Monika Goeth in the movie "Hitler's Children." (Chanoch Ze'evi )
What's in a name? Ask Bettina Goering, Katrin Himmler and Rainer Hoess. For decades, Germany has grappled with its collective guilt over the Third Reich, but for the progeny of the regime's chief architects, the matter hits far closer to home.
Chanoch Ze'evi, the Israeli director of the thoughtful and affecting documentary "Hitler's Children," conducted interviews with five descendants of key Nazi figures. Though Ze'evi's creative choices don't always serve the material — he unwisely attempts to pump up the emotional volume with an intrusive music score — his compassion for his subjects is clear, and their straightforward testimony is provocative.
They've adopted varied ways of addressing their legacy. Hermann Goering's great-niece, who experienced her surname as "carrying the baggage of German society around with me," left Germany. She mentions almost in passing that she and her brother took decisive medical action, undergoing sterilization, to ensure an end to the family line.
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But Heinrich Himmler's great-niece dismisses the importance of bloodlines — a tenet of Nazi doctrine — as fallacious (she uses a stronger word) and sees no reason to fear that she might pass on a dark inheritance.
She tackled the matter head-on by writing a family history, an approach that has become a kind of calling for Niklas Frank, whose father was the governor-general of occupied Poland. Frank has written "books against my parents" and travels to German schools to read from them, not always sure he's connecting with students.
Such clear-eyed condemnation eluded the daughter of Amon Goeth, the Plaszow commandant portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in "Schindler's List." For years before that film put her in a state of shock, Monika Goeth believed that her father was a kinder, gentler Nazi who headed a "work camp." Then she met a survivor of Plaszow. In Ze'evi's close-ups of her, the effect of the emotional blow is still apparent.
The film tracks the trip to Auschwitz by the grandson of Rudolf Hoess, first commandant of the notorious extermination camp. This somewhat didactic sequence is strongest when Rainer Hoess compares the place itself to family photos: his father as a smiling boy, playing with toys made by prisoners just beyond the villa gate.
"Hitler's Children" ends on a note of doubt, an apt choice for a film whose core is a haunting question: When parents are monstrous, where does filial love begin and end?
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