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The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Commandant’s Shadow.

Maya, I understand that the seed of the idea for this film originated with you?
Maya Lasker-Wallfisch: Yes: I wrote a book, which was apparently interesting! And one of the things I wrote about in the book were two themes that really interested Daniela. And so Daniela and I were connected through a mutual person that we both knew. And it turned out she was very interested in the things that I was interested in. And so at that time I was talking about my decision to go and live in Germany, as well as my interest in working with children of perpetrators, and absolutely recognizing the burden, the enormous burden, that exists there. So we kind of began an odyssey and Daniela obviously did everything that had to be done, and a million things more, but we were on a mission.

I wanted to see his heart pricked, I think, now that he’s in his 80’s

Daniela Volker: I think it was a coming together of common interests and trying to develop those themes, because Maya’s book was very much focused on her own life, and her experiences of transgenerational trauma as daughter of a Holocaust survivor, which I think is fascinating and it’s a sort of largely untold story, really, while Holocaust survivors are still alive.

Quite rightly, we focus on those survivors, but I thought it was interesting to look at Maya’s mother, at her experiences, and what it was like for Maya to be raised by a survivor. And then I, I thought, well, Anita had been at Auschwitz, so I found out that the commandant of Auschwitz had written a book… and it was extraordinary. He really was in a very unique position, because he was the prime witness and perpetrator at the same time, which is very unusual, and he wrote it all down before he was executed.

Then I found he had descendants, so I met Kai first, and Kai’s story and Maya’s story on opposite sides were in a way quite similar. You know, they were both about coming to terms with what happened in the past to your family. It then became a much broader story.

And I think, in a way, I hope that’s what our film does. It looks at individual stories that come together, piece together, and tell a much broader story about the past, the present, and hopefully the future, really. Because, you know, if your mother has it in her to meet the son of the Commandant of Auschwitz…That should make everyone think, “what can I do to make things better?”

MLW: I would agree. And I think that one of the central factors for me, about why I wanted to do this and all the things that I’ve done consequently and subsequently, was my mother’s work. Her work and her mission in life (once she came to terms with Germany, which she absolutely has), was to help the people talk to each other.

And I really wanted to continue the legacy and to try to do the best I can, because I had been handed the responsibility, which is a kind of awesome one. So when this opportunity came up… it was like it was meant to be. And I was able to be instrumental in creating a situation, obviously with Daniela and with the Höss family, to go on this journey and for my mother to receive us so beautifully and so voraciously and so honestly, and it was the most powerful example of of the capacity to take another look— to not hate, and I think she should win the Pulitzer Peace Prize, quite frankly!

Wendy Robbins: Well, it was quite a momentous evening, quite a momentous event, as Anita said, “this is a historic moment,” and Kai’s father, Hans Jürgen, said, “who would have thought?” And I was always interested in knowing: For Kai and Maya and Daniela, so what was it like the night before? Because obviously Maya had invited the Höss family to come to her mother’s house. And sometimes we’re never quite sure what mood Anita might be in: she’s almost 100 years old! And Kai… traveling in the car with your father to meet her… What were you, what were your expectations? What were you feeling just before you met Anita?

Kai Höss: I was just looking forward to giving this lady a hug, a sweet lady, you know, and I just… over the course of many years, growing up and, you know, finding out as a teenager who I was, I found out about my family, and about my grandfather. There was shame, but, again, when I read my grandfather’s memoirs… I felt the sadness for what he had done to all those people. Millions of people he hurt. Families and this shadow, right? It’s just down the ages, generations. And, for eighty years it’s been hurting people, on both sides. The victims, most importantly, but also the descendants of the perpetrators. We didn’t speak about it, when I was growing up.

