from My Nazi Legacy: a swastika symbol reflected in an eye

Award-winning English director David Evans helmed the feature film Fever Pitch (the original, superior British version about soccer, starring Colin Firth, for which Nick Hornby adapted his best-selling book of the same name), and is now established as a leading director of high-end TV drama in the UK, including Shameless, Downton Abbey, and Russell T. Davies’s Cucumber. So it could be seen as a dive into unexpected territory to make a documentary about two men whose fathers were Nazis in World War II, the subject of his new film, My Nazi Legacy, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, May 2 [check local listings]. My Nazi Legacy is a collaboration with old friend Philippe Sands, a renowned author and human rights lawyer who’s been working on a book in tandem with the film. [See our interview with Sands on this site as well.]

“Right from the start, this involving documentary asks much of its audience and poses questions that are unnerving yet engrossing,” writes Ken Jaworowski in The New York Times. “Outstanding… challenging, and disturbing,” adds Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian.

How did you first connect with Philippe Sands and decide to work together to make this film?

My Nazi Legacy filmmaker David Evans
My Nazi Legacy filmmaker David Evans

Philippe and I are old friends; in fact he directed me in a play at University. I think it’s telling that he did not go on to become a director, nor I an actor.

But the prospect of this film grew from a conversation round his dinner table. He realised that in researching his book East West Street he had found these two men, whom he had little use for in the narrative of his book, but who clearly had a fascinating story to tell. He thought it might make a film. I agreed.

What was that working relationship like for you both as collaborators?

At first I was concerned that the stresses of making a film together should not jeopardize our friendship; but I didn’t need to worry. Philippe was, from start to finish, utterly respectful of those parts of the process which he recognized as lying within my sphere of expertise, while at the same time having enormous passion to make the film as good as it could be; this meant accepting a much bigger on-screen role for himself than he (or I) had initially bargained for. But of course the film would have been diminished had it been about only two rather than three men sharing the same history. So from my point of view it was an ideal working relationship.

How did you come to see this project as different from previous films about the Holocaust? What about it appealed to you as a filmmaker?

I determinedly refused to see it as a “Holocaust documentary”; partly because that would have meant taking on a fearful weight of moral responsibility, and partly because, truth to tell, we needed to invent a genre for our work to fit in. We are, after all, explicitly concerned with the legacy of the Holocaust in terms of the way in which subsequent generations cope with the memory of atrocities perpetrated by, or upon, their antecedents. This is a much smaller genre containing very few films — Hitler’s Children being an example.

The passage of time makes it inevitable that documentaries concerned with the Holocaust become secondary accounts of the events themselves — but that’s not the whole answer, as we discovered in the cutting room: the more we allowed the film to become preoccupied with the way in which memory is shaped by the narrowly personal as well as the historically momentous — by filial pride or hatred, as well as recognition of the historical facts — the more universal the film’s implications became. When the film was released people from Cambodia and Argentina claimed our story of shame, blame and exoneration as their own.

What was your own first exposure to learning about the Holocaust? Was it through fictionalized films or documentary? Did your own family talk about it?

Like any British boy of my generation I was educated about the Holocaust at school, and I saw the episode of The World at War that screened on TV, with my family. I’ve never liked fiction films about the Holocaust. It was never talked about in my household.

 

Was it emotionally challenging to dig into and look at archival footage from the Krakow ghetto, for example, and other images from that time?

First, you have to remember what a boon that trove of archive footage was! We knew we had a great film in the making before we were given access to that material — but to see that color footage from Hans Frank’s personal archive, never before placed in the public domain… it was simply amazing. And then for Horst to counter, as it were, Nik’s offer with the revelation that he, too, had home movies: of his relaxed father rowing on the lake and so forth. These discoveries transformed the film.

Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940. Image courtesy of Niklas Frank

And so for a long time I didn’t really “see” the archive footage, because I was so concerned at using it most advantageously in the cut. It was only when I watched the film for the first time with an audience that I thought about what a public screening of that material meant. There’s something about the curious, guileless expressions of the young people, all of whom surely perished  — combined with the sense, that, had it not been for this film, those trusting glances may never have been seen by anyone at all  — that evokes a strange atmosphere of the uncomprehending past looking out of the screen at the present.

But in all honesty the most overwhelming moment for me personally was walking into the derelict synagogue in Zhovkva — I’m not quite sure why.

Have Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter seen the film and if so have they given feedback (especially Horst) on seeing their own painful stories portrayed?

