The City Mouse
Hitler’s Children review – by Tomer Pratt, posted on City Mouse on May 2, 2011
No one prepared the Israeli junior high students visiting Auschwitz to the presence of Rainer Höß, grandson of concentration camp commandant Rudolf Höß. Rainer’s father grew up on the “other planet”, not on the side of the murdered but in his family’s villa, built just outside the camp. Now the grandson is walking around the place like a ghost. Only an iron gate separated the Höß family from the area where Mengele conducted his selections, and from the crematoriums, but the smell of smoke was always in the air. Journalist Eldad Beck, who escorted Rainer during the film, got a permission from the site’s management to enter the camp with the grandson. They traveled on a train to Oswiecim station, the town adjacent to the camp named after it. Everybody knows the iron sign ARBEIT MACHT FREI at the camp’s entrance, which became an icon in many Holocaust movies, but it appears that the small, abandoned station and the wretched sign OSWIECIM were never filmed. Its desolation and banality screams.
Rainer Höß holds in his pocket an old photograph of a toddler standing near the gate. Now he is looking at the photograph and the real gate, and breaths in excitement. In the museum he looks at the piles of the deceased’s shoes for the first time, and no muscle moves in his face. Suddenly, the Israeli guide announces: “We have the grandson of the camp’s commandant with us today. Would you like to ask him any questions?” What happens next is an unforgettable scene.
The grandson now stands before the young Israelis who stood before the crematoriums earlier and are now sitting in front of him on the museum’s floor. His eyes are nearly popping out. The camera focuses on a young girl who stood up to ask a question, but now chokes and cries. Höß is looking at her with a poker face, and it seems like the crowd is about to jump at him with burning rage. But then another question rises from the audience: “If you met your grandfather today, what would you do?” Rainer doesn’t hesitate: “I would kill him” and his face are twitches in lament. A Holocaust survivor escorting the tour hurries to hug and comfort him: “I go across Germany and tell that not all Germans are guilty”. The students stand up, shake his hand, and one girl gives him a personal necklace as a souvenir.
Katrin Himmler carries the name of her uncle, Heinrich Himmler, who commanded on the SS and the Gestapo and was responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews. She is a gentle, intelligent woman, who married an Israeli Jew and lives with him in America. Bettina Göring, niece of Hermann Göring, one of the heads of the Nazi Party, underwent sterilization, to “put an end to the Göring dynasty”.
Monika Göth, daughter of Amon Göth, the infamous commandant of Płaszów who is remembered from the movie “Schindler’s List” is a sensitive, expressive woman, who constantly relives the horrors her father had committed. “I look like Amon, but I am not Amon” she apologizes in pain.
Niklas Frank, son of Poland’s Governor-General, who was one of architects of the plan to exterminate the Jews in Europe, is an obsessive, yet amusing man. He spends his life traveling across Germany to meet with the youth, to whom he tells about the horrors committed by his father, his bitter enemy. He wrote two books about his life in the shade of his family name, and reads from them to his listeners.
“I use dirty words against my father, and it amazes the teenagers sitting in front of me every time” he tells while driving. Later, in front of a high school class, he says: “I see that I’m not very interesting for you. You must be thinking, here comes another one old fool to nag us about the Third Reich”, and in a lecture to an older crowd: “I’m glad you came to hear me even though I do not trust you, as Germans, at all. In the event of a small economical crisis, some strong politician will rise, and then all of a sudden appears a little labor camp, followed by a little slaughter. This, of course, will contribute to the unity of the German nation, leading to more work places for the real Germans. Yes, I have many apprehensions towards you”.
These eccentric people are what makes the film an original and fascinating creation. They live right under our noses, and all one had to do is find them and have them sit in front of a camera before they too pass away. The stories that the murderers’ offspring heard from first source are another way to deny the Holocaust. In the movie they come out as caring, conscientious people, very much unlike their ancestors. The film doesn’t try to provide theories or psychological explanations.
Director Chanoch Ze’evi lets them speak, thus showing the banal, disappointing truth: monsters don’t give birth to monsters. Evil is not hereditary. The conclusion of the film is similar to the one of the Holocaust author Ka-Tzetnik towards the end of his life. The man who came up with the term “other planet” in relation to Auschwitz, went back on his word and claimed that the Holocaust happened on earth, by regular people.
The hug scene between the grandson and the survivor could have ended the film with a decent catharsis. But the director refuses to sell us that. The ending shot belongs to Eldad Beck, who says: “What happened there with the students was real. But it was too quick. Shallow. Because of the horribleness of the Holocaust we have the need to find a good ending, so we can live with it in normality. So here comes the grandson and apologizes and everyone’s happy. But not every story has a happy ending, and the specific story of the Holocaust has no ending at all”.