Film Review: Hitler’s ChildrenThe heaviest of family baggage is carried by five among the second and third-generation descendants of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen, who candidly share their unfortunate legacy. As fascinating as it is provocative about aspects of evil, guilt
Vet documentary filmmaker Chanoch Ze’evi, armed with a great premise, access and a fine production and research team, brings to the screen a handful of forthcoming adults who have the misfortune of living with a shared name and varying degrees of guilt about their relatives’ key roles in the deaths of many millions of innocent people.
Several of the subjects of Hitler’s Children have written books about their heritage and speak about the burden of carrying their notorious names. Several also portray unhappy childhoods or life with parents who totally lacked affection and were severe taskmasters to the point of demanding that meticulous shoe-polishing chores also meant polishing soles. So horrible were their relatives, most, in large part, were put to death by hanging after the war or cheated verdicts by committing suicide.
Niklas Frank, Hitler’s godson and the son of Hans Frank, the Führer’s appointee as governor of occupied Poland who had oversight of the ghettoes and death camp, is the most proactive and outspoken regarding his anti-Nazi sentiments. He has broken a taboo by writing a savage book about his father, denouncing him in the harshest terms (“a slime- hole of a Hitler fanatic”) and traveling throughout Germany for many decades speaking to students about the terrible Nazi legacy and the sins of his own father. A scholar and man of great purpose, Frank impresses on several counts and has the support of a loving, supportive family that shares his views and purpose.
Grand-niece of one of the highest-profile, highest-placed Nazis—flashy, fleshy Luftwaffe commander Herman Göring—Bettina Göring admits to looking like her great uncle and possibly sharing some of his traits. Such proximity, among more serious matters, helps explain why she and her brother both subjected themselves to sterilization so the genes would stop with them and why she became a kind of recluse living in a remote outpost of New Mexico without electricity and in New Age style. But there are aspects of her German heritage that she cherishes—the classical music and literature. Also missing German food, she, with her husband, occasionally throws German dinner parties where guests also join in singing German songs.
Somehow, the name “Himmler” didn’t initially scare off the Israeli Jew and son of Holocaust survivors who married Katrin Himmler, grand-niece of Heinrich Himmler, mastermind of the mass extermination. Apparently no longer with her husband (their growing arguments, she explains without elaboration, began reflecting too much of their Jewish and German stereotypes), Himmler, while clearly being virulently anti-Nazi, appears to have made a healthy transition away from her legacy and is, as the French might say, comfortable in her skin.
Monika (Goeth) Hertwig, now a grandmother, is the daughter of Amon Goeth, immortalized as the sadistic commander of the Plaszow death camp in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Hertwig talks about the shocking ways she learned about who her father really was and about her realization that Plaszow wasn’t just a “work” camp. Suffice it to say that Hertwig is one person who will never go see Schindler’s List again.
Rainer Hoess, the grandson of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Hoess, packs the biggest emotional wallop. He travels to Auschwitz with Berlin-based Israeli journalist Eldad Beck, himself a third-generation Holocaust survivor. Hoess visits the camp grounds and museum and, armed with old family photographs of the villa near the crematoria where his grandfather lived and his father played with expensive toys like a normal kid, sees the old family home. Hoess often goes teary-eyed, most memorably when he answers questions at a session that brings him face-to-face with a crowd of Israeli youths.
Viewers may not share Beck’s somewhat dismissive reaction to Hoess’ emotional confrontation with these young people when the journalist tells the filmmaker, “It was all too quick.” But the film’s most cynical view comes from Frank, who confesses, “I don’t trust us Germans, unfortunately, [especially] if the economy turns bad again... Yes, I have concerns.”
The well-made doc, whose subjects seem largely sincere and reliable (with some arguably maybe a bit fuzzy), leaves us with a few unanswered questions, the least important being why the five progeny were all so amenable to share such dark aspects of their lineage. But it’s Frank who raises the most pressing question (and provides hints of his answer): Can an evil of the Holocaust’s magnitude happen again in Germany? At least Hitler’s Children, unlike the upcoming, mesmerizing German-Australian co-production Lore, provides hope along with clues to an answer.