Documentary focuses on descendants of top Nazi officials


Nobody really spends a lot of time grieving for the progeny of those who commanded the murderous Nazi regime.

As “Hitler’s Children” demonstrates, however, the stories of these descendants are filled with pain, guilt and shame. How the family members have attempted to cope with the effects of being innocently inserted into the dark side of history makes for a fascinating and sometimes heart-rending tale.

The Israeli director and producer Chanoch Ze’evi got the idea for the film after a meeting with Adolf Hitler’s secretary. As he is quoted on the film’s website, “I understood that the dialogue with the ‘other side’ can teach us many new things about the fertile ground on which the hatred grew while, as descendants take responsibility for their families’ and nations’ crimes, simultaneously conveying a message of hope for the future.”

Ze’evi’s subjects include five individuals who live in the shadows of their malevolent forebears: Heinrich Himmler’s great niece Katrin; Hermann Goering’s great niece Bettina; Rainer Hoess, grandson of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess; Niklis Frank, son of Hans Frank, the Nazi occupation chief in Poland; and Monika Hertwig, daughter of Amon Goeth, commander of Plaszow concentration camp.


The movie serves up a variety of ways in which the family members have created their own coping mechanisms. Some are more escapist than others. Bettina Goerring, for instance, has left Germany a long way away, settling in the New Mexico high desert many years ago. Still, just as the rearview mirror warns that objects are closer than they seem, she retains an emotional tie to her former country, and we see her hosting family and friends for a nostalgic evening of German food and song.

Her seeming contrast in the narrative is Niklis Frank, who is determined through writings and constant speaking engagements to convey the vile nature of his father’s atrocities. Frank is tormented by his inability to honor the Fourth Commandment, because, as he indicates, he’s spent 30 years trying to find a shred of decency in his parents’ lives and has come up empty.

Other potent moments issue, including Hertwig relating the tale of how she came to understand the full scope of Amon Goeth’s sadistic killings, and a retelling of her experience in attending a showing of “Schindler’s List”, in which her father was portrayed.

Perhaps the most touching chapter comes when Rainer Hoess makes the brave decision to visit Auschwitz, having been haunted by the cruel irony of family photos showing his grandfather’s beautiful home just outside a gate to the death camp. The photos are taken in such a way as to hide the almost contiguous gas chambers and surrounding prison yards.

Not only does Hoess witness the family enclave in person, but at a tour presentation, a docent at the camp introduces him and asks if he wants to answer questions from Israeli schoolchildren. He calmly but hardly serenely answers a series of questions, including one positing what he would say if he met his grandfather in the present time. He answers, “I would kill him myself.” The potency of this response is followed up by what is perhaps the film’s denouement, an embrace with a Holocaust survivor and one of the students, as he’s told he needn’t bear the shame or responsibility for what he didn’t do.

Ze’evi’s film is no cinematic powerhouse, nor does it seem to aspire to be one. He lets the people and their stories take center stage, understanding that the subject matter is sufficiently compelling to require little in the way of amplification. And while the talking-head style of documentary can sometimes give way to mock narcolepsy, in this case it’s absolutely essential to watch the subjects’ facial expressions, as they manifest their feelings and reactions to their lot in a variety of emotional expressions.

It may feel like there’s sufficient suffering among Jews, Russians, Romas and gays that turning the camera on the descendants of the slaughterers is an indulgence. But “Hitler’s Children” demonstrates that no matter how much time passes, the tragedies of the Holocaust unfold in virtually limitless ways.