Thursday, June 13, 2024

“THE COMMANDANT’S SHADOW”

THE STORY – Hans Jürgen Höss, the 87-year-old son of Rudolf Höss, faces his father’s terrible legacy as he meets Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. Hans enjoyed a happy childhood while Anita was trying to survive the concentration camp.

THE CAST – Hans Jurgen Höss, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Dr. Maya Lasker-Wallfisch & Kai Höss

THE TEAM – Daniela Völker (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes


“The Commandant’s Shadow” is sobering as it is revelatory. The latest release from director Daniela Völker details the parallel stories of two people on different sides of history. The first, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, survived the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust, while the second, Hans Jürgen Höss, enjoyed a conventional childhood as the son of the SS Officer who ran Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss. Two people separated by belief and experience yet inextricably linked through one of the most harrowing events in human history.

What immediately jumps out about “The Commandant’s Shadow” is how subdued it is in its storytelling approach. One might assume that a documentary that delves into the horrors of the Holocaust would lean into the salaciousness of what occurred, but the casual nature of the interviews with Höss is far more telling. The man recounts his father’s job as nothing more than a means of providing for his family, at one point asserting that he didn’t “deal with anything personally.” Völker doesn’t let the moment pass. “With mass murder,” she asserts. A pregnant pause and then a reticent “Yeah” is said by Höss in response.

There’s a tricky balance here in that the director is dealing with a man whose father did horrible things but who still has fond memories of him as a child. Höss is brought back to Auschwitz to reflect, and instead of commenting on the remains of the concentration camp, he notes that he used to be able to see the crematorium from his window because there weren’t trees back then. Völker is taking the universality of nostalgia and aligning it with genocide, effectively testing the viewer’s propensity for empathy. She’s also testing our ability to separate the sins of the father from the next generation. Hans Jürgen Höss didn’t commit any of his father’s war crimes, but hearing him speak reverently of his father, we subconsciously make decisions about his own moral fiber.

The segments with Anita Lasker-Wallfisch are equally affecting, albeit in a more conventional manner. The survivor’s recollections are predictably harrowing. The difference maker, frankly, is Wallfisch’s frankness. She doesn’t dwell on the past or lament what happened to her; she merely answers questions when asked and moves on. “I’m very basic,” she tells the director. “Traumatized. Forget it; get on with life.” More interesting still is the contrasting effects of generational trauma. Höss has had to contend with the albatross, which is his father’s legacy. Still, Wallfisch’s daughter, Dr. Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, tears up while recounting the ways in which Wallfisch’s Holocaust experiences made her emotionally absent as a parent.

Dr. Lasker-Wallfisch played a crucial role in getting “The Commandant’s Shadow” made. As someone who has penned several memoirs on second-generation Holocaust trauma, she was the one who decided to initiate contact with the relatives of Rudolf Höss. The documentary takes its time setting up both families’ dramatic and emotional stakes, but it never feels indulgent or unnecessary. There are decades of emotional baggage to sift through, and Völker gives said baggage the appropriate amount of screen time to register. This allows for moments of revelation, like when Hans Jürgen Höss reads his father’s memoir for the first time. The viewer is forced to watch as a son comes to terms with the fact that his father was fully aware of his crimes, and it’s genuinely affecting. “I wish I’d never read it,” he admitted. “It’s horrendous.”

Hans Jürgen Höss’ own son, Kai, plays a central role in the doc. He effectively condemns everything his grandfather stood for, both in practice and in principle. Kai has mixed children from an interracial marriage, and he repeatedly castigates his father for being supposedly unaware of the xenophobic horrors being committed at Auschwitz. The Commandant’s Shadow does, admittedly, lose a bit of its dramatic tension whenever it goes down the family tree and shifts the focus away from Hans Jürgen Höss or Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. Still, the climactic meeting between the two parties is well worth the metaphorical price of admission.

The narrative and emotional virtues of “The Commandant’s Shadow” are reinforced during this conversation. Lasker-Wallfisch’s propensity for letting things go (“You weren’t asked whose son you want to be”) is directly contrasted with the guilt that Höss has accumulated throughout the rest of the runtime. He admits to being unsure of how to feel about his father, and when asked why, he admits to it being “unbearable” otherwise. There’s no confrontation or angry pontification on the part of their ancestors, merely a conversation in which feelings are shared and experiences are mutually valued. Lasker-Wallfisch notes, in the documentary’s final moments, that the fact they were able to do so was actually “quite beautiful.” It’s difficult to disagree.

Many have compared “The Commandant’s Shadow” to Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” in terms of subject matter, and while the two would certainly function well as an intense double feature, the former works on its own as a testament to both the decent and indecent aspects of humanity.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Daniela Völker's parallel structure works beautifully, fleshing out her subjects and exploring the different ways one copes with trauma.

THE BAD - Occasionally diverts attention to the children of the main subjects, which subsequently releases some of the tension.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Documentary Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Danilo Castro
Danilo Castro
Music lover. Writer for Screen Rant, Noir Foundation, Classic Movie Hub & Little White Lies.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Daniela Völker's parallel structure works beautifully, fleshing out her subjects and exploring the different ways one copes with trauma.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Occasionally diverts attention to the children of the main subjects, which subsequently releases some of the tension.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-documentary-feature/">Best Documentary Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"THE COMMANDANT'S SHADOW"