and groups, and it’s about identity. And this [the film] is about sons and fathers. The central theme about this [film] – which I don’t know how I would answer this question – is if my dad had killed half a million people or 3 million people or 4 million people, how would I feel about it? Would I love him? Would I cease to love him?”

“A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did” has distribution in the U.K. already, and it should receive distribution in the U.S. shortly. The excerpt below is a conversation between Philippe Sands and Niklas Frank. Watch for this film. If you have any interest at all in these themes, you will want to see it. I cannot recommend it enough.


One response to “Tribeca Fest Interview: Philippe Sands Talks Documentary ‘A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did’”

  1. […] I was also honored to have a one-on-one interview with Philippe Sands, an eminent barrister who has been involved in many of the great cases of recent years at the International Criminal Court, about his documentary, “A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did.” […]

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