'You need to see both sides to tell a complete story'

True-life ‘Zone of Interest’: In documentary, Auschwitz head’s descendants meet survivor

‘The Commandant’s Shadow,’ out in US theaters this week, looks at coming to terms with the past from the perspective of victims as well as the family of notorious Nazi Rudolf Höss

Reporter at The Times of Israel

From left: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Hoss and Hans Jurgen Hoss meet at Anita's apartment in 'The Commandant's Shadow.' (Courtesy Warner Bros. Presents)
From left: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Hoss and Hans Jurgen Hoss meet at Anita's apartment in 'The Commandant's Shadow.' (Courtesy Warner Bros. Presents)

Which is the more inconceivable scenario? The aged son of Rudolf Höss, Nazi commandant of Auschwitz, walking through the former death camp with the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, or having coffee with the survivor herself in her own home?

Unlikely as it may sound, both encounters did occur — and are shown in a new documentary film titled “The Commandant’s Shadow.”

Directed, written and produced by veteran filmmaker Daniela Volker and picked up for distribution by Warner Bros. Pictures, the film was released in US theaters May 29. Volker said it has come out at a relevant time, as antisemitism has skyrocketed since the October 7 Hamas onslaught on Israel and subsequent war in Gaza.

“You look at the state of the world — it does not give you much hope,” Volker told The Times of Israel over Zoom, noting that filming had been completed before October 7.

The film follows the narratives of two families whose lives are tragically interlinked — the Höss family of Germany, grappling with their patriarch’s legacy at Auschwitz, and the Lasker-Wallfisch family of the UK, whose matriarch survived the notorious camp where over 1.1 million people died, 1 million of them Jews.

“There is no survivor or victim without a perpetrator,” Volker said. “You need to look at both in order to tell a more complete story.”

The daughter of a German father and Argentine mother, Volker grew up in Argentina, Colombia and Germany, then embarked upon a filmmaking career in London, where she remains today. With a resume that includes the BBC, Netflix, CNN and PBS, her previous work includes a look at the Rwandan genocide of 30 years ago — again from the perspectives of perpetrators as well as victims.

From left: Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, direcctor Daniela Volker and Kai Hoss attend the New York Premiere of ‘The Commandant’s Shadow’ on May 22, 2024. (Courtesy/ Marion Curtis / Starpix for Warner Bros)

“I don’t know if it’s rare,” she said of this approach. “I think it’s important. It’s such an important thing to me… just a more complete picture.”

Two members of each family are profiled in “The Commandant’s Shadow” — Höss’s son Hans Jürgen Höss and Hans’s son Kai Höss, along with Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and her daughter Maya Lasker-Wallfisch.

The first one to come to Volker’s attention was Maya, a psychotherapist who contacted the filmmaker offering to speak about transgenerational Holocaust trauma. Volker also became interested in Kai’s diverse background. He has lived overseas, including Indonesia, where he met his future wife; now they are raising a family in Germany, where he is a Christian pastor in an English-language church with a sizable number of American military personnel as worshipers.

Throughout filming, Volker kept a focus on a fifth subject — Rudolf Höss himself.

History’s worst mass murderer?

The film presents Höss as history’s worst mass murderer, who presided over the deadliest-ever extermination camp. Höss’s narrative is available to the public through his autobiography, which he penned while on trial for war crimes in Poland — crimes for which he was executed by hanging.

“It’s almost like a true-crime story in which the criminal wrote his deathbed confession,” Volker said.

As commandant, he and his wife, Hedwig Höss, raised their children in a villa at Auschwitz. He allegedly kept them blissfully unaware of the crematoria. This domestic spectacle has been the subject of previous scrutiny, first in a Martin Amis novel, which itself was adapted into last year’s Oscar-winning feature film “The Zone of Interest.”

Rudolf Hess, the Kommandant of Auschwitz (Public domain)

Volker notes that there are differences between “The Zone of Interest” and her film. The former covers a year-and-a-half-long period between 1943 and 1944, whereas hers spans a longer length of time, including Höss’s WWI service in Ottoman Palestine; his son and grandson are shown retracing his footsteps in the Judean Desert.

“We’ve got the broader picture, which people who might have become aware of Höss can find interesting,” she said.

