WhatOurFathersDid_300dpiWebAs World War II stretches further in the past, its history remains no less striking. This writer understands the horrors of the war at least secondhand, as I have stated in earlier posts (Labyrinth of Lies uses high production value to tell compelling story of post-WWII Germany and Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story). Yes, my father fought on the German side, but he was not a Nazi. He told me stories of refusing the cult-like scene of the Hitler Youth at 12 years old, and he was harassed for it. His family tried to flee Hitler, but he was drafted into the Wehrmacht when he was 16. Though he rose up the ranks to sergeant, he refused invitations to apply for officer positions, and, in the end, he used his English skills to help the Americans, something he was most proud of doing at the end of the war.

My father is far from the kind of fathers the two men filmmaker David Evans examines in his new documentary, What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy. He follows renowned British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who also holds the film’s writing credit, as he both individually examines and brings together two different men, Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank, whose fathers were high-ranking officials in Hitler’s Nazi party. While overseeing conquered territories from a castle that is now part of the Ukraine, these Nazi officials shared responsibility in the brutal massacres of Jews in the region, many of whom were related to Sands.

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If that’s not dynamic enough, the two men share very different views on their fathers. Niklas is the son of Hans Frank, who became Governor-General for the region of Poland under Hitler. Horst is the son of Otto von Wächter, Hans Frank’s deputy. Niklas has little sympathy for his father, a former lawyer who hanged for his crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. “I could not forgive him. He was brought up as a Catholic. He studied law in Weimar Democracy, so he knew by heart what was right and what was wrong.” Meanwhile, Horst only makes excuses using that famous ridiculous argument that his father was just obeying orders.

Against a dark history of our recent “civilized” past, Evans, a filmmaker most popularly known for having directed episodes of Downton Abbey, presents a rather striking story churning with layers of psychological torment. Horst prefers to hang on to his childlike nostalgia of growing up with a loving family and refusing to believe his father made a conscious decision to commit atrocities. Niklas shares no love lost for his father, a man, he says, who loved Hitler more than his family. Sands is also a key player. Even though he is a well-known lawyer who fights for human rights, he seems a bit swayed to handle Horst with kid gloves. It’s almost as if Horst has found a state of arrested development that he has found peace in, and it’s a bit disarming.

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Niklas stands out as pushing against Horst more aggressively. It makes for a strange kind of drama of conflicting strategies of coping with similar pasts. Toward the end of the film comes the real wedge between the two German men, when the trio attend an annual celebration commemorating the deaths of Germans and their allies in a small Ukrainian town. These zealots dress in vintage German uniforms and even carry vintage weapons. It’s an opportunity for Sands to turn his inquisitiveness on these people. The outcome is scarily similar to the rationale some U.S. Southerners have for standing by the Confederate flag. But more revealing is Horst’s reaction to these people learning about his Nazi legacy. It speaks to how fine a line he was walking in his reasoning.

The film demonstrates a variety of coping mechanisms for dealing with the past by all these subjects. Evans and Sands present personal archival films and photos from Horst and Niklas alongside more familiar vintage images of Hitler and vivid scenes from the Jewish ghettos. Interspersed are the strange and often stark confessions. While Niklas says, “My father deserved to die,” Horst says, “I don’t want to get stuck somewhere full of shame.” Both men are treated with sympathy. Indeed these two were children, brought into something no child should be able to comprehend. Growing up with this speaks to the burden of the past and how the past entangles itself with individual identity. If you think World War II died with the defeat of Germany, consider this intimate battle for reconciliation between these three men, still inextricably connected by a war that has defined their psyches in profound ways.

Hans Morgenstern

What Our Fathers Did runs 92 minutes and is not rated (it contains some disturbing images and discussion). It opens this Friday, Nov. 13, in our Miami area at the following theaters:

Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami
O-Cinema Miami Shores
AMC Aventura 24
Living Room Boca Raton

For other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Oscilloscope Pictures provided a preview screening link for the purpose of this review. They also provided all images in this post, credited as follows:

Photo 1: Horst Von Wächter, Philippe Sands (In Background) and Niklas Frank at the site of a mass grave outside Zolkiew, Ukraine in My Nazi Legacy. Photography by: Sam Hardy

Photo 2: Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940. Image courtesy of Niklas Frank.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

labyrinth-of-lies-2014-poster-1050x1556Having grown up with a German father who survived being drafted into the Wehrmacht to fight in World War II, films with German war themes interest me. My father was not shy about sharing his experiences in WWII, from being drafted at age 16 when his family tried to flee to Spain to using his skills in English to assistant U.S. forces entering Berlin (he saw the Americans as liberators and later renounced his German citizenship to become a U.S. citizen). One day I hope to write a book about this (as noted in this article: Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story), but for now, I still believe I have a lot to learn, as I found out while watching Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s selection for the foreign-language film Oscar.

