This notion of "help" -- impossible, necessary -- colors Inheritance, a documentary about living with memories of a Nazi father.


Distributor: Docurama
Cast: Monika Hertwig, Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: PBS
US Release Date: 2009-01-06

“Every father who is in a war should think about his children,” says Monkia Hertwig. “When they’re grown up, when they see what their fathers did, they will be in the same situation as I am and they never will live a normal life.” Seated in her kitchen, coffee cup on the counter near her elbow, Hertwig looks quite like a “normal” housewife. As she speaks, however, describing childhood memories both vague and precise, she reveals that her experience is anything but typical. Her father was, by all accounts, a monster, not just “in a war,” but the agent of unspeakable atrocities. Hertwig’s father was Amon Goeth, the Plaszow concentration camp commander played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.

Appearing in James Moll’s Inheritance, Hertwig struggles mightily with this legacy. The effects are most explicit in her tearful meeting with Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a Holocaust survivor and, most horrifically, one of two Jewish slave girls Goeth kept in his home while overseeing the murders and abuses at Plaszow. As the film leads to their encounter, each woman appears separately, quietly facing the camera as she narrates her expectations and fears, as well as feelings of guilt, anger, and victimization. An infant when her father wreaked his particular havoc, Hertwig only learned what happened long after he was dead. Her mother, Ruth, told her only that Amon died during the war, not that he was executed by hanging or why. “Everyone told me,” she says, “If my father had been alive, he was such a nice man and he would do anything for me.”

As the film lets this fiction hang over Hertwig’s image, she recalls the tensions she felt toward her mother Ruth. “We didn’t like each other at all,” she says, recalling that she was more inclined to spend time with her grandmother. “We were like water and fire.” The conflict came to something of a head when, one hot summer day in 1956, Ruth snapped at her 11-year-old daughter. Remembering that she felt full of hate herself, Hertwig says of her mother, “She looked at me and said, ‘You are like your father and one time, you will die like him.’”

Now a grandmother herself and taking care of her young grandson David (because, she says briefly, her daughter “had a problem with drug addiction when he was born, so she couldn’t take him"), Hertwig was confounded at the time and sought an explanation from her grandmother, Agnes Kalder. The history she discovered was, of course, profoundly upsetting: Goeth was in charge of Plaszow for exactly 500 days and was “responsible for thousands of deaths.” Here the documentary cuts to Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, whose memories of Goeth are extremely specific. When she was just 14, Goeth assigned her household tasks and when he was inevitably dissatisfied, he slapped her, threw her down stairways, and called her, among other things, a “stupid Jew.” “I realized,” she says, “that I had to grow up. I’m no more child, I’m no more with my mother, I’m here and I have to obey.”

Here Inheritance cuts back to Hertwig, setting a pattern in which the two women’s memories of the man are juxtaposed. Goeth’s daughter remembers hearing about Steven Spielberg’s film: as she describes going to see it for the first time, the documentary includes Fiennes’ memorable introduction as the commander, riding in his car and complaining that he is “fucking freezing.” “I started to hate that Spielberg,” says Hertwig, “for telling me the truth.”

Even as she asserts her confusing and galvanizing anger—which leads directly to her research and discovery of Jonas-Rosenzweig’s whereabouts, as well as their agreement to meet—Hertwig here also embodies the documentary’s most effective strategy, that is, indirection. Inheritance never pretends to expose a single “truth,” but instead shows in a series of scenes that range from devastating to frustrating to puzzling, Hertwig and Jonas-Rosenzweig’s repeated efforts to grasp various truths, their simultaneous abilities and inabilities to comprehend each other’s perspectives and their discrete, irreconcilable traumas.

In part, this indirection is indicated by the women’s narrations: though Hertwig’s addict daughter never appears in the film, the fact of her illness sadly shapes and is shaped by her mother’s story. At the same time, Jonas-Rosenzweig brings along her own daughter Vivian to the meeting, which takes place—so dramatically—at Plaszow, near Krakow. As the women make their journeys to this dreadful site, they appear on board airplanes, in sterile airports, in the Sheraton Krakow Hotel, in separate frames, nervous and set on a course toward one another. When they come together at the former camp, now grown over with grasses and marked by memorial stones and shrines, they stand apart, awkward and yet, somehow, willing to touch one another, to share stories and remember.

That said, the film also makes clear that their stories will never allow them to feel comfort together. Jonas-Rosenzweig cries as she translates for her daughter a plaque that says, “between years 1943 and 1945, few thousand Jews were killed and they don’t know the names, the only name is Jews.” She remembers her father being dragged away into the night, Amon Goeth riding a white horse, and Amon Goeth shooting her boyfriend, Adam. The film shows photos, apparent snapshots taken by the Nazi and his friends, of their wives sunning themselves in lounge chairs and Goeth himself standing on his balcony, bare-chested with rifle or cigarette in hand. The poses are unnerving because they are so “normal.”

Now, the women stand near the plaque, Hertwig swatting away a fly that buzzes near Jonas-Rosenzweig, an odd gesture of intimacy and protectiveness. A photo of four-year-old Amon appears on screen when Jonas-Rosenzweig asks Hertwig, “Do you think something happened to him as a young man, that he was so evil?”

But Hertwig has no answers, only questions. She asks Jonas-Rosenzweig how her mother behaved, desperate to know how Ruth lived in the house with Amon, how she watched him abuse others, how she felt while watching. Jonas-Rosenzweig can’t explain, though she offers a weird sort of comfort in a memory of Ruth speaking to her. “She covered her eyes,” says the former slave girl, “She did stay in the kitchen and said to us, ‘If I could help you I would, but I can’t.’”

This notion of “help”—impossible, necessary—colors the documentary. Whether or not the scene in the kitchen ever took place, it offers precious little comfort for Hertwig, who finds it hard to believe anything anymore (her most poignant example is an ornament her mother treasured and claimed belonged to Hertwig’s grandfather, though now she thinks it may have been stolen from a prisoner). The trauma is unending. As Hertwig says at film’s start, her father’s experience “in war” has made her feel ongoing chaos and regret. For her part, Jonas-Rosenzweig’s 35-year marriage to a fellow survivor ended when he took his own life in 1980. Though each wants to “help” the other, to help her come to some sense of “closure” or perhaps, in Hertwig’s phrasing, “a new beginning,” Either way, they live with the past, each moment a lesson.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.