Philippe Sands, Winner of the 2016 Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction literature

Last year I interviewed international lawyer Philippe Sands about My Nazi Legacy, a provocative documentary about his encounters with the sons of  high-ranking Nazis responsible for the murders of members of his family during the Holocaust. At the time, Sands was writing a book, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. This week, it won the 2016 Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction. The following is a transcript of my interview with Sands, part of which first appeared in an article for The Jewish Chronicle  

Is My Nazi Legacy part of the “Lemberg Quartet”, and was that a fully conceived idea from the get go?

It is now, yeah.”

Did it evolve over time?

It started with a lecture. I was invited to give this lecture in Lviv, five years ago, at the University of Lviv, on my work on crimes against humanity and genocide, and I accepted because my grandfather was born in the city. I knew nothing about it. I didn't know where it was - he had never talked about it - and I went because I wanted to see what it was like. And from that visit this whole project commenced.

The centrepiece, the backbone, is a book, which comes out next May, that is called East West Street: On the Origins of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, and it tells the lives of four men: Hersch Lauterpacht, who invented the concept of Crimes Against Humanity, or put it into the Nuremberg statute; Rafael Lemkin, who invented the word genocide. Amazingly the two of them studied at the same university in Lviv where I went to give a lecture, and the university was not aware of it. The third man was Hans Frank, who I really came across because the killings that I heard about that took place in August 1942, and which in fact involved Lauterpacht's family and Lemkin's family and my family, were really at his instigation, in part. So I got interested in him. And then the fourth man is my grandfather. So it tells the parallel lives of the four men between 1914 and 1946.”

You became fascinated by Hans frank.

Yes, he was highly intelligent, highly educated, so how could someone take the direction he had taken? One of the things I read was a book by his son, Niklas Frank, which was astonishing, and I wrote to him and he invited me to come and visit with him. We sat together for many hours, in Hamburg, and talked and talked and talked, and then he said, 'You should meet my friend Horst [von Wachter, son of SS commander Otto von Wachter]. They're not all like me.' That led to a piece commissioned for the FT Magazine, the first piece, published in May 2013.

Six months later we were having dinner at home with [documentary-maker] David [Evans] and Abigail [Morris], and David mentioned he had read the piece, didn't say anything else to me, and the next morning my wife said, 'I think David would like to make that FT piece into a documentary,' and I said, 'No, he didn't say anything to me about it. He would have said something.' She said, 'No, Abigail said he really wants to do it.' I said, 'Okay, call Abigail. If he wants to do it, we can have a natter about it.' And she called Abigail and Abigail said, 'Yeah, he really does.' And so we took it from there.”

So how does the documentary fit into the quartet?

It is a second wing, if you like. There is a performance piece called Song of Good and Evil, which I wrote and perform as one of the narrators, with a fellow narrator, and we have a range of different narrators, and an opera singer.

And the fourth element is this much smaller book by a wonderful Polish poet called Jozef Wittlin, who wrote a little book called My Lemberg, My Lviv, which was published in 1946, which was an idyll of how it used to be in the inter-war years. That has never been published in English and Pushkin Press is publishing the English translation of that, and I'm doing a long introductory essay. So it's the four things that come together.

How does this fit together with your legal work?

So I wear two hats. I am Professor of International Law at University College of London, and I teach and I have all my lovely students, and very happy doing that. I then also work as a barrister and I sit as an arbitrator, and a lot of my arbitration cases are human rights cases, including cases on crimes against humanity and genocide. So the subject area is obviously of great interest. The juggling is a little difficult.

But I'd say this: I think that sometimes you can achieve more through words and performance and music than you can in a courtroom. You can reach something different and you get people to think about things in different ways. I can stand up and give a lecture about crimes against humanity and genocide to the audience that was at BAFTA last night [to see My Nazi Legacy] and within 15 minutes they would be nodding off, probably.”

You need the emotional arc.

Yeah, you need the emotional arc. As barristers and even as academics we have to strip out the emotion and strip out the personal side of our lives, and that's what I don't want to do any more. I want to recognise the personal side of my life. It informs what I do and it's part of what I do.”

That seems to be the arc of My Nazi Legacy. In the first half you are very neutral and objective. In the second half you go to the scene of the crime, as it were, and you become less neutral and let your feelings inform your approach to Horst in particular. You confront hi when he rejects the documentary evidence of his father's involvement in the Final Solution.

