Documentary Looks At True Story Behind Oscar-Winning Holocaust Film

The legacy of Holocaust trauma is a subject that books, movies and other media have explored in innumerable ways in the decades since survivors were asked and permitted to talk about the Shoah. What has gotten far less attention, however, is the legacy on the next generation.

Where this year’s Oscar winner for Best International Film, The Zone Of Interest, was a fictionalized look at Rudolph Höss, the architect of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and his family (without the appearance of Jewish characters), director Daniela Volker employs a non-fiction lens in The Commandant’s Shadow. She uses the documentary to tell the plights of his son Hans-Jürgen Höss, 87, his grandson Kai Höss, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, 98, who survived Birkenau, and her daughter, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch. She also includes Höss’s own words (as read by an actor) from the memoir he wrote in prison after he was captured, and from his testimony at the Nuremberg trial for the murders of over one million Jews.

Kai, a Christian minister in Germany who has put in the work of acknowledging the horrible past – and living with “the fact that my grandfather was the largest mass murderer in human history” – is the catalyst. He pushes his father, who nearly 80 years on, still describes his childhood as “idyllic,” to stop avoiding confronting the truth about his father. He believes his Hans – who thinks Höss was merely a paper-pushing bureaucrat at Auschwitz – has never read the memoir and seems to have blocked that there was a copy in their home for many years – has suppressed memories. Hans denies ever seeing ash or smelling anything (their house, separated from the camp by a wall, was 190 yards from the horrors), but does recall seeing a “prisoner” shot at the gate after trying to escape.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch had studied the cello as a girl and when her family was deported, the instrument saved her life. She joined the orchestra that played for the new arrivals, as part of the Nazi’s deceitful efforts to keep order while they made their determinations about who would go to the chimneys. The cello was also the means that allowed her to begin a new life after the war when she fled Germany for England and became a professional musician. She’s the very definition of a certain kind of Survivor, one who is incredibly tough and refuses to think about what she went through. She admits it’s difficult for someone who has endured what she has, to feel empathy or sympathy. Her daughter Maya, always longing for a mother who wasn’t absent emotionally as well as physically, has acutely suffered the loss of the life stolen from her mother, and the one taken, in turn, from her. They both know the truth of what Anita says: “I’m the wrong mother for my daughter. Traumatized? Forget it, get on with life.”

Hans and Maya each go on transformative journeys, though all four of them have remarkable stories. Hans, who has never met a Holocaust survivor, at last reads his father’s writings, and it is profoundly shocking to him and revelatory. He’s struck in particular seeing Höss write about sending mothers and children to the gas chamber while thinking about his own family at home. Maya, who has lived in a state of anguish her entire life, finds some measure of peace when she pursues her German citizenship and moves to Germany. She also becomes an activist, determined to do her part in the wake of growing global antisemitism, to ensure the past is not discarded or repeated.

The three travel to Auschwitz (Anita, quite frail, refuses to go, but is open to them coming to her) and it’s heartbreaking, especially for Hans, who has never been. He knew Höss “as a different person” and still has cherished memories that he can’t reconcile, of his boyhood and his parents. The four do meet in Anita’s home and although Anita is someone who “needs nothing”, she is still affected. And she’s able to offer Hans understanding, telling him “it was brave of you” to go to Auschwitz.

Volker has made a wrenching, astonishing film, one that can foster reckoning as well as healing, as it helped to do for the families. As Anita puts it perfectly – after the “unique moment that the son of the commandant of Auschwitz walking into my house” and sharing coffee and pie – “This goes to the next stage. Not what have we done, but what are we doing now?”

‘The Commandant’s Shadow’ is expected to be available for streaming this year on Max.