MOVIE OF THE WEEK May 31, 2024: THE COMMANDANT’S SHADOW

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At a time when some U.S. public schools are shutting down lesson plans that run the risk of making White American children feel bad about the country’s history of enslavement and oppression, The Commandant’s Shadow is an especially timely reminder of the dangers of willfully turning a blind eye to history. Daniela Volker’s documentary about coming to terms with both personal and societal legacies is a compelling addition to the catalog of films about World War II and the Holocaust.

Volker introduces viewers to 87-year-old Hans Jürgen Höss, the son of Rudolf Höss, who was the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the war and the architect of its lethal efficiency. Questioned by both Volker and his own son, Kai, a pastor, Hans shares memories of his childhood, which he remembers as peaceful and fairly idyllic, even after his family moved onto the grounds of the camp. While Hans doesn’t deny his father’s role in the murder of more than a million Jews, he also seems inclined to find ways to separate Höss’ role from the act of killing (at one point, he says that his father mostly did a lot of paperwork). And when it comes to his mother, Hedwig, Hans is quick to say that he doesn’t think she couldn’t possibly have understood what was going on.

It’s only when Hans is confronted with his father’s own words — published in his autobiography, Commandant of Auschwitz, which Hans had never before read — that the enormity of Rudolf Höss’ culpability really starts to sink in. And it takes meetings with Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and her daughter, Maya, to really drive home the generational trauma of the camps and what happened there. Anita also tells her own story — she survived Auschwitz because she could play the cello and was drafted into the camp women’s orchestra — and strives to connect with Maya, who’s far more emotional about their family’s history than the unflappable, eminently pragmatic Anita. When Hans, Anita, and their children come together, it’s a moment both ordinary and utterly momentous.

The Höss family’s story was memorably dramatized in the Oscar-winning 2023 film The Zone of Interest, and that film is an excellent companion piece to The Commandant’s Shadow. But it’s incredibly powerful to hear the people who actually lived through these events tell Volker about them. And when they question humanity’s ability to learn from the worst moments of our history, it’s impossible not to take it seriously. They would be the first to say they hope to be proven wrong. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning The Zone of Interest presented a chilling portrait of a family living a life of luxury during World War II while the family patriarch, SS officer Rudolph Höss, oversees the murders of millions as the commandant of the Auschwitz death camp and one of the chief architects of Hitler’s Final Solution. Daniela Volker’s fascinating documentary revisits Höss and his role in the Holocaust through the eyes of not just his surviving children and a grandchild but also through those of an Auschwitz survivor and her daughter. Hans Jürgen Höss and his sister Brigitte have lived their lives aware of the monstrosity of their father’s actions but never able to reconcile it with the man they knew. Hans’ son, Kai, a minister a generation removed and well aware of his grandfather’s crimes gently nudges his father into awareness. As a young woman, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch survived the camp as a member of the orchestra that played while other internees were led to the gas chamber. Long settled in England, Anita, too, must confront the past, thanks to the prodding of her daughter Maya. With excerpts of Rudolph Höss’s autobiography woven through the soundtrack giving his own account of his crimes, the documentary offers a haunting depiction of the Holocaust’s horrors and its effects on survivors from both sides as the past casts its pall and its shadow.

Nell Minow: It is never over. A woman survived Auschwitz and made a new life for herself in London. The commandant of Auschwitz, responsible for more murders than anyone else in history, stood trial and was hanged for his crimes. We meet them both in this documentary, the commandant through the autobiography he wrote in prison. We meet their children and a grandchild, and see how the horrors of the Holocaust continue to haunt the next generations. Writer/director Daniela Volker created space for the inheritors of this history to be very open about their struggles and their feelings. As we move into a time when there are no more living witnesses, understanding how we keep the truth of those horrible moments present. And we must make sure those who are left feel safe enough to discover the path toward meaning and purpose.