Set in late 1950s Germany, Labyrinth of Lies focuses on the level of ignorance the German people still had about the concentration camps, more than 10 years after the war. It’s well-known that the death camps, run by the SS, were secret to the public until the Russians and Americans marched into Germany 8to discover the horrors that lay beyond the barbwire fences. However, I never thought the widespread denial of these camps continued into the late ‘50s. This debut feature by Giulio Ricciarelli, examines the story of an ambitious young prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), who wants to convict those who committed atrocities at Auschwitz, from Josef Mengele (a.k.a. “The Angel of Death”) on down to the camp’s guards.

For a debut feature, Labyrinth of Lies is a well-plotted, finely acted, tight movie. Ricciarelli is an actor first with loads of experience in German TV movies. It shows, but he also has a strong eye for theatrical compositions. The movie feels like a big scale “Masterpiece Theater” production. The scenes are compact and always move the drama forward, be it Radmann’s quest to do his daunting task, his love affair with a young seamstress (Friederike Becht) or his friendship with a know-it-all journalist (André Szymanski). But then there is also grandeur to many scenes, from the new, sterile buildings like the U.S. fort holding the overwhelming stacks of records from the concentration camps or the vast green, countryside of Germany.

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The film’s title holds a reflective connotation that speaks to our enlightened perspective on this difficult time in the 20th century but also refers to the state of denial of the German people during this era. As Simon (Johannes Krisch), a deeply traumatized Auschwitz survivor hiding a horrifying back story, tells Radmann, “This country wants sugar coating. It doesn’t want truth.” I will not deny that the film feels a bit heavy-handed at times. The attorney general warns Radmann, “Be careful this is a labyrinth. Don’t lose yourself in it.” At a low point, Radmann staggers in the streets at night in a drunken stupor calling everyone he sees Nazis. As he grows more obsessed with his crusade, Radmann suffers nightmares of being one of Mengele’s experiments. But the film tells a stark story in an entertaining way that will keep viewers hooked for its 124-minute running time. Ricciarelli maintains a consistent pace, and doesn’t make Radmann a pure hero. He does pay a price for his obsession in his personal life. The production value for this period piece and the performances also never falter. It’s a kind of historical drama that will draw in more than history buffs, even though it may not necessarily win Germany the Oscar prize.

Hans Morgenstern

Labyrinth of Lies runs 124 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is rated R (for gruesome images, cursing and sex). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at Tower Theater this Friday, Oct. 30. UPDATE: it is now also playing at O Cinema Miami Beach (visit this link for tickets). It’s playing only at a few other theaters in the U.S. To see if it’s in your city, check this link. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. They also provided all images here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the-book-thief-posterAs the much-anticipated Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire opens wide this weekend, allow us to direct you to a much different story about a girl suffering through a time of revolution under the iron rule of a totalitarian regime. The Book Thief struck a particularly personal chord with this writer, as it is based on a book by an author who has a very similar perspective on the German side of World War II.

Novelist Markus Zusak grew up in Australia where his German parents did not hold back telling him stories of their experiences as children growing up in small German villages as Adolf Hitler rose to power. The film adaptation by British director Brian Percival opened this Friday in South Florida in only two theaters (the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 and the AMC Aventura 24), after a steady role-out in limited release across the nation. The film features 13-year-old French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who I first became aware of when I reviewed Philippe Falardeau’s terrific little drama Monsieur Lazhar. (Film Review: ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ tells powerful story by staying grounded).

I met all three of these artists last Friday during a face-to-face interview in a windowless conference room of the Ritz-Carlton Miami Beach. Nélisse chucked a paper airplane across the room when I walked in. “We’re making paper airplanes,” she said exuberantly, as she proceeded to fold another airplane, standing at the edge of a table. British director Percival, most famously known for Emmy-winning work directing many episodes of Downton Abbey, sat slouched on one side of the table. He offered a bright smile and a soft laugh. They were just coming to the end of a month-long tour of U.S. cities promoting their new film, which looks at World War II through the eyes of Liesel (Nélisse), who lives in a small village not far from Munich, as Germany heads into war.