That's an absolutely acute observation. There's a turning point in the film which takes place in that big room in the university, the former parliament of the Austro-Hungarian empire,. Finally I've tracked down this wretched document that I'm looking for, and confront Horst, and his reaction, let's just say, irritates me, and I lose my rag. There was a lot if internal discussion on the making of the film. I'm not actually very comfortable with that scene because as barristers we're trained don't show your emotion, stay cool, be balanced.”

Well it looks like you have become the prosecutor but that is mixed up with the emotional and the personal.

Yes the emotional and the personal. I'm very happy to put it in those terms. Last night at BAFTA I think the way I put it was I'm a lawyer and I'm a human being and there are points where one can no longer be excluded with the other.

Originally when the film was conceived, I wasn't going to be in it at all; I was just going to be a commentator. I wasn't keen to be in it. Wasn't looking to be in it. David and the producer from BBC Storyville, Nick Fraser, said: 'You have to be in it because it needs that input to create a different dynamic,' and the moment that you identified is the moment that a lot of people say it really takes off.

“As conceived originally, we thought the Purcell Room would be the end point. We thought there would be a huge explosion, they wouldn't be talking to each other any more, and that would be the end of the film. And it just went differently.”

Was the Purcell Room event staged specifically for the documentary or was it something else and you decided to include it?

The order was in November, David said, 'I'd like to make a documentary. Let's go off and interview these characters.' Around the same time, coincidentally, there had been a lot of interest around the FT piece because I think it touches a universal theme, and I've stressed this at every point: obviously it focuses on a Jewish story and a Nazi story, but actually the son's relationship to the father cuts across cultures, religions, identities, and it's universal.

I can't remember how it happened exactly, but with Niklas and with Horst the idea came up: why don't we have a public exchange of views and do it in London? They agreed to it and the FT sponsored that, actually. It sold out in 31/2 minutes. It was incredible. And then we decided to film it. So David, I think, had about eight cameras, it was done from all different angles, but there was no sense of where it would go next. And it was only really right at the end when Horst, bless him, said, 'Why don't we all go off to the Ukraine where my father is venerated?' that Dave and I thought, 'That's an idea.' It hadn't occurred to us.”

Obviously the Holocaust is where your families' paths cross. When did the Holocaust first come into your consciousness?

“Day one of my life. I grew up in a household in which we didn't have German things. My mum was born in Vienna, in '38, and so she is herself not a descendant but the youngest first generation. And so my brother and I grew up in a household where we knew there were things that had happened, but like many families we never talked about it. And I think it was a protective instinct, I respect it completely. I've never challenged it.

“My grandfather, he just wouldn't talk about it. My mum, she says she remembers nothing until 1945. She was a hidden child. She was hidden in France, squirrelled away and then reunited with her mum and dad in, I think, August '44, when Paris was liberated. So there was no talking about it, but it's there.And it's a big issue. And it informs you and it affects you, and I'm sure it affected the career choices that I made.”

You think it informed your decision to pursue the law?

Must have, must have, must have. I mean there's a long and honourable tradition of Jews getting involved in Law, and particularly Jews who feel themselves to be a minority and threatened group look to the law as a way of providing protections, and I don't think there's anything original in the path that I took. And it wasn't conscious. I started off at university doing Economics, and didn't like it. So I changed to Law, didn't really like it, and then did a course on International Law and I think I must have really liked that because it connected with family and stories and things. But it was an accidental thing.”

So there was no sense of mission?

“Definitely not then. It's come since. But I can't say there was a burning desire for justice that articulated itself. It may have been there in a subconscious way but there was no lawyer in the family. I'm the first person on that side of the family to have gone to university.”

I wondered how you felt when you were making this film because I spoke to the Hungarian director of Son of Saul and he said the film was made out of anger and it's okay for Jews to still be angry. If I recall rightly he said don't forgive, don't forget.

I saw the film and I've heard a lot about him and I know he comes from a particular strand. I mean one of the wonders of the Jewish community is the vast array of strands and how one deals with the past and the present, and that's a good thing, actually. That's a healthy thing. I don't have a problem with that. But I don't think it's anger. I don't think you will have picked up in the film an angry person. I was irritated and I wanted an acknowledgement from Horst. I certainly didn't want an apology. It's not his responsibility what his dad did, he was a kid. But there's a concern that in failing to acknowledge you effectively take ownership of what has happened and that really bothered me. So it's not that there's a mission but I've tended in my cases to act for the underdog, so I've acted for very small countries against big countries: for Georgia against Russia, for Ireland against the UK . . . . I tend not to be instructed by the great powers against littler powers, and that may also be connected.”

