Last Night's Viewing: Hitler's Children, BBC2 24 Hours in A&E, Channel 4


Tom Sutcliffe
Wednesday 23 May 2012 21:06

"Many people tell me I look like my father," said Monika in Hitler's Children, "but I'm not Amon... I have nothing in common with him either." Well, nothing but a big chunk of DNA, without which, one assumes, Monika would have found Schindler's List a far less troubling experience than she did.

It's not an easy film for any member of the audience, but just imagine you're the daughter of the character Ralph Fiennes plays, the very personification of arbitrary Nazi cruelty. And imagine too that your mother has concealed the worst of his crimes. The scene in which he's shown shooting Jews for sport from the balcony of his villa is going to pose questions about your identity that nobody would want to ask themselves.

Chanoch Ze'evi's remarkable film interviewed the descendents of several signal Nazi war criminals, including the son of Hans Frank, who was the Governor-General of Occupied Poland, and the grandson of Rudolf Höss, the first commandant of Auschwitz. They were, in one respect, an unrepresentative group... inheritors of a national and familial guilt who had not retreated into denial (as some of their siblings had) and who regarded it as their duty to talk. But they shared something too. It wasn't that the responsibility for the crimes weighed heavily upon them – as in some Old Testament cascade of blood guilt – but that they felt the responsibility for repudiating those crimes with a particular intensity.

Rainer Höss's experience was particularly dramatic. He'd inherited a chest given to his grandfather by Heinrich Himmler, an object shown being opened here as if it was Pandora's box itself. Inside were mementoes that would have been unremarkable in any other family, including snapshots of Rainer's father as a small child, playing with his sisters. But these sunlit photographs were taken in the commandant's garden and just the other side of the wall, through an ornamental gate, lay the camp and the gas chambers. The toy aeroplane with the swastika on the tail had been made by prisoners. The gate is still there, a metaphor for Rainer of a barrier he had to step through. In an extraordinary scene, he addressed a group of young Israeli students visiting the camp, and was, eventually, embraced by a survivor in an acknowledgement of his sorrow.

Some of the reactions of these relatives had a dark irony to them. Bettina Göring and her brother had both had themselves sterilized – the descendants of obsessive eugenicists opting for a eugenic solution to what they saw as a corrupted bloodline. Others had decided to break the chain in a different way, by talking and writing about what their fathers and grandparents had done, a penitential duty that would at least allow their children an easier life. Movingly, Niklas Frank's daughter acknowledged that his near obsession with personal reparation had insulated her from the agony that had been his inheritance. You saw him finally playing happily with his grandchildren, doing his duty in building memories that wouldn't be tainted by murder and notoriety.

24 Hours in A&E was the perfect antidote to the more melancholy aspects of Hitler's Children, a nightmare vision, for a Nazi ideologue, of a mongrel world in which the weak and the vulnerable are cared for and nursed, rather than loaded into the back of a euthanasia van. "You are angels, man, you are angels," said Jill, a pregnant woman admitted with serious bleeding. They aren't, of course. Jill, we learned, eventually lost her baby a month later. But they do seem to care more than mere professional responsibility could account for. Matt, the charming doctor at the centre of this episode, had to be sent off for a little weep at one point, after an elderly woman had died in one of the cubicles and the grief of her family had got to him. I have a feeling his children and grandchildren aren't going to have conflicted feelings about him either.

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