Human Rights Lawyer Philippe Sands spends his days fighting for justice in courts of law. Directed by David Evans, What Our Fathers Did documents his journey across Europe to different places which hold historical significance for their roles in the extermination of 6 million Jews during The Holocaust and World War Two. Philippe lost all of his family, except his Grandfather and Great Uncle, to the Nazis and their attempts to eradicate the Jewish population of Europe. This journey is not only a historical one but a personal one. Our lawyer is not alone in his physical and psychological journeys. He is accompanied by two other men whose own families played a vastly different role in World War Two. Niklas Frank and Horst Van Wachter are the sons of Nazi officers. Their fathers, both high ranking and loyal members of Hitler’s party, committed atrocities throughout the war and were both responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people – Philippe’s family included. Niklas condemns his father for his murderous actions and involvement, speaking openly about his hatred for a Nazi officer who never showed him any direct affection. Horst does not share Niklas’s simplistic view. He still sees his father in a loving light and continuously defends and excuses his role. What Our Fathers Did is about denial, and the dangers of it, but also questions what it means to be the child of a mass murderer, providing us with two starkly different examples.
Most of us can relate to the natural desire to protect the ones we love, whether it be physically, mentally or merely their memory. The latter half of What Our Fathers Did focuses on Horst’s refusal to recognise his Father as a criminal or a dishonourable man. Both Philippe and Niklas repeatedly provide him with evidence of his Father’s responsibility in countless murders which is dismissed each time by feeble excuses and ignorance. The camera lingers on Horst and his mounting discomfort in each encounter. The film’s themes of murder and denial make it comparable to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence – a master-class in provoking truth and acceptance from men unwilling to listen. Here, Horst is a generation removed and holds no personal responsibility for the death of anyone. Yet, he blatantly has a responsibility to acknowledge and accept his Father’s evil actions. What Our Fathers Did is concerned with reinforcing this message that acknowledgement and remembrance are the only ways to avoid future barbarity of the same ilk. Philippe is quick to remind us that exterminations still happens all over the world. In the film’s most striking moment Philippe and Horst stand in the remains of a synagogue where Philippe’s ancestors spent their lives worshiping before it was burnt down and they were executed, (orders signed off by Horst’s father). Horst feebly claims that his father would have been shot, like all other Nazi soldiers, if he’d refused to kill or carry out orders. To this Philippe chillingly responds – “because it was inevitable, does that remove responsibility?”.
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