Screenshot from trailer

The Commandant’s Shadow Review: The Other Side of the Wall

The true story of the family that inspired The Zone of Interest

12 mins read

The Commandant’s Shadow
(UK, 103 min.)
Dir. Daniela Volker

 

“I had a really lovely and idyllic childhood in Auschwitz,” says Hans Jürgen Höss in The Commandant’s Shadow. Audiences probably won’t recognize the 87-year-old Höss, but there’s a good chance they saw a fictional version of his idyllic childhood in Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar winning Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest. Director Daniela Volker offers a welcome documentary companion to Glazer’s film. The Commandant’s Shadow further considers the banality of evil as personified by Hans’s father, Rudolph Höss. The senior Höss moved his family next door to Auschwitz where he gained notoriety for devising the systematic murder of over one million Jews. The film asks how one shoulders the sins of the father when the crimes are so grave.

The Commandant’s Shadow offers a thorough consideration of everyday evil. The film takes audiences inside the real Höss home, the grounds of which especially give one a chance to marvel at the recreations in Glazer’s film. But some details prove far more chilling from the perspectives of people who lived the experience.

Hans Jürgen Höss, for example, stands in his former bedroom and observes how could see the crematorium back then. Nowadays trees block the view.

The film clearly proves a reckoning for Hans. In these vérité scenes as well as in new interviews with Volker, he shows signs of suppressed memories. He seems to be in denial of the facts. Even though the reality of life on the other side of the wall might not have occurred to a child neighbouring Auschwitz, the decades since the war offer enough proof. No matter how much Volker presses him, however, he can’t condemn his father.

At the same time, Volker offers words from Rudolph Höss’s memoir, written shortly before his execution. He confesses everything and the film includes the late Nazi’s recollections in voiceover. The words come somewhat monotonously from actor Klemens Koehring, yet the dry delivery may be appropriately banal. But Höss’s words also challenge what Hans denies.

Hans insists that he never read his father’s memoir even though his own son notes that they had a copy of the book in their house. He suggests that his dad just did paperwork, whereas Höss takes pride in his work. His memoir outlines his goals, ambitions, and contribution to the genocide. There are descriptions of peering into the gas chambers to watch his extermination process in action. But the memoir also let Höss identify the two things that motivated him: his commitment to his fatherland and his family.

The film offers a fascinating portrait of unseen monsters as Hans recalls Rudolph Höss as a great father. He speaks highly of his mother, Hedwig, as well. His words and his body language betray inner turmoil, however, as he wrestles with his hands while speaking of the past. It can’t be easy to admit one’s father was a war criminal when one only saw his good side. And yet, without affording Rudolph Höss sympathy, The Commandant’s Shadow runs with this way of rationalization. It’s very possible that Rudolph Höss was kind to his children and the worst mass murderer in human history.

Hans’s son, Kai, displays a greater grasp of the legacy the Höss name carries. He now works as a pastor and uses the power of prayer as a form of lateral atonement. Kai clearly carries the burden of his grandfather’s sins. Never having met the man, he knows only the records of his evil deeds.

Kai, moreover, draws upon his appreciation to the Bible to confront generational trauma. He reflects that it is the responsibility of one generation to ensure that they learn from the mistakes of their elders in order to avoid repeating them. Hans can’t learn if he’s in denial, so it’s up to Rudolph Höss’s grandson to break the cycle.

The film offers a parallel narrative with Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a survivor of Auschwitz who celebrates her 98th birthday in the film. Anita tells how she was separated from her parents, who died at a Polish camp, before arriving at Auschwitz at age 13. She recalls how music literally saved her life. She was appointed cellist in the band that played as prisoners marched to their fates, and she doesn’t seem keen to provide Volker with extra details about life on the other side of the wall.

If The Zone of Interest provides a hook to The Commandant’s Shadow, its power comes not from the Höss story, but from the words of the survivor who defied the Nazi’s evil. Generational weight also burdens survivors’ children, as the film introduces Anita’s daughter, Maya. A psychotherapist who specializes in trauma, Maya proves an especially strong presence as she takes active steps to remedy the ache that eats away at her. She shares how she knows little of her mother’s story and yearns a connection to the side of her family that was ripped from her. Like Kai, Maya articulates her anguish clearly and searches for relief, whereas Hans and Anita use silence as a survival mechanism. Anita even admits that she’s the wrong mother for Maya if she daughter needs to talk through her feelings. She instead goes to Berlin to connect with the life her mother was forced to leave behind. It proves therapeutic.

Alternatively, one finds a somewhat unnerving counterpoint when Hans visits his sister Puppi in the USA. It’s been more than 50 years since they’ve connected. A former Balenciaga model facing the ravages of cancer, Puppi doesn’t dwell in the past. She resists and downplays the labels of evil her parents came wear. But she’s an illustration of the banality of evil in action. To her, what happened happened and the surviving Jews received compensation. Her father did his job—end of story, while memories of her mother are especially fraught. (And disputed by family members.) But it’s telling when Hans visits their mother’s grave, which simply reads “mutti,” or “mother,” because Puppi didn’t want the headstone defaced.

The final act, however, brings the story full circle. Maya, Hans, and Kai visit Auschwitz together. (Anita, understandably, refuses to return.) Maya appears visibly shaken as she strolls the haunted grounds, which have a disquieting mist in the footage that Volker captures. It’s a very powerful moment as Maya and Hans walk into gas chambers and view the incinerators just a few hundred yards from where he played as a child. It’s a difficult sequence in an emotionally draining film, but very effective.

The reality of the other side of the wall is far worse than Hans could realize. It’s too powerful deny, as are the transcripts of Höss’s confession that Maya presents to her mother in another scene. A mix of anger, pain, and catharsis wash over Anita’s face as she nods while her daughter reads Höss’s detailed account. “Deny that,” Anita challenges the unseen forces who continue to target Jews and deny the past.

The real coup of the film, however, is the inevitable convergence of the storylines as Hans and Anita meet. It’s a rare encounter in which the survivor of a war crime meets the perpetrator’s child. They don’t really have much to say to one another beyond acknowledging the uniqueness of the moment.

Volker finds great power in the muted, somewhat anti-climactic scene. All they can do is share coffee and pie. It’s satisfyingly humane, however, seeing these two people put aside seemingly irreconcilable differences. Anita especially provides the ultimate act of forgiveness. Moreover, she acknowledges to Volker that history seems doomed to repeat itself. She recognizes that if she can’t forgive Hans, then the question for peace that Maya seeks proves futile.

After the credits close, however, an image returns of two men. It’s presumably Hans and Kai walking in a desert, as the film notes how Rudolph Höss fought in Palestine as a young man during World War I. That land, the film notes, became home to many Jewish people in the wake of the atrocities that Nazis like Höss committed. The commentary ends there. Perhaps there’s nothing left to say since Anita already noted history’s inevitable repetition.

The Commandant’s Shadow screens in select cinemas on May 29 and 30.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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