Horst seems to say at one point that talking to you is attractive because you're Jewish. Does he have a need to be understood by Jews?

I think the question to put is why did he do this? I think he was hoping to persuade me, as I was hoping to get an acknowledgement from him, and he's obviously failed completely and totally. As have I, it has to be said. He's very comfortable around me. He worked for this painter, who's a very famous Jewish painter, and it seems to be a very big thing in his life. I don't feel any hostility from him. But nor, at any point, has he ever said in the years that I have known him now, 'I'm really sorry what happened to your family.' Whereas Niklas takes it too far. I keep saying to Niklas, 'Okay, I know your views. You don't need to apologise on behalf of the German people, your father, whatever.' With Horst I think it's not malign, I think he's just completely occupying the space of love not only of his father but his mother.”

You have mentioned elsewhere that you think the men's attitudes are tied up with their mothers, but not really expanded on it. Can you elaborate now?

The first thing I need to say about the film is we had a lot of footage about the mothers and the wives and the daughters, and there was an issue, and it's more a question for David because, ultimately, it's his film. He decided on everything. An 85-minute film, you just couldn't cover everything and so he focused on the father-son thing. And I think that, probably, was the right call.

But the mothers are fascinating characters and I think the story with Horst in particular is he didn't know his father at all but he knew and loved his mother right till her last day. She died in 1986, probably a pretty committed Nazi all the way through to the end, and she loved his father. I interpret what's going on, in part, as the desire to express the love of the mother through the respect of the father. That's one explanation. I talked to a lot of psychoanalysts who have seen the film and have helped us, because we've also had to be very, very careful. In a certain sense I think Horst is a victim. There's that moment early on in the film with his birthday, when he's five or six, and he's weeping. That always gets me that bit, because you can see it from a kid's perspective.”

Indeed and he still seems to be trying to cling on to that innocent, childhood memory of his father in the face of horrible reality, and this appears to create inner turmoil.

And that's what is brilliant about David Evans, the filmmaker, because he brings it back at the end to Niklas Frank, wanting to be that little boy again. And a theme that runs all the way through it is that theme of childhood and the child growing up. But I think for Horst, the focus is as much the mother as the father.”

What was that first meeting with Horst like when he's showing you his photograph albums containing pictures of high-ranking Nazis, including Hitler, and did he know your family history at that point?

Yeah, totally. I'm very upfront about it. I'm also very upfront that I feel no antagonism towards him. I'm a generation later and the passage of time, at least with some families, the generation gaps allow you to begin to explore these things with some distance. He was very open. I was very upfront about the story of my own family. He never asked any more than what I said. His schloss is unbelievable. He is completely impecunious. He has no money. Literally nothing. He and his wife live in that huge place. He bought it when his mother died. She left a small inheritance. So it's certainly not passed down through the family generations, and he bought it in about '87-'88 for a pittance, because it's completely run down. They live in three rooms on the ground floor, unheated. It's bitterly cold. Every time I was there I'm like wearing three jumpers. It's -2, -3 inside, and he's broke. And he arranges things all over the house and right on the top floor there's the library, which is his father's library.

Well we sat down and I'm completely fascinated by these albums. You open them and there's Goering and Goebbels and Himmler and 'AH' – 'AH'! – and incredible images. And then we go upstairs to the bookshelf, and you pick a book out, and it's signed on his 44th birthday, from July 1944, from Himmler, a personal gift sort of thing. On another occasion I remember going, he was taking out a book from a shelf, it was a black book, and it was Mein Kampf and it was inscribed by his mother. She bought it as an engagement present and inside she wrote, 'For our struggle.' So he lives with it and he'll say, 'That's interesting. I didn't know that I had that.' He's never said to me, 'You can't see what I've got.'”

I thought it was strange, however, the way he complained that the light was too dim when you pointed out how your eyes were drawn to the face of a girl in a photograph of children in the Krakow ghetto, and claimed not to have realised that his father was promoted on Kristallnacht.

He offered to give me that picture and initially I said yes. And then I thought about it and then I thought, 'I don't want it.' It's an incredible picture. It's a truly astonishing picture. And it's one of those pictures that stays with me. I sort of do want it but I don't want it.”

The provenance?

Provenance. You know?”

I found it disturbing when Horst took a photograph at the site of the memorial at the killing field where your family among thousands of other Jews were murdered because of the idea of it ending up among the images you have described.

