While some might call Philippe Sands the on-screen host of My Nazi Legacy, the new film by David Evans that is based on Sands’ new book, he’s actually the probing, searching journalistic heart at the center of this powerful documentary. The book, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, published in the U.S. on May 24, tells parallel personal and public stories about Jewish people whose lives were taken in Lviv, Ukraine in the 1930s, the men responsible for such heinous crimes, and the legacy left to their children. Sands, a renowned international human rights lawyer and a professor of law at University College London, has a personal connection – his Ukrainian grandfather’s family was killed in the Holocaust.

The book was called “a monumental achievement: profoundly personal, told with love, anger and great precision” by renowned novelist John le Carré.

Before gearing up for an extensive book publicity cycle, Sands took the time to chat with us about collaborating with David Evans on the film, the two men at the center of the story, and his own family’s history.

Could you tell us a bit about how, while researching your book, the plans came into place for it to also be a film? 

The film is a slice of a bigger project, the centerpiece of which is my book, East West Street.

“How could such a cultured and educated man, a lawyer who went to the best schools, do such terrible things?”

This all begins in 2010. I received an invitation to give a lecture at the University of Lviv in the Ukraine, about my work on genocide and crimes against humanity. I accepted, mainly because my grandfather was born there in 1904, when it was called Lemberg, a time about which he never spoke. Amazingly, I discovered that the men who put “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” into international law at the famous Nuremberg trial – Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht – had studied at the same university. A few years later, in August 1942, Hitler’s one time lawyer Hans Frank came to the city, delivered a speech and within days the Final Solution was being implemented. Members of the families of Lemkin and Lauterpacht were all murdered, along with my grandfather’s family.

I became interested in Hans Frank. How could a highly educated lawyer perpetrate such atrocities? Later I met with Frank’s son Niklas, we became friends. One day he said to me: “Not all the children are like me.” He introduced me to Horst, and I was very struck by their different approaches.

Niklas and Horst both appear in my book, but I also wrote an article in the Financial Times, which was published in May 2013: “My Father, the Good Nazi.” It caused a bit of a stir.

How did you first connect with director David Evans to collaborate with him on this project? 

Cover of Philippe Sands book East West StreetSix months after the Financial Times published my article, David Evans came to dinner at my home, with his wife. We are very old friends from university at Cambridge (I directed him, pretty badly, in two theatrical productions). He’d read the FT article and told my wife he thought it would make a good documentary. By such accidents do films get made! A month later we were in Bavaria doing the first filming, an interview with Niklas at the old family home.

And why was it decided that the book should come out after the film?

The film is only a slice of the book, which is about the lives of four men – my grandfather, Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Hans Frank – connected in ways that are surprising. We made the film over a year while I was still writing the book, which took two more years to complete. The film developed a life of its own, and there wasn’t any point in waiting. If there’s interest, seize the moment!

Hans Frank, who was Hitler’s lawyer, is of course a very prominent player in your book, and in the film. How did you first connect with his son Niklas to talk to him, and was Niklas initially resistant or very much eager to talk about his father? 

I got very interested in Hans Frank, so read everything I could find. How could such a cultured and educated man, a lawyer who went to the best schools, do such terrible things? I came across Niklas’ book, as vitriolic an attack by a son on his father as I have ever read – it’s called In the Shadow of the Reich. Read it cover to cover in a single sitting, couldn’t put it down. So I decided to find Niklas, which wasn’t so easy, and we ended up meeting for tea on the banks of the River Elbe in the garden of the Hotel Jacob. The first meeting was a little anxious-making and weird – after all, his father was indicted for the murder of 4 million Jews and Poles, including my grandfather’s entire Lviv family. But we got on well, he was like an open door, no pushing needed.

As we see in the film it’s certainly both fascinating and very painful, frustrating, to see von Wächter wrestle with and deny his father’s legacy, even after you and Frank confront him. I know this is conjecture, but do you see any hope for him to accept more of what happened, or is the denial too deeply rooted at this point?

Niklas introduced me to Horst in 2012, and when I first met him I think he was a little more open about what his father had got up to. As I spent more time with him, and we dug ever deeper, he seemed to become more and more intransigent. I don’t hold him responsible for what his father did, not in any way, but I do believe that acknowledging facts is a first step to making sure such horrors don’t recur. At this point his state of denial seems to be a mechanism for survival – to recognize the truth would cut too deep, so I don’t think it will happen.

Do you know if either man has seen the film and/or read your book, and had any thoughts on how their family’s stories were portrayed or made them feel?

“Some of the most powerful and poignant reactions I’ve come across are from people who have no connection with that terrible story.”

I stay in good contact with both Niklas and Horst. They’ve both seen the film, but not yet read the book as it’s not published [yet]. I’ll send it to them, and await the reactions. We’ve done film festivals together – Vienna – and even attended a screening in the Nuremberg courtroom where the famous trial occurred, which was pretty amazing. I suspect Niklas is rather more comfortable with the film than Horst, whose family have rather taken against it (one family member asked me if I could “make sure the film is never shown in Austria”). That says a lot, made me laugh.

Since most viewers of the film won’t have the same family connection to these atrocities, what would you like them to take away from seeing the film and reading your book? There is always the worry of history repeating itself, but there’s also more to the story — about denial and legacy. What discussions would you like people to take away from this?

This is a film about fathers and sons, and it touches on a universal theme and question: what would I do if my father was a mass murderer? Would I love him? Would I hate him? Would I be Niklas or Horst? Those questions transcend the Holocaust, so its not a film about Nazis and Jews.

Some of the most powerful and poignant reactions I’ve come across are from people who have no connection with that terrible story. They come from people in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Congo, Iraq, Argentina, and the myriad of other places where terrible things have happened and family members clam up about their involvement. This film make you ask big questions about family and identity, love and responsibility. Niklas and Horst take extreme positions, and between their two poles do we and the viewers oscillate.

In a way East West Street takes up the same themes, and more. The few people who have read it are totally amazed that words like “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” are recent inventions, manmade constructs that emerged in face of horror with the intention to deal with responsibility and to prevent more horrors. Sadly, the crimes go on, as do the denials and our failures to acknowledge facts in the face of contested histories.

The themes in this film have prompted so many questions. David and I are working on a new film, one that takes these themes into the horrors of today, the crimes of rape, enslavement, and torture perpetrated against Kurdish Yazidi women and girls in northern Iraq. We have followed the same path, starting with an article in the Financial Times, “On Genocide and Trauma,” which I wrote last month.