Tuesday, December 02, 2008

POV’s Inheritance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

Films can make a difference. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is certainly a case in point. In several ways, it started the chain of events that ultimately produced James Moll’s new documentary Inheritance. One of Inheritance's two central figures of is Helen Jonas, a Holocaust survivor who credits Schindler the film with creating a hospitable environment for discussing her experiences. The other, Monika Hertwig, met Moll while he was researching photo rights for a documentary about Spielberg’s film. Her connection to Schindler was her father Amon Goeth, the vicious concentration camp commandant played by Ralph Fiennes. The first face-to-face encounter between the two very different women is documented in Inheritance (trailer here), which airs on PBS’s POV next Wednesday. They also came together again for another rare in-person meeting last night as part of a special screening of Inheritance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, cosponsored by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Hertwig never really knew her father, who was convicted of mass murder and executed by the Polish government in 1946. While her mother glorified Goeth, she learned of his true nature from her grandmother’s stories and watching Schindler’s List. By contrast, Jonas knew him only too well, having suffered his physical and mental abuse as his fifteen year-old domestic slave. However, the film clearly suggests both women should be considered victims of Goeth.

It would not be an exaggeration to say Hertwig is haunted by her father’s crimes. Indeed, Goeth may not have been the highest ranking National Socialist war criminal, but he may well have been the most brutish and animalistic. If anything, Fiennes’s portrayal might have been more restrained than the historical Goeth, considering the stories of sadistic cruelty recounted by Jonas. Yet she is the one who frequently expresses sympathy for Hertwig. At times Jonas makes some particularly telling observations of Hertwig, as when she almost off-handedly remarks of Goeth: “it was a selfish thing for him to have a child.”

To her credit, Jonas displays tremendous compassion and understanding in her meetings with Hertwig. Still, she is understandably reluctant to prolong their time together. Her mere presence after all, summons horrific memories of the evil father. As they pay their respects at the Płaszów concentration camp memorial and tour the villa where Goeth terrorized her, it summons harrowing memories for Jonas, but also seems to serve as a true catharsis.

For Hertwig, the experience is also quite emotional, but does not provide the same sort of closure. Essentially, she has inherited all the guilt her father should have suffered, yet lacking culpability, remains unable to ask forgiveness. Throughout Moll’s film and during last night’s Q&A with the director and Jonas, Hertwig still sounds desperate to say the right thing to convince people—most of all herself—that she is nothing like her father.

Moll helms with admirable sensitivity, somehow avoiding a sense of intrusiveness, despite the extraordinarily personal nature of the events he filmed. Inheritance is a small, quiet film, but it has moments of clarity, which dramatically illustrate the continuing moral and emotional reverberations of the Holocaust. Many critics have complained this season is dominated by a glut of Holocaust movies. Some of them are quite good, including The Secret and Boy in the Striped Pajamas, while least one is a major disappointment (look for that review next week), but it would be a shame if Inheritance was lost in the shuffle.

It airs on most PBS’s POV next Wednesday, December 10th (at 9:00 E.S.T. for most stations, but 9:30 E.S.T. on New York’s WNET—of course, check local listings), with a DVD release scheduled for January 6.

Photo credit: Don Holtz