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Holocaust collides in 2 lives, as the camera rolls

June 29, 2006|Mary McNamara

IN a documentary world awash in Ken Burns knockoffs, with their reliance on old photographs and celebrity voice-overs, it is good to be reminded of what the camera can capture that no amount of narrative or analysis could ever hope to. In "Inheritance," which screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Tuesday at the Italian Cultural Center, director James Moll documents the story of Monika Hertwig, a German woman who in her early 60s finally comes to terms with her parents' participation in the Holocaust.

Born in 1945, Monika spent her early years believing that her father, like many German men, had died for his country during World War II. But when she was 11, a chance angry remark by her mother -- that Monika was just like her father and would die like him too -- forced Monika's grandmother to explain: Monika's father was Amon Goeth, the murderous commandant of Plaszow work camp in Poland. But having been raised in a postwar society that avoided examining its recent past, it wasn't until she saw the movie "Schindler's List" (in which Goeth was played by Ralph Fiennes) that she truly began to understand what her father had been.

For years, she had wanted to meet one of the young girls who had "worked" for her parents during their 500 days at Plaszow. She had seen Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig interviewed about Oskar Schindler on German TV and had tried to contact her. When Moll and producer Christopher Paulick contacted Monika to get permission to use photographs of Goeth for a documentary on "Schindler's List," Moll decided to facilitate the two women's meeting.

Despite their wildly different experiences and understanding of the Holocaust, Monika and Helen share the rare ability to recount stories of horror and pathos in a clear-eyed, non-self-pitying way. Helen agrees to meet Monika at the monument that marks the ruins of Plaszow and to discuss what she knew of Goeth. So, her grown daughter in tow, Helen flies from her home in New Jersey back to Krakow, while Monika makes the same journey from her German village.

Watching the women prepare for the meeting is almost as heartbreaking as their life stories. Monika's fear is written clearly on her face, in one shot her hand shakes as she lights a cigarette before calling Helen to set up the meeting; when the two finally meet, it is Monika who weeps, who holds a hand in front of her face as if ashamed to be seen by one of her father's victims.

Though she had never returned to Poland, Helen is seemingly more concerned with how the trip will affect her daughter rather than herself. Indeed, as they prepare to meet the horrific past -- Helen with her perfectly coiffed hair and pink twin set, her daughter all American from her New Jersey accent to her running shoes -- it is difficult to reconcile the image with the mission.

Arriving at Plaszow on a bright sunny day, Helen and her daughter could be tourists approaching any sort of war monument, until Helen begins telling Monika about her father. Of how he shot people for fun, how he whistled after he had done it, how she knew by which hat he chose each morning if he was going out to kill people.

She does not pull any punches, and it is hard to say which is more difficult to witness, the horrible truth coming out of Helen's lipsticked mouth or the look on Monika's face as she visibly ages with each horrible detail. And once she has taken in the enormity of her father's actions, she must face, perhaps for the first time, her mother's complicity, her ability to sunbathe or lounge in the bath while mass murder was taking place outside.

The meeting was clearly not scripted in any way; occasionally the women misunderstand each other or experience emotional overlap. Moll said later that once the meeting began, he refused to stop them. When they had to change film, the filmmakers just lost what they lost; it was more important to preserve the intimacy. And it is that raw, unfiltered, uneasy, uncomfortable intimacy that makes this, as one audience member later remarked, much more than just another Holocaust movie. Here, in these women's tears and twisted smiles, in their attempt to make sense of events beyond comprehension are the living wounds of history -- terminal and undeniable.

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