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I placed a stack of handwritten journals held together by twine on the table. “He brought books,” said Nélisse. I introduce myself as Hans and shake hands with Percival. “His name is Hans, like in the movie,” she added, referring to Geoffrey Rush‘s character in the film, Liesel’s adoptive father. I explain that these old books contain stories by my father, a former German soldier conscripted to join the Wehrmacht when he was 16 years old. He wrote them with the help of his first wife, as he lay in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis after surviving the front lines to take Stalingrad (One day, I hope to write the book based on these [Note to any serious German translators out there!]).

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Zusak, author of The Book Thief, walks in a minute or so later, as I share the books, so they might flip through the pages, as we talk about the film. I mention the horrors my dad saw fighting the notoriously ruthless Russians. Percival and Zusak both know about the atrocities well, though they are too graphic to address in a book and film written from a child’s perspective for younger audiences.

Percival said he has heard all kinds of stories. “One couple in a bomb shelter actually remembered being in a bomb shelter during the war. It wasn’t just on the soundtrack. And they, and a number of people, said they fled from the Eastern Front in the final months of the war because they wanted to be captured or liberated, or however you want to look at it, by the Western forces rather than the Russians because the Russians were notorious for what they did, particularly to women and children. There were alarming accounts. A lot of German women dressed as men because they were just being dragged through the streets and raped. There was actually a black market lending out babies because apparently Russian soldiers wouldn’t attack a woman if she had a small child with her, so they used that as a deterrent.”

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Zusak, who is 38 years old, said he finished the book when he was 29. It has since gone on to leave a profound mark on the “New York Times” bestseller chart and won scores of awards. He says his mother would have been 8 years old when the war ended, and the Americans drove through her village. Even though these were the much more sympathetic Western forces, the fear of the Other remain profound. “She said a truck came past her once, and a soldier leaned down and her mom saw, and she was yelling out, ‘Be careful, be careful!’ And a soldier leaned down and gave her a massive block of chocolate, and she said she ran down the street yelling out, ‘They have chocolate! They have chocolate!’ I mean, you think about what happened to so many people, and so many Jewish people in particular … She was so lucky, being that young, for a start.

“Even my dad who had the Russians come into his town after the war, he saw a soldier come up, he stopped his truck and walked up to him, put his hand on his face and said, ‘kind’ [German for child]. He had tears in his eyes and got back in his truck and drove away. That’s what happens, you start seeing things from different points of view, and that’s how I grew up, hearing those things.”

The Book Thief offers a powerfully humanistic portrayal of ordinary people surviving through a dark time in German history. DF-09584_R_CROP_rgbIt’s something that speaks profoundly to this writer, who grew up with other kids teasing that my father was a Nazi, when he hated the Nazis. He was harassed by the Hitler Youth, when he turned down membership at 12 years of age and torn away from his family as a 16-year-old, forced to fight in some of the most costly battles of the war (Africa and Russia) or face a firing squad by his own people. As a child, I lent a reluctant ear to stories of close calls and horror as my father worked out the traumas he had survived until he was blessed from returning to battle with TB, something many also did not survive back then.

As time ran out from our brief, 15-minute interview, and we said our good-byes, Zusak read from one of the last pages of one of my father’s journals: “‘Many German soldiers, including many who fought mostly in the first line knew nothing about concentration camps and the Holocaust. We, and I, fought on the Russian front mainly to fight for our lives and the lives of our loved ones because that enemy was guided by evil forces, Bolshevism, and we were guided and had to endanger our lives for the Nazis, so we were not better than they, but at the same time I must note that not one unit in which I fought committed atrocities. They were mostly men who had to face war because there was no other choice.’ Pretty amazing.”

“That was my dad,” I said, feeling a tad choked up. “That was him.”

“You should be proud,” offered Nélisse.

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Thursday afternoon, The “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist” published my article about the film, where the filmmakers shared their feelings about the war that inspired the book. Percival also gave me some material on Downton Abbey. Read it by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

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The following day, some of the flow of our conversation was captured in this article I wrote based on the interviews for fellow film critic Dan Hudak’s website, “Hudak On Hollywood.” Jump through the website’s logo below to read that:

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Finally, go see the film! Here’s the trailer:

Hans Morgenstern

The Book Thief is rated PG-13 and runs 127 minutes. It opened in South Florida Friday, Nov. 22, at the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 and the AMC Aventura 24. Meanwhile, in other parts of the U.S., it may already be playing at a theater near you; visit the film’s website and enter your zip code to find out here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)