“That's so astute. It's a brilliant moment because you don't actually see him taking the picture, but you hear the click. It's an amazing bit of editing. Another one is, I just love that moment where Niklas is telling me that his mother went into the ghetto to buy furs, and I'm like, 'Buy furs?' He said, 'Yeah, you know, she's the Governor's wife.' And at that moment there's a scene of Brigitte Frank parading in a huge fur coat. It's all home family archive, it's never been seen before. And the girl in the red dress – Jesus Christ (whispered). It's unbelievable.” 

Left to right: Niklas Frank, Philippe Sands & Horst von Wachter

The way that the film is edited also gives the sense that the past is always pressing up against the present, and there's the feeling that the past never dies and you can never really escape it completely.

That's my message. My big theme in it is suppress stuff, and it will come back. It doesn't go away. It's my own family story of my own grandfather and mum not wanting to talk about these things – for excellent reasons, for admirable, protective reasons – and nevertheless it comes back. And I deal with that a lot in my book, actually, the secrets that haunt us. And I think that you see that in the fields in the Ukraine. And you see that in what's happened to their two children, actually.”


It's another part of the story in that they each have one child, a daughter, and in Niklas's case that daughter has turned out to be a really very stable, well functioning person, apparently. She in fact went to Cambridge, amazingly, and works and has three children. She describes [Niklas] as her 'fortress'. She describes her dad as her fortress and says, basically, 'He broke that link and allowed us to deal with this properly.' Horst hasn't and the upshot is that if you look at his daughter, she is in a much more difficult situation. She's having trouble, I think, dealing with some of these things. And I think the broader theme there is the past just doesn't go away. It just doesn't go away.”

And we see that on a more public scale in the Ukraine with the ceremony honouring dead Nazi soldiers.

Yeah, I mean one thing I'm slightly concerned about with the link with the Ukraine – and I know my friends in the Ukraine are a bit nervous about it because there's some very fine people there who helped a lot with this film and have seen it and like it a lot – because it's never made clear that the bunch of characters [Nazi sympathisers] we met with are a minority. They are not a tiny minority but they're a minority group and they're the ones Putin focuses on. And I've been a little concerned that quite a few people who have seen that film say, 'Oh well I'm changing my attitude on Ukraine-Russia.' I think that would be an unfortunate direction to take (I mean everyone will take their own direction) because those characters in the field are not the dominant few, but they're a significant minority. And the fact is they're allowed to proceed. They're allowed to do that. It's tolerated. There's a major political party that supports them and that's really problematic.”

In that scene there is a guy in the film wearing a Swastika who says that it means different things to different people. You have mentioned elsewhere how a piece of music meant something different to Frank and Lauterpacht, who faced each other at Nuremberg. This is almost a theme running through the film: Horst's photos mean something to him and you, Horst and Niklas see their fathers in different ways, they look at the synagogue burned out by the Nazis in different ways. It is as if the film is made up of mirror images. Was this deliberate?

No one's put it in those terms. You're the first to put it in those terms. That's really interesting. I hadn't thought about it like that. It may be in part that my own work as an academic and an international lawyer is about the interpretation of text, and my time in court is often spent on a single word or a single full-stop or a single sentence, with two sides having diametrically opposed views about what it means. So I am fascinated by that. I mean Law is like religious study in a sense: you take the same text and different people interpret it in different ways, and that's what causes the misery and the happiness of the world. So that's a really interesting point; I had not thought about that. I hadn't made that connection and I don't think David had made that connection. I'm thinking about that, that's really interesting. I will think that through.”

When you went to the Ukraine, how did you find out about the commemoration ceremony?

“Horst. I had no idea about that. Horst sends me regular emails and updates of his father and the Ukraine, so about two years ago he sent me an email on Waffen SS Veneration Day, and it's like a German or Austrian newspaper article, and he said, 'Look, seeall the pretty ladies honouring my father,' and there's a parade in the street. I didn't really know what the Galicia Division was back then in 2012. I hadn't focused on it, I had never really heard about it. Now I know a lot more about it and I just thought, 'Oh, this is not nice,' and filed it away. And then after the Purcell Room, Horst said, 'Well, if we're going to go to the Ukraine, let's go on commemoration weekend and I'll introduce you to all these lovely people.' I wanted to go. We all wanted to go. Obviously they wouldn't know who we were. We just said we were BBC Film.”

Did they know you were Jewish?

No. And I certainly didn't mention it.”

How did it feel being among those people?