And when I read that book, and when I found out at school, I asked my parents, “is that our name?” And, um, my mom said, “yes.” I said, “no.” And it put this whole topic in a completely different perspective for me. But I always felt very sad. And then, in my heart, I wanted to meet Jewish people. I wanted to tell them, I guess, “I’m sorry, I love you and if I could make it right and turn it around, I would.” And so that’s how I kind of went through life. And the day before, the day before going to see her, I was just thrilled. I was thankful. I was very thankful to actually have the honor to meet her.

And in her house, somehow she wants to meet us. She allows us to come to her home. All the pain our family caused her family. And when she opened the door, when we walked in, she was just so sweet. I just really enjoyed that very, very much. And I was thankful that that happened.

Wendy, when and how did you become involved in this project?.
WR: It’s actually an extraordinary story. Because I had worked with Daniela twenty five years before in India. And we then didn’t see each other or speak to each other again.

And I had gone to see somebody in London to discuss a different project, and on the way out the door he did a little throwaway line. He said, “oh by the way, my late father was very interested in the Holocaust and believed in constantly talking about it. If ever you come across an idea that’s a really special idea about the Holocaust, do please come back to me. I might be able to help fund it.” A few weeks later, I get a random call from Daniela, who I hadn’t spoken to for twenty five years, and she said, “I’ve been on this incredible journey for three years. I’m not sure what to do with this now. Can I send you what I’ve shot and the synopsis and see what you think?” And when I opened her link, I watched what she filmed and read her synopsis, and I got a goosebump moment. One of those very rare moments in life where you just think, “this is really special. This is really something.“ And the rest is history, and here we are today.

DV: It’s almost shameful: it’s so hard to get a film like this financed. You know, people think of the Second World War. They think of history films, newsreel experts… I had a film where four real people do things. We followed them, so that didn’t fit the conception of a World War film. You know, people tell me it’s not a history film. But it’s also not a reality film. It didn’t fit any genre. And I started doing this project actually in lockdown, then I started working again. I make documentaries for broadcast and streamers in my day job. So this film was in a way my hobby. I worked on weekends, evenings, and holidays. By the time I contacted Wendy, I was getting really desperate because I had no time, really. You know, it’s a full-time job, to raise money. I already had a full-time job! Anita and also Hans Jürgen (Kai’s father) weren’t getting any younger. And in fact, Hans Jürgen’s sister, she died shortly after we found her. So I felt, you know, this is our last chance. That was at the forefront of my mind. So I was going through my address book and Wendy’s name came up and I just thought, “I wonder…” I mean we hadn’t really seen each other for so long, but I just… I don’t know why, but I called her!

WR: But do you know what? This film has been so full of those serendipitous moments. So for example, we were directed, once we realized we could really do something with this, we were directed to another executive producer called Danny Cohen. And when we were talking through it with him, he almost went white and he said, “but I’m doing a film called ‘The Zone of Interest’ with a director called Johnathan Glazer.’ These children are still alive?” Yes they’re still alive and we’ve filmed them. And that was an extraordinary moment and obviously for this film.

Kai, when you were taking your father through this journey, what did you feel you had to do, in order to protect him in a certain way? He is your father, after all.
KH: You know, it was mentioned that we never really talked much about my grandfather or what he had done in our family. So it was suppressed on a subconscious level for the most part. What I wanted from my dad, what I wanted to see… I wanted to see his heart pricked, I think, now that he’s in his 80’s. I wanted to see his expression. And I saw it in Auschwitz. I encouraged him from the very start, and I encouraged him to come along on this journey… and he was very surprised I had asked – he was okay with it right from the start. We wanted to, you know, get this out, and this is an amazing opportunity.

So when I saw my dad in Auschwitz, and I saw his countenance, his face and his demeanor, and just heard his words… I realized it hit home. He was deeply touched, and there was remorse. I saw that, and he couldn’t— it was his first time. He’d never seen this before. He remembers his childhood in that little island of sanity and beauty and the gardens and where he lived and all that he did. He said he was destined to have that beautiful childhood. What he saw on the other side of the fence, I think it broke his heart that day, and it broke mine. I mean, that whole week I was, I don’t know how many times, just in tears.