Lawyer and author Philippe Sands questions the sons of two, senior Nazi officers throughout What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy as the trio travels throughout Europe, visiting important sites and locations that were relevant during the Holocaust. Director David Evans quickly focuses the film on Sands, of Jewish descent, and his determination to convince Horst von Wächter of his father’s role in the concentration camps.
Von Wächter refuses to definitely state his father’s complicity and his demands for proof of guilt are contradictory; at times, he claims signatures and official documentation to be insufficient evidence, while at others, as when visiting one of the locations where a series of mass murder took place, insists on being shown “the exact date and who was responsible and present here.” It seems, for von Wächter, the only sufficient proof would be a time machine that could return him to the inciting scene.
Evans captures many of these interactions with minimal signs of interference, largely forgoing a score and recording several discussions in single takes. However, the film allows Sands a voiceover that consistently prevents a more objective approach. When Sands first visits von Wächter, the latter’s speech is often deleted in place of Sands explaining his intentions and frustrations, with the formal choice erecting a barrier between the two men by privileging one of their voices over the other.
Much of What Our Fathers Did’s first two-thirds is devoted to damning von Wächter’s ignorance by trotting him across numerous locations in order to provide him with visible evidence of his father’s actions. The film’s other subject, Niklas Frank, not only readily admits his father’s guilt, but also disowns him as anything more than a biological relation. Frank suspects von Wächter may be a Nazi, himself, while von Wächter says Frank is an “egoist maniac” concerned only with demonizing his father’s actions.
Sands suspects their differences may have something to do with the Nuremburg trials, since Frank’s father was convicted of murder by “command responsibility,” but von Wächter’s was never captured and tried. Sands’s inquires begin to explain individual responses to collective catastrophe, but the film stops short of allowing room for complexity or ambiguity in its offering of pat, reductive assessments.
More importantly, all access to authoritative voice and determinations are those of Sands and Evans, who expel von Wächter from the film in the end so that Sands can offer his ruling through voiceover. The conclusion is a shortsighted examination of filial trauma, but, even worse, it suggests the film exists to affirm the preconceived desires and perceptions of its makers.