Leslie Combemale Once you hear The Commandant’s Shadow is the perfect companion to The Zone of Interest, you think, “Oh. Ok. I can do this.” You prepare yourself. No matter how much you do, this documentary that has such a powerful hold, it’s hard to shake, even days later. It’s one thing to see a narrative, it’s another thing altogether to witness the son of the commandant of Auschwitz meet a woman who survived it by playing cello while thousands were herded to their death. It sounds horrid, and of course it is, but it’s also so incredibly moving and real. It is an experience. WE must be witnesses, especially in the current climate. The expression “never forget” has never been more apt, and watching these documentary subjects, who actively engage each other in talking about one of the most monstrous actions ever done to human beings, is transformational. Read full review

Loren King By focusing on the specific stories of several individuals, director Daniela Volker’s The Commandant’s Shadow explores universal issues about generational trauma related to the Holocaust. It’s a moving and profound journey that we take with the son, daughter, and grandson of notorious Auschwitz commander Rudolf Hoss, the Nazi responsible for the systematic murder of millions and the subject of Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning film The Zone of Interest. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin In the revelatory Holocaust documentary, The Commandant’s Shadow, filmmaker Daniela Volker investigates life after Auschwitz. More specifically, she focuses on Auschwitz Commandant Hans Jurgen Hoss’ son and daughter and grandson, delving into how they’ve come to terms with knowing that their beloved forebear was the mass murderer of more human beings than any other human in history. Hoss’ wife is also questioned about her husband’s ‘work,’ efficiently executing Adolf Hitler’s dictates for the death camp. Read full review.

Nikki Fowler: “Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.” Daniela Völker’s The Commandant’s Shadow is an important must watch alongside Cannes Grand Prix and Academy Award Winning, The Zone of Interest, which details German commander Rudolf Höss and his wife and family living an ideal life right behind the walls of Auschwitz, making him responsible for the the most human life taken in history. The Commandant’s Shadow peels back the layers and highlights Hans Jürgen Höss, the 87-year-old son of Rudolf Höss who gives first hand stories of what it was like growing up amongst a home unknowingly parallel to gas chambers and non stop brutality; he knew absolutely nothing of what was going on behind the walls of his home. This powerful and disturbing documentary shows the real life experiences of the family that was led by a man who was responsible for the killing of over 1 million Jews. To say it’s a tough watch is an understatement but Volker’s documentary is moving and perfectly edited to help tell a story on the destruction of the lives of those who passed away and the pieces of life taken from those who survived, are defenders or bore witness.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Even if you didn’t see the award-winning drama Zone of Interest, The Commandant’s Shadow is an unforgettable documentary about life after the Holocaust for the descendants of Auschwitz’s Commandant Hoss (a son and grandson) and how they process the sins of their father/grandfather. As a counterpoint, the film follows an Auschwitz survivor and her adult daughter, a therapist who believes she has inherited her mother’s trauma. Filmmaker Daniela Volker has created a film that should be mandatory viewing.

Liz Whittemore Daniela Völker delivers an emotionally crushing documentary in The Commandant’s Shadow. The film delves into the lives of two families directly affected by the Nazi regime; one, a survivor, and the other, one of the most notorious oppressors. Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, destroyed innumerable futures. Now, two generations later, those who remain must come to terms with his atrocities in varying ways. Utilizing archival footage, family photographs, sit-down interviews, and words from Rudolf Höss’ confessional book, the film is undoubtedly a brilliant companion to Jonathan Glazer’s piercing drama, The Zone of Interest. How do the grandchildren of one of the most evil architects of The Holocaust reckon with their lineage? The generational trauma and shocking denial convey the never ending cycles of brutality and the dismissal of the ongoing oppression. One might question how an entire nation could fall under the spell of Hitler. Those of us paying attention to the sickening political landscape are trying to warn everyone of the dangers of apathy and the fear of history repeating itself.

Cate Marquis Director Daniela Volker’s documentary The Commandant’s Shadow, focuses on Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, after the end of WWII, as remembered through the eyes of his descendants, two of Hoss’ children and a grandson. A companion piece to the drama The Zone of Interest, with family photos reflecting the scenes of the drama shot on location, at its start, the documentary then goes further in its exploration of memory and experiences, with excerpts from Hoss’ own autobiography, written in prison as he awaited trial for war crimes, read over archival footage, revealing insights on both Hoss and his wife, who actively concealed from their children what was happening on the other side of the garden wall. The documentary delves deeper still when it brings in the British-born and raised daughter of a still-living Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, as the daughter examines the experiences of her mother, who lost her whole family in the Holocaust, before the documentary finally brings the two families together.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: The Commandant’s Shadow

Director: Daniela Volker

Release Date: May 31, 2024

Running Time: 103minutes

Language: English, German with English subtitles

Screenwriter: Daniela Volker (Documentary)

Distribution Company: Warner Bros.

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).