Israeli director Chanoch Ze’evi talks about his groundbreaking documentary

Burden of legacy

    Israeli director Chanoch Ze’evi talks about his groundbreaking documentary, “Hitler’s Children”, a powerful dialogue between the descendants of the perpetrators and the victims of the Holocaust
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    Photo: The Hindu

    Each word in this hour-long documentary film is worth lending an ear. The silence between the words also tells you more than a thing or two. The mood it creates is obviously sombre. But the message it sends viewers is far more important: when violence occurs, it swallows not just the victim but the perpetrator too.
    A poster of the film.
    Israeli director Chanoch Ze’evi’s award-winning “Hitler’s Children” brilliantly works on verbal and non-verbal communication to narrate a moving story from the Holocaust with a fresh angle. For the first time, he succeeded in creating a cinematic platform for a dialogue between the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators and the victims, showing viewers the deep guilt and sense of responsibility the perpetrators’ family members carry with them in their daily lives even 70 years later.

    Ze’evi made the Israeli-German film in end-2011. But the documentary, having picked up awards at several international film festivals for its groundbreaking angle, is still travelling across the world. “From January till March 2013, it has been screened in the U.S. besides a screening in Taipei,” says Ze’evi after a private screening of the film in Haifa, Israel.

    Ze’evi points out that the idea met with initial disapproval of many Israelis. “Till then, films had been made from the victims’ point of view. I wanted to see the other side. People felt their sufferings can’t match that of the other side. But I wanted to pass on the message of the need to remove the barrier and secure a dialogue between the two sides. To look at the painful truth, to see the difficult pictures, to face the unimaginable facts, but most importantly, to speak,” he says.
    He, however, states that winning the approval of fellow Jews was easy compared to the struggle of reaching out to the Germans and have them agree to feature in the film. He made a list of 15 descendants of Hitler’s core group, pursued them for some years. Most warned him not to get in touch, ever. “But some agreed to talk.”

    Ze’evi feels the first sparks for the film sprang from a meeting he had with Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, in Munich in 1999 while researching for yet another film, “The Disappearance of Martin Bormann”, based on Hitler’s deputy and his mysterious disappearance at the end of the Second World War. “For years, she had refused to talk about what she had seen and experienced at Hitler’s side during the War and then, surprisingly, she agreed to meet me, an Israeli director, at her home. As she opened the door, I remember noticing an old typewriter on a table covered with a lace cloth. So many thoughts went through my head, who knows what instructions had been printed on that machine.”

    Junge directed him to ex-Nazis who could tell him more about Bormann. After meeting them and their families, Ze’evi “understood how important it was to also tell the stories of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.” He says, “For years, in our education system in Israel, we hardly ever referred to the ‘other side’. I had not heard about the stories of the high-ranking Nazis, their exact role, their responsibility, how much influence Hitler had had on them.”

    Ze’evi’s film features children of some dreaded names — Amon Goeth, Heinrich Himmler, Hans Frank, Hermann Goring and Rudolf Hoss. It brings a son of Hoss, the master of Auschwitz, face to face with children, grandchildren and survivors of the concentration camp. Goring’s daughter and son have sterilised themselves “to cut the line”. Himmler’s niece decided to marry a Jew. Frank’s son travels across schools in Germany telling children what his father did. Monica, Goeth’s daughter born after he was executed, recalls receiving a hateful stare from her favourite bartender after he learnt that she was the daughter of the man who tortured him. “I asked mother, how many people did daddy kill — one, two, three…she was silent,” says Monica in the film.

    Ze’evi first showed the film in Israel on the eve of World Holocaust Day. “Many were shocked because of the new point of view, but they thought it was important to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. It still is our story,” he says. Besides being broadcast on three German channels, the film was shown on BBC2 in the U.K. and on Kunskapskanalen in Sweden last year and picked up rave reviews in top newspapers worldwide.

    Post “Hitler’s Children”, Ze’evi — now eight films old — says he is searching for the next project that parallels a subject like it.