“It was as shocking a day as I have ever had. But you don't notice it. I'm all in my barrister's mode of, 'Oh, how jolly. Oh, he's wearing a Swastika.' Who knows how people are going to react and they're there to venerate the Waffen SS Galicia Division, which was a sort of German-Ukraine thing. By the time it was founded in 1943, the Jews had basically been exterminated in the city. Incredible population. Incredible city. I've just come back - I've just taken my brother for four days – and I find it darker and darker, not easier and easier. I mean you just feel that absence, you know, when somebody's passed from the world. It's very powerful and it's very dark. But I wanted to see these characters. You know, I'm curious. That's what I said at the beginning of the film and it's true: I want to know. And better the devil you know than the devil you just imagine.”

How long were you with these people? I had an almost physical reaction to the sight of these guys in SS regalia.

We had a wonderful cameraman, Sam Hardy, and a wonderful sound man, neither of whom were Jewish, and they both said last night at BAFTA, of all the things they had ever done, that period of days in the Ukraine was as tough as anything. I mean what it tells you is that everything is just below the surface. The idea that there have been fundamental changes, that these things have gone away forever - no way. No way.”

Did you film the scenes in Ukraine chronologically and was it all during one trip?

We followed in real order. Nothing is staged in that film.”

Did they always know where they were going or did you sometimes not want to give them time to prepare themselves?

We told them in advance. We felt we had to. Niklas is rather more careful: 'Where exactly am I going?' And that was relevant. See, David and I didn't know when we arrived in the the big room in the university that he would suddenly take this piece of paper out of his pocket. Looking back now I realise he'd planned the whole thing, because he kept saying, 'Are you sure we're going to that room where my father made the speech?' and I said, 'Yeah, I researched it and that's the big room where he made the speech.' Then he just does that. And, of course, the cameraman then has to follow the whole thing. It's not like, 'Oh, I'll do it again for you if you want in a different way.' Everything was just one off. It was a road trip and it was pretty heavy, actually.”

In the scene at the synagogue you talk to Niklas and Horst separately. Was that because you wanted something different from them or because of logistics?

No, that was just Horst was standing at the place. There was no master plan of we'll do this and then we'll do that. Horst was standing alone, I wandered over to him, then the camera followed. They were both there. Niklas could hear everything. And as Niklas was being interviewed, Horst could hear everything. The policy adopted by David, which was the right policy, was to be completely transparent with both. So that when we said something to one of them, we said something to the other, and then neither would feel that we had taken a particular position. And one of the techniques of the film that I think is very important is that David made it very clear that if Horst had something to say to give an explanation, David would record it and use it. And that's what creates the discomfort in the cinema, which is that most reasonable people will feel uncomfortable with what Horst is saying. But they have a certain sense of understanding that to honour and to love your father is a good thing, and they're made uncomfortable by the extreme position taken by Niklas.

What I've observed, it's been really fascinating getting reactions, is that for people who are very directly affected by the story in the sense that they've had members of their family murdered in the Holocaust, they've got very little time for Horst for the views that he expresses. But for the younger generations, when 15 or 16 year olds come in, they're much more sympathetic – not to what he's saying, but for recognising the child's perspective. And that's even for Jewish kids. And for people who are not involved, whether Jews or non-Jews, it becomes more ambiguous. And it's not a Left/Right thing. It's really interesting.”

The further we get from the Holocaust the blurrier things become, and that worries me.

Yes, and that's actually why, probably, the film won the prize it did at the Jerusalem Film Festival and why we've got requests for screenings up the wazoo from all over the world. Because it is, someone put it like this, the first film that makes that connection from the past to the future and shows this is a live issue today. So we've had so many requests for Holocaust Memorial Day screenings because it's alive. It shows it's not a dead issue. Really not a dead issue.”

Jews are feeling unsafe again. Is there a message or warning here, in your mind?

Yeah there's a warning in the film, and the film is an expression of my own greater consciousness of the seriousness of issues that are out there, for the Jewish community but also for other communities, that xenophobia and racism is on the rise, and anti-Semitism is part of that. Anti-Semitism is not the only thing, but obviously for the Jewish community that's a particularly serious thing. And, absolutely, I think David and I felt very strongly that those scenes in the Ukraine were incredibly important. But I think the heart of it is this sense that you just touched on, that it's showing that what happened then is very alive today. Very alive. That's a big message.”

Does it tell us, too, and I wonder if this is something that comes across in your work as a barrister, that we could all be perpetrators?