Hans Jürgen Höss, son of notorious Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, in the Judean desert in this still from ‘The Commandant’s Shadow.’ (Courtesy Warner Bros. Presents)

The film grapples with difficult moral questions. How much responsibility, if any, should descendants of monsters bear for the sins of the past — sins that were arguably committed without their knowledge? How much responsibility does the next generation have to look into long-ago crimes committed by or against family members?

These questions do not have easy answers, which is reflected in the diverging paths taken by the two families, and even within each family.

According to Volker, Hans Jürgen initially viewed his father as the boss of the camp and delegated orders for others to carry out. Gradually, he comes to terms with the historical record, reflected in his visit to Auschwitz and sit-down with Anita. Even then, he can’t quite fully condemn his father. Kai, by contrast, comes across as more willing to accept that his grandfather was a mass murderer and to denounce him for it.

From left: Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Hoss and Hans Jurgen Hoss visit the Birkenau Nazi death camp in ‘The Commandant’s Shadow.’ (Courtesy Warner Bros. Presents)

“[Kai] grew up in a family where the past was not really discussed,” Volker said. “In school, he learned about Auschwitz,” then came home and asked his mother, “this Höss, does he have anything to do with us?” According to Volker, her reply was, “Yes, actually, he does.”

Ways of processing the past

As for Anita and Maya, each took a different approach to dealing with the family Holocaust narrative.

For many decades, Anita, who lost her parents in the Holocaust and survived Auschwitz in part by playing the cello in its inmate orchestra, opted to look ahead, not behind. Maya gradually became more interested in her family history. She ended up moving from the UK to Germany, just around the corner from her mother’s ancestral home in Breslau (today’s Wroclaw, Poland). She also commemorated the lives of her grandparents in the Polish village they were last heard from — Izbica.

“For so long, there was no knowledge, no certainty,” Volker said. “It was quite important to sort of be able to go and see the place.” She added that when the film premiered in New York on May 22, she met Jewish survivor descendants who had done the same thing to “process the past.”

Eventually, the two families’ stories interweave. This first happens at Auschwitz, where Hans Jürgen and Kai meet Maya, as a voiceover plays of Höss’s own recollections about the atrocities that included daily incineration of corpses, their teeth removed, their hair shorn.

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in 1944. (Public Domain)

“It’s hard to believe, and for me it’s a big shock,” Hans Jürgen says about his father, “because we knew him as a different person.”

“I think [Hans Jürgen] was quite brave,” Volker said. “It took him on a journey he did not have to go on. I suggested to him — and he agreed — that things he found out about his father, he would perhaps rather not know.”

The second interaction occurs in Anita’s London home, where she welcomes Hans Jürgen and Kai for coffee and enthuses over the Linzer torte they bring. It is, Hans Jürgen notes, the first time he has met a Holocaust survivor.

Hans Jürgen Höss, son of notorious Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, returns to Auschwitz in this still from ‘The Commandant’s Shadow.’ (Courtesy Warner Bros. Presents)

At Anita’s home, she tells Hans Jürgen, “I can’t forget what happened. My hope is that we talk to each other and understand each other.”

While the film conveys a message of reconciliation, it suggests that this is difficult or impossible for those unwilling to come to terms with the past. This is shown when Hans Jürgen travels to the eastern US to visit his ailing sister, Brigitte “Puppi” Höss, who died after filming had been completed. An interviewer asks Puppi about her father’s crimes, and she is evasive. It’s an uncomfortable sequence. (The media has reported on another controversial chapter of Höss family history in recent years: Kai’s brother Rainer Höss showed an interest in raising awareness of Rudolf Höss’s notorious actions but himself ran afoul of the law, for fraud.)

By the end of the film, it’s clear Hans Jürgen has learned from the past — as shown by a statement he makes while at Auschwitz with Kai and Maya.

“We can only hope that this won’t happen again somewhere, and that we’ve learned from it,” he says. “I don’t think we have. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be antisemitism again, like there is now.”

Hans Jürgen Höss, son of notorious Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, examines Jewish gravestones in this still from ‘The Commandant’s Shadow.’ (Courtesy Warner Bros. Presents)

When he meets Anita at her home, she tells him that in the present time, a kippah-wearing Jewish boy may feel uncomfortable going out in public.

“We haven’t really made so much progress,” she says. “We’ve still got a lot to do.”

Yet the fact that their meeting took place at all gives Volker hope in the wake of October 7.

“It shows the power of dialogue,” she said. “I’m very pleased that the meeting could happen. It symbolizes what we ought to strive for.”

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