Although Adolf Hitler had no children, many senior Nazis did. How do those offspring and other relatives of such war criminals as Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler view their ancestral guilt? It’s a powerful, arresting question, one that lies on the fault line between the unique (the abomination of Nazism) and universal (the bond of family).
“Hitler’s Children’’ takes that question as its point of departure. The film is a co-presentation of the Boston Jewish Festival, where it won last year’s audience award for best documentary.
The Israeli documentarian Chanoch Ze’evi talks to five people who bear the names of particularly infamous Nazis.
Bettina Goering is the great-niece of Hitler’s designated successor. “My name was always a heavy burden for me,’’ she says. Goering now lives in New Mexico. She and her brother had themselves sterilized, so as to remove any possibility of passing on Goering’s genes. The documentary passes over how this action weirdly mirrors Nazi views on race and eugenics.
Both Katrin Himmler, the great-niece of the head of the Gestapo, and Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, who ruled over occupied Poland, have written critical books about their families. Himmler comes across as the most personable of the interview subjects. Frank is the harshest and most fractious. In part, that’s owing to conflicts with his siblings. A sister, refusing to disavow their father (who was condemned to death at Nuremberg), moved to South Africa and enthusiastically supported apartheid.
In the documentary’s most elaborate segment, Rainer Hoess visits Auschwitz. His grandfather was camp commandant. The younger man had never been there before and is clearly overwhelmed. He meets with a group of Israeli students and shares an embrace with a survivor of the death camp.
Amon Goeth has the most obscure name among the Nazi war criminals in “Hitler’s Children,’’ yet his story is the most familiar, because Ralph Fiennes played him in “Schindler’s List.’’ His daughter Monika describes going to see the film and also an encounter with a man who turns out to have been an inmate at Plaszow, the concentration camp run by her father.
The music on the soundtrack is more than a little manipulative as she describes that meeting. For the most part, though, Ze’evi just lets his subjects talk. In an effort to jazz up what is, it must be said, a somewhat slack and talky film, he’ll occasionally indulge in such practices as panning across a face during a close-up. It would have been far more effective to include a relative who doesn’t feel guilt over a Nazi connection — or even, as in the case of Frank’s sister, takes pride in it. Hearing that point of view, however repugnant or even inexplicable, would have lent the documentary an intellectual tension it otherwise lacks. The moral weight of “Hitler’s Children’’ is unmistakable. So is that weight’s inertness.