All things considered, Judge William Lee's father isn't such a bad guy.
"If the children of perpetrators suffer, let them suffer. The children
are innocent but I still see their fathers."
Almost by accident, Academy Award-winning director James Moll (The Last Days) found himself in the middle of a remarkable story. While trying to secure permission to use a photograph for another documentary, Moll became the contact between the daughter of an infamous monster and his victim. Inheritance records the meeting of these two women.
Facts of the Case
Monika Hertwig is a tall, soft-spoken housewife. Together with her husband, they raise their grandson in a quiet German village. But Monika, guilt-ridden and confused, has been living in the shadow of an evil legacy. When she was 11, she found out that her father was Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews at the Plaszow concentration camp.
Her grandmother told Monika about the Second World War and the crimes of the Nazis, but the young girl had difficulty reconciling those horrible facts with the image of the man her mother still loved. Monika hated director Steven Spielberg after seeing Ralph Fiennes portray her father in 1993's Schindler's List. The truth hurts and Monika knew she had to face it sooner or later.
Helen Jonas was 13 when she arrived at the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland. Goeth picked her to work in his villa, where she was his slave. Helen suffered regular, brutal beatings and she was forbidden to leave the house or have contact with anyone in the camp. Now living in America, the survivor initially refused to revisit the memory of Goeth when Monika tried to contact her. Of course, Helen's brave crusade to share the truth of the Holocaust gets the better of her and the two women arrange to meet for the first time at the site of the concentration camp.
Charting the journeys of Monika and Helen, the camera work by Moll and cinematographer Harris Done makes the viewer an intimate witness to their emotional meeting. Combining standard interview segments with handheld location footage, the camera always seems to be in the right place for each moment. It never feels like we're intruding upon the women's lives, and their rendezvous unfolds in as natural a manner as possible given the circumstances. Archival photographs and film clips complement the background details of the women's lives without straying from the story's focus.
We hear a little of Monika's faint recollections of her father that she heard while growing up (Amon Goeth was executed when she was just a baby). Obviously, those memories sharply contrast with Helen's own experience as his victim. The film attempts no insight into Amon's psychology, or that of his mistress Ruth Kalder Goeth. Monika had an uneasy relationship with her mother and she continues to be puzzled by the fact that Ruth loved such a monstrous man right up until her death.
It couldn't have been easy growing up with the knowledge of such an evil heritage. Monika gives hints about living under such an ominous cloud but we never hear the details. I wonder how her friends reacted to this information. Did she try to hide her ancestry? Clearly, she's been dealing with a lot of hard questions all her life. In one stunning moment, Monika reiterates what she heard were the reasons that Amon did what he did—oblivious to how offensive her words are to Helen. Still, Monika is a fascinating person who, through no fault of her own, lives with a dark legacy. Helen is the epitome of courage and living proof that one can survive unfathomable evil and thrive afterwards. Her presence reminds us of the living reality of the history under examination; her strength of character is an inspiration.
One of the surprising details is the location of Amon's villa where Helen, along with another girl, was forced to live. It still stands in Plaszow where it attracts tourists. For whatever reason, I expected to see a scary house perhaps sitting isolated on a hill. In fact, it looks quite ordinary, situated in a plain-looking neighborhood. There are houses next to it and a street runs in front of it. Plus, we see it in color which just adds to how normal it appears. It's another stark reminder that evil can be lurking right in one's backyard.
The picture quality of this documentary is nearly flawless. In both the interview and location footage, the lighting is excellent. The image is clean and sharply detailed without signs of digital enhancement. Archival still photographs also look clean and crisp. A few instances of aged film footage, including Amon's execution, do show some physical deterioration but the images are stable and you can clearly see what has been captured. The colors are strong and natural throughout.
The presentation of the stereo soundtrack works very well. Monika is a strong English speaker but she has a very thick accent. Nevertheless, her dialogue is always clear and understandable. An effective score by Andrés Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab provides a moving complement to the story without overpowering the real, personal dramas developing.
The extras on this DVD include two featurettes (more on those below), a trailer and a biography on Moll.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I like DVD extras as much as the next person—each disc receives a DVD Verdict score for its extras, you'll notice—but sometimes those making-of featurettes can alter the impact of the movie proper. There are two behind the scenes extras on this disc, and I appreciate their inclusion, but I watched them too soon after the main program. Inheritance follows Monika and Helen on their difficult, personal journeys and I was glad the camera afforded me the chance to share their experience. I wondered how the filmmakers established such an intimate rapport with their subjects and the first supplement, a five-minute interview with the director and cinematographer, provides some answers. Moll's explanation about how the documentary took shape is informative. However, his polished presentation makes the featurette feel a lot like a promotional piece. We also see still images of Helen and Monika talking while a camera crew hovers to one side of frame. I know this is how movies—and documentaries—are made. But seeing the seams of the production took me out of the experience of the story and made me think more about the mechanics of its making.
The second featurette, "Behind the Score" (6:00), shows the recording of the music with a full orchestra. We hear two complete pieces while seeing a montage of the musicians playing. Again, perfectly good supplemental material but I'm reminded again of the creative work that goes into a movie. Perhaps if these two featurettes were not so slick, they wouldn't have distracted me so much from the documentary I just saw. Let me stress that they are not tastelessly done. That they remind me that anyone's tragic, personal experience can be dressed and packaged for our entertainment is merely my reaction and not the intent of these works.
Inheritance is a moving portrait of two women's personal courage; an excellently assembled work that reminds us how history lives on through generations. The supplements have value too, but I recommend watching them at least a day after you've allowed the main feature to settle in your memory.
Guilt is passed along through generations, but this disc is free to go.
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