I did a really long piece with the Jewish Quarterly, and I'm often asked this, I talk a lot at schools, would I do torture, would I do this, would I do that, and I'm always very careful about what I say. I can't know for a fact. I hope there are things I wouldn't do but do we know in extremis the limits of what we would do? No, we don't know. To protect those we love most, we don't know what we would do and how far we would go. And I think it's inherent, as a possibility in many of us, to do very bad things. I don't think it's a dominant feeling but I think that if things go belly up, seriously bad things can happen again. The film is a reminder of that.”

How do we guard against these things in ourselves if the potential is there?

Gosh, that's a big question. I mean if we were back in the '30s, I've been thinking a lot about the '30s, what would my position have been in the '30s? I read Lauterpacht and Lemkin, these extraordinary individuals who could see what was coming, and they felt helpless. Helpless. So one option is you just disappear into your hole and do nothing and the other is that you militate strongly. I do that in relation to the things that I know about, which is International Law.”

What would you say that you have learnt on this journey, perhaps about yourself?

“I have learnt that my family's past is deeply important to me. I've learnt that things that are deeply buried don't disappear, on all sides. And I've learnt that we have to be constantly vigilant. I've also learnt, actually, about the importance of honesty in dealing with people. That both Niklas and Horst have their particular characters, they've both been incredibly generous and open, and I feel like I have to record that in relation to Horst. I don't like some of the things that he says. But there is not a single document that I have asked to see that he has said, 'No, you can't see that.' I've even managed to persuade him – this is remarkable, truly remarkable – to give his entire family archive to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I think that is a mark of someone who is not out to do malign and terrible things. And the openness is something that I respect.”

What do they both think of the film?

“They both have questions with it. I think probably Niklas is more comfortable than Horst.”

There's an odd bit at the end of the film where Horst is back in his schloss and talking about his father in terms of the long view of his family history and at one point identifies his behaviour with that of Jews. What the heck was going on there?

Good question. David put it in because he wanted to be respectful of Horst, that Horst actually really believes that. But of course just five minutes earlier in the film, he said, 'If my father were to go to a Nuremberg trial I'm sure he would be acquitted. Who'd speak against him? Only the Jews.' You know, not a happy line. Let's just say it's not an entirely consistent position that he's taking. But it's good that he's out there and it's good that he has spoken and participated, and the reactions have been really encouraging. We've been pretty amazed, actually. And NIklas's father is one of the great criminals of all time and he is willing to talk about it.”

You ask at the beginning about how one lives with the burden of knowing ones father was a mass murderer. Is that something that has fascinated you from your own work and was this a practical way to explore it?

My mum has long been involved in I think it's called The Second Generation Trust, and she has regularly attended meetings with the children of perpetrators and that must have had an influence on me in a subliminal way. I always really admired the fact that my mum did that. I know it was very difficult for her at times, and she met some pretty extraordinary characters. That must have had an impact on me. So yes, it's been part of our thing. I think Niklas and Horst are victims. They have been through a terrible trauma, of a different sort.”

There is talk about epigenetic inheritance in the offspring of survivors and I wonder whether there is a trauma in people like Horst and Niklas because they fear inheriting whatever it was that made the parent act the way they did. It's a feeling of guilt, perhaps, that they are grappling with.

It's interesting you say that because one of the quotes that I used on the beginning part of my book, and I start with a quote by Nicholas Abraham, 'What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.' That to me is the casebook. And Abraham's thesis, which is incredibly interesting, is that when somebody experiences something terrible, they bury it in a part of their mind and their soul which he refers to as a 'crypt'. It does not emerge immediately, it skips a generation, and emerges in the grandchildren. And that resonates with me. That totally resonates with me. I think there is definitely something there. Definitely, definitely, definitely something there.”

It seemed to me that both Horst and Niklas are finding different ways to deal with feelings of guilt or fears that they could be like their fathers: Horst by effectively absolving his father of moral responsibility for his crimes and putting the blame on the system, Niklas by completely cutting himself off emotionally and psychologically from his father.

We had an incredibly powerful experience after the Song of Good and Evil at the Purcell Room where someone in the audience was the child of a mass murderer in the UK and came up to me afterwards and just said, 'Look, this is really difficult for me because I've always asked myself the question: am I my father?' And Niklas and I talked about that a lot. I didn't talk about it with Horst because Horst denies his dad's a mass murderer. It's another way of dealing with that.”

It's denial.

“It is denial. And it's definitely apology. And Niklas thinks it goes to the next stage of being an actual Nazi. I'm pretty careful of who I throw that label at and I think in the film I say I don't think he's a Nazi. I really don't think he's a Nazi but he's an apologist, and that's really bad.”