Although Robert DeNiro, who was one of its founders, recently disclosed that he thought the Tribeca Film Festival would be a one-shot deal, the event has hung on and grown every year. This year’s festival, currently running all over lower Manhattan, is no exception, with several new sidebar events focusing on new media.
However, it’s the old media we’re concerned with and in the movie (and digital video) realm, one of the great strengths of Tribeca has always been its wide-ranging selection of documentary films. We have already considered the crisp economy of Ido Mizrahy’s “Gored,” in which the Israeli filmmaker looks at bullfighting. Here are two more excellent films boasting Jewish connections that are worth a trip downtown.
Philippe Sands is a writer and a human-rights lawyer who has argued cases before the International Criminal Court. He is also a Jew, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, and one of the three central figures in “A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did,” which he also wrote and co-produced. The film, originally made for the BBC’s “Storyville” series, is directed by David Evans, whose resume includes such unlikely entries as “Downton Abbey” and “Shameless.” (The BBC likes its directors to multi-task.)
Sands was working on a newspaper piece that brought him into contact with Niklas Frank who, in turn, introduced him to his friend from childhood, Horst von Wächter. If those names are vaguely familiar, it may be their fathers you are thinking of, Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of occupied Poland, and Otto von Wächter, his subordinate in charge of Galicia and organizer and commander of the Galician Waffen SS. Between the two of them, they were responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and Poles.
Niklas Frank may also be familiar from the 2012 film “Hitler’s Children,” in which Frank discussed with great candor his loathing of his father and all his acts as a Nazi leader. He is no less candid with Sands, sardonically telling him, “I am — by chance — the son of Hans Frank.” Mind you, he is not more favorably disposed towards his mother, saying, “Everything that is human with me is from Hilde, my nurse, not my mother.” He recalls vividly a childhood trip to the Krakow ghetto where his mother “shopped” for dirt-cheap furs purchased from the starving Jewish women interned there.
He also has bitter memories of his parents’ fractured marriage and Hitler’s insistence that they not divorce until after the war. Why, Sands asks, did he agree to that? “[My father] loved Hitler more than his family,” Frank answers drily.
At first glance, von Wächter seems as ill-disposed towards Otto’s actions as Frank is towards those of Hans. He notes that he was named for the infamous pimp and SA organizer Horst Wessel, then snickers and adds, “My father was a complete Nazi.” He recounts the four-year period after the war in which Otto hid, first in the mountains, and then, courtesy of the “Rat Line” operation that protected Nazi war criminals, under the wing of the Vatican. He concludes, “I dropped out of normality because of my father.” He would go to work for the Jewish painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser for several years, a conscious reaction against his upbringing.
But as the film goes on, it becomes alarmingly clear that while von Wächter turned his back on the ideology in which he was raised, he categorically rejects the idea that his father was a war criminal. And this sticking point becomes the subject of the film, with Frank and Sands both hammering away at his denial, and Sands offering a revelation that explains his need to revisit this subject.
At the film’s premiere last week, Sands observed that it is a habit of documentary film to be polite to its subjects, a habit that “A Nazi Legacy” eschews. It is clear from early on that nothing will budge Horst, and his denial will lead the trio into some particularly sticky situations. The worst comes when they visit the 69th annual reunion of von Wächter’s Ukrainian SS unit and his son seems downright giddy at meeting men who tell him what a great guy Dad was. In the Q&A that followed the screening, Sands quickly pointed out that “this is a minority within the Ukrainian people,” but acknowledged that he, Frank and the camera crew were understandably nervous at the time.
It is hard not to walk away from “A Nazi Legacy” feeling depressed. Horst von Wächter’s amiable but stupid stubbornness, his utter refusal to accept, perhaps even to comprehend, the legal notion of command responsibility, is exhausting and more than bit dispiriting. Even Frank, who has known him since they were small boys, has clearly run out of patience. Frank’s own complete acceptance of the reality of Nazi criminality, of his father’s complete guilt, played off against Sands’s own quiet reasonableness and basic decency, make it possible to leave the theater thinking that there may be some hope for the future of the human race yet.
Interestingly, hope would seem to be the primary theme of “In Transit.” Like “Iris,” (covered on page 3 of this issue), “In Transit” is a posthumous work from Albert Maysles, directed by the elder statesman along with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu. In a brisk yet expansive 76 minutes, Maysles and his co-directors follow the Empire Builder, American’s busiest long-distance train as it travels from Chicago to Portland, Ore., to Seattle and back again.
This part of the Northern Plains States is being transformed by the oil boom in the Dakotas, and the impact of that economic upturn is one of the central realities of the film. A pleasant 21-year-old says, “I figure seven years in the oilfield I’ll be set for life.” The oil workers seem, on the whole, a likable if bibulous bunch, and they blend in nicely with the train’s fascinating mix of working-class commuters, kids on college break and people seeking something more. There is a perky young woman, very pregnant and causing some worry for the train crew, who is heading home to Minneapolis, with the baby four days overdue; an older woman who has just been reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption nearly a half-century earlier; and a church elder who knew Martin Luther King, who has a wonderfully calm and earnest talk with a troubled younger man, telling him, “You’re having this conversation on a train with somebody so that you can have a conversation, perhaps on a train, with someone else who needs to talk.”
Superficially, with its intercutting of the bleak but beautiful winterscape of the Great Plains and the gentle procession of day-into-night-into-day, the film looks like a cousin of one of Frederick Wiseman’s epic examinations of democratic institutions. But Wiseman takes a long view, placing his subjects in an expansive chronological framework even in his films that are set over a single day, giving his attention to the big-picture interaction of these people in a larger sociopolitical context. By contrast, Maysles and his collaborators are actually distilling the essence of the passing of time, focusing on intimate moments between strangers in a celebration of our mutual humanity.
The Tribeca Film Festival continues through April 26 at venues all over Lower Manhattan. For information, go to https://tribecafilm.com/festival.