Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Inheritance – A Film Review

Concentration camp survivor meets daughter of commandant
Just over a week ago today I posted a blog entry about Jennifer Teege, the woman whose story came to my attention as I was reviewing the recognition of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.  She came across a book* in a library one day which revealed to her that her birth mother was the daughter of Amon Goeth, the concentration camp commander at Płaszów, a suburb of Krakow, in Poland.   She had been adopted into a loving family and enjoyed a happy childhood, but she always knew her birth mother was a woman named Monika.  Monika had kept in contact with Jennifer for the first seven years of her life, but evidently decided when her foster family decided to adopt her that it would be better for her to remove herself from the picture.  The ins and outs of those personal feelings and decisions have not, to my knowledge, been made public.  And, frankly, all other things being equal, I would say there is no reason why they should.  People should jolly well mind their own business.

But other things are not equal.  Although seventy years have passed since the end of the war, many of its victims, both the Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust, and the descendants of its perpetrators forced to face the evil in their own blood lines, are unable to forgive and forget.  Nor should they be expected to.

If you saw the film, Schindler’s List, you are familiar with the man who seems to represent evil incarnate: Amon Goeth, the commandant of the Płaszów Concentration camp.  He was played by Ralph Fiennes.  You will also remember the young girl Goeth took into his home as a maid, to work in the kitchen and iron his shirts and who knows what else.  Her name was Helen.  Goeth decided she would change her name to Susana, since he already had a Helen working in the house.  She was regularly beaten and pushed down the stairs and lived every day in fear for her life.  She was one of those saved by Oskar Schindler and lives today with her American family in Boca Raton, Florida.  Her full name today is Helen (née Sternlicht) Jonas-Rosenzweig and she will be ninety years old on April 25th. 

Amon Goeth’s crimes, ironically, were too much even for the SS.  They arrested him for theft and abuse of prisoners (now there’s a concept).  He was pronounced mentally ill and sent to a mental institution in Bad Tölz, near Munich.  Evidentally his mistress, Ruth, accompanied him there, because it was in Bad Tölz that Monika was born in November 1945, six months after he was arrested by the American military.  The Americans turned him over to the Poles, who tried him for "personally killing, maiming and torturing a substantial, albeit unidentified number of people," and executed him in September 1946.

Ruth Irene Kalder was Oskar Schindler’s secretary at one point before she took up with Amon Goeth.  Although she never married Amon, she took his name after he died, and apparently was devoted to him.  Ruth lived on and raised her daughter, Monika, to believe her father died in the war “fighting for his country.”  When Ruth committed suicide in 1983 she died under a picture of Amon which she had hung on the wall over her bed. 

Over the years, Monika began to want to know more about her father, and when she was eleven, she succeeded in getting her grandmother, Ruth’s mother, to fill her in on the monstrous facts.  What happened in the years following this turning point in Monika’s life is told in a stunningly powerful 2006 documentary called Inheritance, for which filmmaker James Moll won an Emmy.  He had previously won an Oscar for the 1999 film The Last Days, which chronicled the lives of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust and two prime time Emmy Awards in 1996.  

Monika came to the attention of Moll during the making of Schindler’s List.  She had been searching for the whereabouts of Helen Jonas Rosenzweig and when she found out Moll knew her, asked him to deliver a letter to Helen, asking if they could meet.

Inheritance is the story of the meeting of Monika and Helen at the memorial site in Płaszów.  It is a moment of incredible dramatic tension and not easily forgotten.  The two meet again to tour the house where Helen served as Monika’s father’s slave and have a moment which brings the tension to a climax.  Monika tries to explain to Helen what she was told about her father, but Helen is so determined that such justifications never be uttered again that she attacks Monika as if she were uttering the words out of her own perspective.  Monika, struggling bravely to deal with her own shame and guilt, evidently believes the best approach is not to give argument, but to take the abuse.

