British director David Evans, better known for his work on Downton Abbey and other UK television dramas and comedies, took an interesting off-road adventure into the wooly world of documentary with What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, a complex and engaging film that opens this weekend. Evans follows human rights lawyer and author Philippe Sands as he travels around Europe with two men who are the children of notorious Nazi officers. Sands is Jewish, and his family was decimated during the Holocaust. It’s a tantalizing conceit — how will these men relate? What catharsis could come? Can the sins of the fathers be redeemed?
I asked Evans to shed some light on what happened outside of the camera’s frame.
Doc Soup Man: How did you come to making the film?
David Evans, director of What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy: Philippe and I are close personal friends — and have been for a long time since we were students at Cambridge University in the 80s. He has always been interested in the arts — in writing, filmmaking and so on — and when he came across Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter, he had a hunch, which he shared with me over dinner one night — that there was a documentary film in there somewhere. I started my career as a documentary producer for the BBC, but I hadn’t directed a documentary for 20 years and the idea of following up Philippe’s intuition just appealed to me, even if it turned out to be a wild goose chase. So we went off to Bavaria in November 2013 — Philippe, myself, a cameraman and a sound recordist, and started shooting. We didn’t have a script, really. We had no producers. No broadcaster. No one at all who was interested in our little passion project. And that’s part of what appealed to me. But as soon as people saw what we had, it was obvious we’d picked up a thread which we were bound to follow wherever it led and luckily Amanda Posey and Finola Dwyer at Wildgaze, and Nick Fraser from BBC Storyville, and then the BFI, soon got on board, and we were away…
Doc Soup Man: I understand Professor Sands wasn’t always going to be an on-screen presence. Why did that change?
David Evans: Well, it would be more true to say that at the beginning, because we didn’t know what we would end up making, all options were open. Philippe’s priority was to record the opinions and recollections of Niklas and Horst — for posterity, really; those interviews were the point of the film as far as he was concerned; whereas I was curious from the beginning about the way Philippe, Horst and Niklas interacted with each other. They liked each other so much. There was on-screen chemistry between them from the start. But at the same time, when we were shooting early stuff that’s ended up being in the film — such as Horst showing Philippe round his Schloss, we were all thinking ‘we’ll just shoot some of this footage now before we do the main interview.’ It was likely, we thought, to end up on the cutting room floor. Then, as we started looking at it we realized that the relationship between the three men was evolving into the spine of the film, and Philippe’s centrality became something we used more deliberately; and by the time we made the trip to Ukraine in Summer 2014, each shoot day was entirely made up of scenes in which the three occupy the screen as equals. It was part of a gradual process of shooting and editing over 18 months.
Doc Soup Man: The Holocaust documentary is a film genre unto itself. How did you navigate following so many previous films on the subject? Did any films help guide or inspire you?
Evans: I avoided these films. First, because they cannot be superseded — maybe not even supplemented. Second, because our film is not a documentary about the Holocaust, and I knew that for it to find its own life it would need to do so outside that long shadow. There is a generational and attitudinal shift, of course — neither Nik nor Horst have persecuted anyone themselves, nor have they denied the acknowledged facts of the Holocaust or minimized its horror. But the film is equally concerned with the impact of this heritage now on the peoples of Germany, Austria, Poland and Ukraine — it’s not, primarily, an historical documentary at all. Our story is an instance of finding the universal within the particular. We concentrate with increasing intensity over the course of the film on the idiosyncratic details of these senior Nazis — one was an Austrian rowing champion, one was fond of art, one was a good and loving father, one was promiscuous, and so on. And on the idiosyncrasies of their sons, too: the forthright Nazi-hater versus the shy son who cannot see his father as capable of evil. In this way — this is my hope, anyway — we dissolve the horrific facts, about which there is nothing unique to be said in our film, in the empathy which any viewer might feel towards children who must live out their lives with such a legacy as Nik and Horst; and so by a circuitous route come at an understanding of how somebody might become a perpetrator of crimes like those, or their apologist. The film is an exploration of the relationship between memory, justice and love.
Doc Soup Man: Your film appears to be going on a path toward total catharsis — I don’t want to reveal too much here — but then changes direction. Can you talk about your expectations making the film and what it was like dealing with the reality that you had to portray?
Evans: This movement towards catharsis is a necessary illusion produced by the way the film is structured! There was always a potential pitfall — a mistake waiting to trap us in the edit — if we allowed the film to build itself on the premise: two sons differ about the moral character of their fathers, who were both senior Nazis; which son is right? That’s not going to be of interest for more than five minutes! It’s too cut and dried. We had to shift the ground of the film towards more complicated terrain, where we are reminded that everyone judges their parents as much for their behavior in their own family, as for what they did — whatever they did — on the grand stage of the world; we are none of us disinterested arbiters of those whom we love or feel we ought to be able to love. And in the end it is not only Nik and Horst, but Philippe too, who are shown in the film to be acting and speaking out of the depths of emotion — it’s this tense juxtaposition of despair, hatred, forgiveness, grief and hope which gives the film its vitality. That was the reality I found in the material we shot and I was enormously relieved to find it: messy, flesh-and-blood reality will always trump moral certainty on the screen, if not in the court room.
What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy opens in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, November 6, 2015. Find show times and more information about the film at vhx.tv
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