Structured largely around thematically and physically up-close interviews, Hitler’s Children focuses on five individuals with ranging bloodline connections to the enforcers of the Holocaust. Everyone involved, from director Chanoch Ze’evi to his interviewees, who’ve carried on their infamous surnames but vehemently reject any Nazi sympathies, is in perpetual search of significance and closure. The subjects—primarily featured via talking-head confessionals—reach toward some intangible catharsis as Ze’evi yearns but fails to effectively process their expressions of historical regret into a clear and comprehensive statement.
The diverse coping methods through which each descendant has attempted to alleviate the burden of their contentious lineage is compelling. Niklas Frank, son of Nazi lawyer Hans Frank, and Katrin Himmler, great niece of Heinrich Himmler, wrote books documenting and condemning the horror and hatred their families perpetuated. Rainer Höss, grandson of Rudolf Höss, the first commandant of Auschwitz, sorrowfully visits the villa directly adjacent to Auschwitz that his grandfather and father inhabited, and briefly—yet tearfully—answers questions from a visiting group of young Israelis. Bettina Göring, great niece of Hermann Göring, moved to New Mexico, therefore escaping her heritage, and now enjoys the life of a hippie expat. Monika Göth, daughter of Amon Göth, commander of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, has apparently never recovered, though, and she’s just now discovering how murderous her father was. She experienced a panic attack while watching Schindler’s List, in which Ralph Fiennes indelibly portrayed her father.
Although the doc confronts how love for family and one’s country isn’t always—and, in many cases, shouldn’t be—unconditional, the subjects are, on occasion, problematically framed. The intimate confessionals are often undermined by a treacherously superfluous score—a macabre, if sparse, piano tune that suggests low-rent Angelo Badalamenti. Such an attempt to add a layer of lingering dread and anxiety to scenarios that are already inherently vexing and horrifying strikes a chord of disingenuity that Ze’evi frequently eschews during some of the film’s more compassionate moments.
Near the end of the film, Niklas Frank observes during a visiting lecture that the students in the class must be thinking: “Here comes another old fart to babble on about the Third Reich.” In a way, he could also be referring to the documentary audience. But the self-aware cheekiness of his comment is also apt, as the film never reveals new information about the well-known horrific events of the past. Hitler’s Children looks at the present in order to redefine the evil epoch of the past, and to find a hopeful future devoid of such hatred and destruction. Ze’evi’s innovative concept far outreaches his execution, though. Part investigation of generational guilt and part chorus of apologies, the film drains its subjects of the shame forced on them by Nazi ancestors and yet has difficulty arriving at an effective, constructive thesis.