This scene brings home the question of whether guilt can be inherited.   Moss shows by his choice of Inheritance as the title of his documentary that the question is a major one.  Monika clearly feels it can.  At one point in the documentary she reveals she cannot stand the sight of Edda Göring, Hermann Göring’s daughter, without bothering to mention that their positions are quite different.  Edda apparently spoke of her father as a kind man, and believed she was entitled to some of the art he gave to her.  Göring was notorious as the leading figure in the grand theft of the art of Europe under Hitler.   The issue for Monika, then, would seem to be the question of blood, rather than whether or not the next generation defends or rejects their parents and grandparents.  Edda features in the documentary Children of Hitler along with Rainer Höss, grandson of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, who once told a gathering of children from Israel at Auschwitz that if his grandfather were alive today he would kill him with his own hands.  From the other side, Helen tries to tell Monika not to assume any responsibility.  After all, she was only a year old when her father was executed for his crimes.  At the same time, Helen admits she has trouble being in Monika’s presence.  Monika is tall, like her father, and has his eyes.

The documentary raises many questions in my mind.  First of all, why did Helen and Monika allow a camera to film their meeting?   To Moss’s everlasting credit, he managed to arrange the encounter and film it without getting in the way.  But why should they have agreed?  Without having had time to give full consideration to the strain to the nervous system such a meeting must have been for both women, I can only imagine I would be too filled with shame and too uncertain of my reaction when meeting the other – no matter which woman I was – to have ever agreed to allow this meeting to be filmed.   Helen does give an answer at one point.  Having survived the years at Płaszów, she met and married her first husband Joseph Jonas, only to have to endure Jonas’ suicide in 1980, which she attributes to survivor guilt he was never able to shake.  Helen has spent her life since devoted to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, and she evidently feels that helping Monika tell her story in Germany will contribute to that effort. 

Another point of contention between the two women is Monika’s nagging questions about her mother.  Helen tells Monika that Ruth once said to Helen that she would stand up to the abuses by Amon if she could but she simply lacked the power.  Monika gives the impression of being no more forgiving of her mother than of her father, but that can be explained by the fact she never knew her father and it was her mother who lied to her about the facts of the war years.  The kind words Helen shares with Monika about her mother, one assumes, go in one ear and out the other.

There is no mention of Jennifer Teege in the documentary.  That can be explained by the fact that Jennifer didn’t learn of her relationship to Amon Goeth until 2011.  But one wonders if Moss was aware of Monika’s illegitimate child from a brief fling with a Nigerian man and considered it irrelevant to the story (it is, pretty much) or if he was concerned this information might make Monika a less sympathetic character.  She is a bit rough-hewn.  And Jennifer suggests in her story of growing up that Monika’s relationships with people were problematic. An ironic twist is that Jennifer found it easier to connect with Ruth.

There is one scene that should make the film off limits to children.  They show the botched hanging of Amon Goeth.  It took three tries to break his neck.  But, for some reason, that scene was not as troubling as watching Helen look out the window from the kitchen during the visit to the house where she worked as a slave.  Up till that time in the film, the courage Helen displays is extraordinary.  How many survivors, you have to wonder, are able to process their history to the point where they can talk about it in detail, this calmly and articulately, in a documentary on the horrors.  Then, standing there at the window, this woman, now in her 80s, breaks down, and watching her collapse is, to me, more obscene than watching the hanging and I found myself averting my eyes.  In the end, though, I appreciate that they didn't turn the cameras away.  Not really.  If you are going to honor the victims of the Holocaust, you simply can’t turn away from any part of this history.  But this moment gave me pause.

Inheritance was made nine years ago, and I suppose this is a record for belated movie reviews.

Given the subject matter and the excellence of the filmmaking, I make no apologies.

Inheritance is available on Netflix for rental, and on Amazon streaming.

*Ich muß doch meinen Vater lieben, oder? ("But I have to love my father, don't I?")

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