Wednesday 30 March 2016

On TV: "My Nazi Legacy"

If you happened to channelsurf unawares onto the opening minutes of My Nazi Legacy, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching another Cash in the Attic rerun. A middle-aged man is guiding two elderly sorts around the places of their youth, then looking on patiently as his charges pick through the dusty relics and knickknacks gathered there. The older men, however, are Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank, sons of high-ranking Nazi officials; their guide is Philippe Sands, the noted UN human rights lawyer. The participants will be confronted in every corner of the attic by a markedly different set of heirlooms to those you and I might have inherited - it's more baggage, really. You can get a sense of what the film's subjects have had to process, and what they're still trying to process, from the early sequence in David Evans' film that finds von Wächter poring over a photo album. Instead of pretty monochrome tableaux of der junge Horst mugging in the back garden with the family dog, we see his younger self running around Berchtesgaden or similar while his father Otto confers with none other than Heinrich Himmler. How do you even begin to reconcile yourself with a backstory - a history - as deleterious as that? 

In raising such questions, My Nazi Legacy follows on from where Vanessa Lapa's fascinating The Decent One left off in examining the domestic life of Himmler: the testimony Sands elicits from both von Wächter and Frank adds further ballast to the thesis that this was a moment of coldly distant or absent fathers, called away from home to demonstrate their love for the ultimate father figure. Yet a clear ideological split exists between Evans' subjects, one that fascinates Sands, and by extension us. Where Frank immediately acknowledges what his father was responsible for, von Wächter appears to have spent decades avoiding all eye contact, and insisting his father was only following orders; that the anti-Semitism he placed on the record was nothing very much in the grand scheme of things. Sands' presence within the film is thereby explained: we're here to hear out the kind of arguments that might otherwise be presented inside a courtroom.

What follows is on a visual level rather plain: the influence of Lanzmann's epochal Holocaust documentary Shoah can be felt in the way Evans intercuts the three men's interactions with conventional talking heads. Yet the director doesn't have to look too far for elaborate stages on which to set down his players. One long sequence unfolds at a Q&A hosted by the Financial Times, where von Wächter faces sustained interrogation from Frank and the public alike; another, even longer, takes place in council chambers in Galicia, where Sands presents von Wächter with evidence that strongly suggests his father was a war criminal. Are the film and the lawyer making a bit too much of a show of what they're doing?, we might wonder. Yet this persistent line of questioning yields an electric philosophical drama: we're watching human beings confronted by hard facts and heated opinions, and then having to dodge, absorb or otherwise react to them in what's more or less real time.

From that initial daytime potter, My Nazi Legacy builds to a point where you can feel the temperature rising, patience beginning to erode. Von Wächter's continual evasions and denials - and his smiling willingness to pose with those wearing SS uniforms while on an excursion to the Ukraine, site of renewed neo-Nazi activity - visibly impact upon Frank and Sands; they, in turn, redouble their efforts to pin Horst down. By the time Sands has dragged von Wächter into first the synagogue where his grandparents' family were rounded up, then the nondescript field where their bodies were buried, what started as just another cobwebby history lesson has taken on the look of an urgent intervention. The result is an unusually probing and profound British documentary: the critic has to think long and hard before venturing the Lanzmann comparison - which is among the highest praise we can bestow on non-fiction cinema - but here, considering both the form and the content of Evans' film, it is, finally, justified.

My Nazi Legacy screens on BBC4 tonight at 9pm, and is available to watch on demand here until the end of April.

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