There’s a chilling moment in Chanoch Ze’evi’s documentary Hitler’s Children (2011) when Bettina Goering—whose great-uncle Hermann Goering
commandedfounded the Gestapo under Adolf Hitler—reveals that she and her brother have had themselves sterilized, so as not to carry out the family line. Such is the burden felt by some people whose ancestors administered the Final Solution, five of whom speak out in this engrossing video. In addition to Goering there are Rainer Hoess (grandson of Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz), Katrin Himmler (granddaughter of Heinrich Himmler, an architect of the Holocaust), Monika Goeth (daughter of Amon Goeth, who commanded the Plaszow concentration camp in occupied Poland), and Niklas Frank (son of Hans Frank, Hitler’s governor-general of Poland). Sometimes these people run away from their past and other times they run toward it; but for all of them it’s the great fact of their lives, demanding to be reckoned with.
In Bettina Goering, one senses the weariness of someone who wants to forget about her family’s place in history and live her own life. She bears a striking resemblance to her famous great-uncle, who committed suicide in his cell the night before he was to hang in Nuremberg for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Bettina left Germany more than 30 years ago, and Ze’evi interviews her in her rustic mountain home in New Mexico, so remote that she and her partner have to pump their own water and generate their own electricity. She remembers with evident dismay a time when at the age of 11 or 12 she was watching a TV documentary about the Holocaust with her grandmother, and the old woman cried, “It’s all lies! It’s all lies!” For that generation, Bettina remarks, the truth was so awful that their only coping mechanism was denial. Being an ocean away from the fatherland has helped her to deal with her family identity; near the end of the movie she throws a house party celebrating her German heritage.
Niklas Frank, on the other hand, seems more interested in waging war on his past than making peace with it. He was seven when his father was hanged at Nuremberg, and 40 years later Niklas published a book denouncing Hans Frank (it later appeared in English as In the Shadow of the Reich). Reading from the book to a high school class, Frank recalls a shameful incident from his childhood when soldiers humiliated some Jewish prisoners for his amusement; he expresses gratitude that his father wasn’t around longer to poison his mind. Frank says he never passes up an opportunity to tell his story: “I execute my parents again and again.” Rainer Hoess seems similarly compelled to confront his family’s past: he makes a pilgrimage to Auschwitz to see the little villa where his father lived as a boy, and even delivers an emotional apology to a Jewish student group in the Auschwitz museum. “I think that must be the only reason I exist,” he later tells Ze’evi, “to do what [my grandfather] should have done.”
None of the interview subjects seems to have been scorched more deeply than Monika Goeth, whose mother responded to questions about Plaszow by insisting it had been “a work camp” and, finally, by whipping Monika with an electrical cord. Later in life she was visiting a favorite pub in Munich and asked the owner, with whom she was friendly, about the number tattooed on his arm; he had survived Plaszow and turned white when she told him her last name. By the time Ralph Fiennes played Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1993), Monika was nearly 50; she describes the revulsion she felt as her father’s cruelties were dramatized onscreen. No matter how much these people may try to mitigate the past, it keeps coming back to strike: Katrin Himmler is married to an Israeli Jew, and though she thinks the legacy of the Holocaust binds them together, she also confesses that in their worst moments they can fall back into old racial stereotypes.
Cate Shortland, an Australian filmmaker who made an impressive feature debut with Somersault (2004), knits many of these emotional impulses into her long-awaited second film, Lore. Adapted by Robin Mukherjee from The Dark Room, an English novel by Rachel Seiffert, and partly rewritten by Shortland, it tells the story of a budding young woman—rather like the one Abbie Cornish played in Somersault—whose mother and father, a high-ranking Nazi officer, are rounded up by Allied forces as Germany falls in April 1945. Lore, played with great watchful eyes by Saskia Rosendahl, must care for her four younger siblings, and after the children are turned out from the farmhouse where they were left she resolves to lead them through American- and then Russian-occupied territory to reach their grandmother in Hamburg. The film is suspenseful, yet Shortland also takes the time to consider Lore’s awful education as she learns of the death camps and her father’s involvement in them.
As the time frame of the story might dictate, the main response of Germans to the Holocaust here is outright denial. In the film’s most wrenching sequence, Lore’s fierce mother (Ursina Lardi) explains that she must turn herself in, but when Lore asks if she’s going to prison, she replies, “It is a camp. It is not a prison. Prison is for criminals.” Left to their own devices, the children visit a food dispensary in the village, where photos of the death camps are prominently posted; in one photo Lore thinks she sees the standing figure of her father in uniform, and when she brushes her hand against it she picks up some of the poster glue. She’s shocked by the images, but an old woman who briefly shelters the children tells Lore that the photos were staged. Heartbroken by Hitler’s suicide, the woman keeps a portrait of the fuhrer prominently displayed in her living room and speaks of him with daughterly devotion. “We broke his heart,” she tells Lore. “He loved us so much.”
Lore can’t be much older than 14, but her childish innocence is punctured and ultimately destroyed by the ugliness she witnesses—from her father’s shooting of the family dog as they prepare to flee their home to the body of a woman who’s been raped and murdered in a barn near the farmhouse. In the chaos of the occupation, women’s bodies have become barter, which colors Lore’s feelings about her own sexuality as she leads her younger sister and three younger brothers—the last of them only a baby—across the countryside. Any chance of sweeping away the death camp images vanishes after the little family, needing travel papers from the Allied forces, falls in with Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), a Jewish teenager who’s been liberated from one of the camps. “I don’t want you touching them,” Lore tells Thomas when she sees him playing with her brothers. Instead he touches her leg, sparking something that collides with her learned anti-Semitism in a way she can’t define or control.
“You must remember who you are,” Lore’s mother tells her just before she departs, and her admonition hangs over the movie. By the end Lore can no longer tolerate the memory; when Thomas decides to leave them, she rages at him and then bursts into tears. “Sometimes I look at you and I can see them,” she confesses, referring to the photos of dead Jews. “One lie after the other. They are everywhere. I can’t stop thinking of it.” Her symbolic renunciation of her parents in the final shot—whose details I’ll withhold, thank you very much—is juvenile and devastating at the same time, which goes to show how well Shortland and company have fused a young person’s path to adulthood with a generation’s historical accounting. The only question remaining is whether Lore, a girl as prone to hardness as her mother, will spend the rest of her life like Niklas Frank, executing her parents again and again.