Yes, of course. Indeed they have jointly attended public screenings followed by audience discussions in Vienna and Nuremberg (where the film was screened in Courtroom 600 itself). Horst, I think, feels kindly disposed towards us — in that he knows we have represented his views fairly — but in general he feels that the film misses the point, that the true story of his father is yet to be told.

Interestingly, it was Niklas who picked out a moment in the film which he was passionately convinced we should change: near the end, in the Nuremberg court sequence, where we now hear Hans Frank testifying to his official positions in the Nazi government, we had originally included a short section of the famous speech in which Frank remarked on the guilt of the German nation. Niklas was indignant that this painted his father in too positive a light, that he should not be allowed even this much room to win the audience’s sympathy. I agreed to the change — in truth the issue of Frank’s ‘confession’ is a vexed one, which the film does not explore, so it’s perhaps best left out completely — but it was a stark reminder of the depth of hatred Niklas still feels for his father’s memory.

I think both men found the film hard to watch to begin with; and as filmmakers we have always been aware of the debt we owe both of them as willing participants in a process that from start to finish was exhausting and occasionally distressing.

You’ve worked successfully for some time as a director of fiction film and TV before returning to documentary for this. What was different for you in the process of making a non-fiction film, what were unique challenges that came up?

Challenges — I don’t know… there were opportunities a-plenty though. In TV drama, one is always bound by the script — the writer or showrunner is the auteur — and while that leaves a lot of room for interpretation, how much varies from show to show, it places a great burden on the director’s shoulders just to shoot what’s on the page, and not to the detriment of the schedule and budget. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in jumping through those hoops and coming away with something of top quality; but it doesn’t compare to the creative risk one finds sitting in a room with a bunch of rushes and hoping there’s a film to be found there.

At the same time the stakes were conspicuously low, at least to begin with: Philippe and I didn’t start off thinking that our project would become a feature-length theatrical documentary, and our producers Amanda Posey and Finola Dwyer had bigger fish to fry because they were in the middle of making Brooklyn! Even when our edits were ready to be exposed to critical scrutiny — by Amanda and Finol, and Nick Fraser, the presiding genius of the BBC Storyville strand, who was an early and fervent supporter of our project — even then there was an assumption that the final author of the film was me. I’m particularly grateful to Philippe, who was the instigator of the project and, of course, intimately engaged with it at every stage, that he, too, opted to see what came out of the cutting room before applying his own finish to the film.

This was an unequivocally positive experience. It meant that I could relate to the material with a completely open mind, and I had a perfect companion in that process in film editor David Charap, whom I have know for years but had never worked with. He has racked up credits with some of the most exciting filmmakers working in the UK, including Pavel Pawlikowski and Terence Davies. I feel that the structure of the film was born out of the creative, blue-sky, no-strings conversation in the cutting room between me and David, and it has marked a permanent change in my attitude to filmmaking.

The more complicated we chose to make the film, the more thought, depth, and nuance we tried to squeeze into it, the better it became. This is something I always hoped would be true, but popular drama isn’t always the best arena to put that theory to the test; however, now I have the proof!

I missed working with actors though…

What do you think American audiences can take away from this film, what sort of conversations would you like people to have after they see it?

The interesting conversation is always at the junction of the two axes that define the field of the film: on the one hand there’s a moral axis, simply to do with the culpability of Otto von Wächter and Hans Frank: how much were they to blame for the acts perpetrated in their name? Then there’s the familial axis: how much should a son’s feelings for his father be understood in terms of how good a father the father was? Some people find Horst utterly repugnant — they believe that he is after all a Holocaust-denier. Others find Niklas Frank’s personal hatred of his father so great that it eclipses the force of his moral condemnation. To me, that’s the interesting area — between those two poles.

The guilt or innocence of perpetrators of atrocities are matters to be settled in courts of law; how we feel about those people, especially if we are close to them for some reason — that’s a legitimate question for a film to ask.

What projects are you working on next?

Philippe and I are working on another documentary, this time about the implications of the key instruments of modern international law instigated at Nuremberg: “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”; the film has already acquired depth and urgency through our focus on the plight of the Yazidis in Kurdish Syria and Iraq (whose treatment by ISIS has been designated genocide by the USA and the EU) and in particular on the work of psychotherapist Dr. Jan Kizilhan, who has arranged for over one thousand female victims of ISIS to find refuge in Germany, where he is working towards their psychological recovery.