‘The Commandant’s Shadow’ Review: A Chilling Documentary Postscript to ‘The Zone of Interest’ that Centers on Rudolf Höss’ Children SuperNayr

A scattershot but compelling postscript to “The Zone of Interest,” and the film that is guaranteed to start auto-playing every time someone watches that Oscar-winning masterpiece on Max, “The Commandant’s Shadow” similarly examines the moral dissociation that made Auschwitz possible — but where Jonathan Glazer’s anti-drama framed the Final Solution as a nine-to-five job, Daniela Völker’s documentary instead positions that atrocity as an inheritance. Rudolf Höss’ brood of blond little sons and daughters had no way of knowing — or at least no way of understanding — that their father was overseeing the greatest slaughter our species has ever suffered, but the unfathomable reality of the situation naturally began to reveal itself to them as they came of age during the Nuremberg Trials and learned that Auschwitz wasn’t synonymous with “childhood idyll” for the rest of the world. Did the Camp Commandant’s children — and their children’s children — struggle with the crushing weight of Höss’ crimes against humanity, or could they only hope to function by continuing the family tradition of willful ignorance and epitomizing history’s suicidal eagerness to forget itself? 

'It: Chapter Two'
(from left) Angela Fielding (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

Despite being shot well before the events of October 7 (as you can tell by a queasily naive mid-credits scene that teases the state of Israel as if it might be the answer to genocide, as opposed to a tool for perpetuating it), “The Commandant’s Shadow” implicitly recognizes that “never again” can’t be taken for granted. Völker and her subjects alike both share the fortitude to recognize those words as a call to action rather than a simple promise, even if this film’s unhelpful emphasis on archival material stops it from appreciating how that slogan might be weaponized into its own form of forgetting. 

The brunt of this documentary is focused on Hans Jürgen Hoss, the fourth of the Commandant’s five children — 87 years old at the time of filming. Hans was born in Dachau in 1937, and moved to the house next door to Auschwitz when he was three (his photos from the time are indistinguishable from “The Zone of Interest,” and a jaw-dropping testament to the uncanny precision of Glazer’s film). To this day, Hans doesn’t seem to appreciate the cognitive dissonance he causes by waxing nostalgic about his childhood years; it’s strange enough to hear someone say “I had a really lovely childhood in Auschwitz,” but the blitheness in his voice is even more jarring than the sentiment it’s used to express.

The passages in which Hans reflects upon growing up at the gates of hell are ghastly and compelling in equal measure, as Völker pushes her subject to remember the specifics of his experience. Hans insists that he and his siblings believed their dad was just a prison warden like any other — and really, what kid that age fully understands what their parents do for work? He could see the crematorium from his bedroom window (a detail that Glazer’s film mercifully denied the Höss children), but swears that he was oblivious to the horrors being enacted inside its walls. It doesn’t matter if you believe him or not. It should go without saying that “The Commandant’s Shadow” is less interested in prosecuting an old man for what he knew as a child than it is in questioning an old man about what he did with that knowledge as an adult, and the one true masterstroke of Völker’s film is that it casts Hans’ own son Kai as his most skeptical interrogator. 

A fifty-something pastor whose familial guilt led him towards a life of religious expiation, Kai Höss is close enough to his father to love him, but distanced enough from his grandfather to appreciate the full depravity of his deeds. Hans is all too happy to reflect upon his memories, which are still filtered through his perspective as a child, and distressingly effervescent as a result (he’s almost smiling as he recounts the day when English soldiers breached the Zone of Interest and apprehended his young siblings at gunpoint, as if it were like a scene from a young boy’s wargame come to life). Kai is a necessary corrective to such rose-colored remembrances. 

For the most part, the pushback Hans’ son provides is offered directly to the camera in a series of 1:1 talking head interviews, as Kai casts doubt on his father’s lack of awareness, and suggests that Hans has lived in the grip of his own subconscious denial since the day he was born. The film’s most probing and insightful moments find Kai challenging his father’s relationship to the past — gently, but with the determination of someone trying to scrub a stain out of a human soul. When Hans says that he only recently learned of the memoir that Rudolf wrote while on trial for the murder of several million Jews, Kai reminds him that they had a copy of it in their home when he was growing up. Kai also shades the book as a self-exculpatory work of image-polishing, authored with a clinical detachment that Rudolf hoped would recast him as an agent of death rather than its chief perpetrator. 

This documentary lends credence to that suspicion by reading several excerpts from the book over corresponding footage from the Holocaust, and while it’s understandable why Völker would feel compelled to stipulate the same atrocities that “The Zone of Interest” flattened into abstraction, doing so at such length only distracts from the essence of what this film is about: Not the hard facts of a genocide, but the soft truths of how that genocide shaped the generations that emerged from its shadow. 

To that point, “The Commandant’s Shadow” introduces another pair of characters whose relationship was forged by the Final Solution: Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who was spared because of her role in the concentration camp’s orchestra, and her daughter Maya, who was raised with — and continues to suffer from — the residual trauma she inherited from her mom. These women allow the victims of the Holocaust to have a voice in Völker’s film, even though the director is reluctant to detail the rift between them (beyond Anita’s heartbreaking admission that she’s “the wrong mother for my daughter”), and even more hesitant about drawing any parallels between Maya and Kai’s respective experiences as second-generation byproducts of the Shoah. Each of them in their own way is fighting to reclaim a part of themselves that was stolen from them before they were born, but this documentary is so glibly determined to confront their parents with the past that it does a massive disservice to the more urgent matter of how that past might survive in the present.

Meaningful as it is to bring Hans back to Auschwitz and force him to stand in front of the gallows where his father was hanged, it’s hard to find much value in the wisdom that such a conceit is able to wring from an old man who will never be able to make peace with his lineage. “I don’t think we’ve learned from the Holocaust,” Hans says. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be antisemitism again like there is now.” But such climactic bromides, however sincere they may be, are much less illuminating than even the briefest scenes in which this film dares to explore the dark crevices of Hans’ own education on the subject, and how the gaps in his willingness to understand those lessons have shaped his memory of his father and/or his relationship with his son. 

“The Commandant’s Shadow” threatens to shine a light into that strange abyss during the remarkable sequence in which Hans visits his long-estranged sister, a cancer-stricken former model who’s denied herself any trace of second-hand culpability, but Völker would rather make vague gestures towards reconciliation with orchestral music and soaring drone shots than risk getting lost inside the labyrinth of the human soul. In that light, it’s no surprise that the least effective scene in the entire film is the grand finale where Hans and Anita are brought face-to-face, the walls of Auschwitz no longer standing between them. 

Völker knows better than to frame this bittersweet meeting as a meaningful rebuke to the horrors of our history, but she isn’t sure what else to do with the lack of emotionality the scene produces from its participants — especially Anita, who almost seems to shrug the whole thing off. “The Commandant’s Shadow” hopes that it can contrive a way to console its subjects for their psychic wounds, or at least encourage them to see their foundational trauma in a new light. Regrettably, “never again” proves to be a misguided ethos for a film about pain that’s so nakedly unresolved, both in its characters, and in a world that has learned nothing from the lessons they were born to teach it.

Grade: C+

“The Commandant’s Shadow” will screen in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, May 29 and Thursday, May 30. It will be available to stream on Max later this year.

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