The Holocaust has long been a deep and disquieting source of material for filmmakers, especially documentarians. As firsthand accounts of World War II naturally dwindle, though, cinematic inquiries on the subject have been shifting into more personal territory, where the focus isn't factual findings but far less quantifiable matters.
A growing body of work looks beyond the war's extremes of darkness and spiritual triumph to the legacy for succeeding generations — specifically, the children and grandchildren of Jewish prisoners and descendants of Nazi officers.
Two recent films tackle the legacy that some descendants of Nazis still wrestle with, and the way it tears some families apart.
In the February release "Lore," a potent drama based on a novel and set in the weeks after the Allied victory, the title character is a German teen leading her young siblings through the ravaged landscape. Australian director Cate Shortland's feature tracks the painful loss of innocence for a girl who was raised to revere the Führer and awakens, after considerable resistance, to a shattering truth.
Grown-up versions of Lore figure in "Hitler's Children," a documentary just out on DVD. Through fascinating interviews with five of the progeny of the Nazi regime's chief architects, Israeli filmmaker Chanoch Ze'evi spotlights disparate responses to a very particular sort of shame, one often tangled with filial devotion.
These films join a number of unconventional family sagas of recent vintage, each addressing complicated emotions that descendants of the Third Reich face — or refuse to face. (Not all of these titles are readily accessible for stateside rental, but they are available from the Media Lounge lending library at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles.)
The Nazi-era filmmaker Veit Harlan is at the center of a number of these films, beginning with his son Thomas' 1984 experimental feature "Wundkanal" (English title is "Gun Wound"). Thomas Harlan, who died in 2010 and who condemned his father's involvement with the Third Reich, cast an actual Nazi war criminal (Alfred Filbert) in the role of a kidnapped war criminal.
A fascinating companion film — "Our Nazi," Robert Kramer's 1985 documentary about the making of "Wundkanal" — makes clear the transgressive, personal nature of the undertaking. The documentary shows Thomas Harlan enacting a surrogate father-son scenario, with a reversal for art's sake. The younger man is the one in charge, feeding a stream of murmured directions, via earpiece, to his obedient actor.
In works like "Wundkanal" and in more explicit denouncements, Thomas Harlan was, according to one of his sisters, "attacking our poor father." She voices the complaint in Felix Moeller's 2008 documentary, "Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss." It's a gripping look at the particular relationship between movies and the political machinery of the Third Reich but also reveals a family divided by their views of their forebear's work.
At the center of their dispute is Veit Harlan's notorious 1940 feature "The Jew Süss," a work of anti-Semitic propaganda commissioned by Joseph Goebbels and which Heinrich Himmler considered a must-see for all members of the SS and police.
In Moeller's film, Veit Harlan's children and grandchildren offer a range of opinions on how much he understood the Nazi cause or whether he was tragically blinded by ambition. Did he know, one of them wonders in an especially haunting moment, that the Jewish extras in his movie were doomed? (In a strange but true footnote, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick married Harlan's niece; in the documentary, his widow remembers that the Jewish boy from the Bronx was shaken upon meeting her family.)
There are strong parallels between the family debate in "Harlan" and the one in "2 or 3 Things I Know About Him," a 2005 documentary by Malte Ludin, whose father was executed for war crimes as the Third Reich's ambassador to Slovakia. The filmmaker's three surviving siblings have arrived at different perspectives on their father's military career. One sister insists, "It's my right to see my father the way I want to see him." And she doesn't want to see him as a perpetrator of crimes.
Viewing history from a decidedly different vantage point — one of avowal rather than denial — is the new nonfiction feature "Numbered." Directors Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai profile former Auschwitz prisoners talking about — and displaying — the tattooed serial numbers on their left arms that were used to identify them in the camps. One of the remarkable elements of the film is the survivors' sometimes exuberant refusal to submit to shame. "I don't see it as a scar," one interviewee says of his tattoo. "For me, it's a medal."
The movie also touches on the way the children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors are further transmuting that attitude, proudly wearing the same tattooed numbers as their relatives. According to Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the Israel Film Festival, this is a recent trend among second- and third-generation survivors in Israel.
"Numbered" will screen Sunday at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino as part of the festival, which runs through May 2.
Fenigstein, who has a personal connection to "Numbered" as someone whose parents were imprisoned in concentration camps, notes a generational shift in the discussion of the Holocaust, in day-to-day life as well as in films. "It's opened up a lot more," he says.