Review: ‘The Commandant’s Shadow,’ starring Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Höss and Hans Jurgen Höss

May 24, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Höss and Hans Jurgen Höss in “The Commandant’s Shadow” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Commandant’s Shadow” (2024)

Directed by Daniela Völker

Some language in German and Polish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Europe and in the United States, the documentary film “The Commandant’s Shadow” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few Asians and biracial people) in a movie about two families whose ancestors were on opposite sides of the Holocaust.

Culture Clash: One family consists of descendants of notorious Nazi leader Rudolf Höss (commandant of the Auschwitz death camp), while the other family consists of descendants of Auschwitz survivors.

Culture Audience: “The Commandant’s Shadow” will appeal primarily to people interested in very unusual documentary about the Holocaust and its aftermath.

Maya Lasker-Wallfish, Kai Höss and Hans Jurgen Höss in “The Commandant’s Shadow” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Heartbreaking and inspirational, “The Commandant’s Shadow” documentary shows how two families, whose ancestors were on opposite sides of the Holocaust, confront and try to heal from these painful legacies. In many ways, “The Commandant’s Shadow” could be considered the real-life sequel of the Oscar-winning 2023 drama “The Zone of Interest,” which presented a disturbing view of the Holocaust from the perspective of Auschwitz death camp commandant Rudolf Höss as a Nazi family man. When he was transferred from Germany to Auschwitz, Poland, he was tasked with overseeing what would end up being the death camp that murdered the most Jewish people (an estimated 1.1 million) during the Holocaust. The Auschwitz death camp was located a fence away from the Höss household.

Directed by Daniela Völker, “The Commandant’s Shadow” gives an unflinching and fascinating look at some of Rudolf Höss’ descendants and some of the Jewish people directly affected by the Auschwitz death camp. The documentary also shows what happens when these descendants meet in person for the first time. “The Commandant’s Shadow” focuses on four of these descendants, whose in-person meeting is shown near the end of the documentary.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (who turned 98 years old when this documentary was filmed) is a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned at Auschwitz from December 1943 to October 1944, when the Auschwitz death camp was liberated by British military forces. Originally from Germany, she was a cellist who taken by Nazis to Auschwitz, and she was chosen to be in the Auschwitz death camp orchestra. Anita (whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust) says in the documentary that her musical skills are the main reason why she was kept alive. After she was rescued from Auschwitz, she relocated to England, where she and her husband raised their family in the London area.

Dr. Maya Lasker-Wallfisch is Anita’s psychotherapist daughter, who has written memoirs about being a second-generation child of a Holocaust survivor. It was Maya’s idea to initiate contact with surviving members of Rudolf Höss’ family. During the filming of the documentary in 2020, Maya moved from her birth country of England to Germany, even though she didn’t know how to speak German at the time. Currently living in the German capital city of Berlin, Maya says in the documentary that she was compelled to move to Germany because she felt she would have been born in Germany if her family’s life had not been disrupted by the Holocaust.

Hans Jurgen Höss is Rudolf Höss’ youngest child, who currently lives in Poland. In the documentary, he says that in his childhood, before he knew the terrible truth of what his father did, he thought of his father as a prison boss. Hans describes having an idyllic childhood where he could see the Auschwitz death camp from his home, but he claims that he never saw or smelled any of the smoke from the Auschwitz death camp’s ovens and gas chambers where Jewish people were murdered.

Kai Höss, who lives in Germany, is the Christian pastor son of Hans Jurgen Höss. Kai and Maya were the first two members of these families to meet each other and were instrumental in getting their widowed parents to meet each other. Kai is more vocal than Hans in condemning the atrocities committed by Rudolf Höss. Kai believes his father Hans has blocked out a lot of childhood memories that would be too painful to remember. For example, Kai finds it unlikely that Hans never saw smoke or smelled the odor from the burning bodies of Jewish people because the Auschwitz death camp was so near to the Höss household.

A great deal of the documentary includes discussions of how each person has processed what the Holocaust did to their families. Anita admits that she wasn’t an affectionate or attentive parent when Maya was a child because of the lingering trauma of the Holocaust and because Anita was often too busy working as a professional cellist. Anita says that the Holocaust was something that people didn’t really ask her about, and she didn’t talk to her family members about her Holocaust experience until about 50 years after it happened.

Anita comments in the documentary: “I’m the wrong mother for my daughter. I’m very basic. Trauma? Forget it. Get on with life.” Still, when asked about antisemitism, Anita says that it will never really go away and that it’s absolutely possible for the Holocaust to happen again.

Maya says that she and her mother Anita have opposite personalities, especially when it comes to dealing with past trauma and showing emotions. Maya states about her unhappy childhood: “Nobody in those days understood the impact of the Holocaust on the second generation.” In the documentary, Maya gets choked up with tears when she looks at childhood photos of herself and remembers how sad she was as a child but didn’t understand why until she learned more about her family’s Holocaust history.

Hans claims not to remember much (or he doesn’t want to say on camera) about how his father Rudolph Höss’ shameful legacy affected him. In the documentary, Hans says he never knew that his father had a memoir book. This book was written when Rudolph Höss was in prison for his Nazi war crimes. The title of that book won’t be mentioned in this review, but the documentary shows Hans reading the book for the first time. (Excerpts from the book are read as voiceover narration by actor Klemens Koehring.)

Hans says about the book: “I wish I’d never read it. It’s horrendous.” Even after getting more details about the genocide committed by Rudolph Höss, his son Hans remains conflicted. Hans condemns the actions of his father but says that he will always remember his father as being a good parent. Later in the documentary, Hans is seen visiting the grave of his mother Hedwig, who is mentioned a few times. Hans remembers her as a loving parent too.

Kai never knew his grandfather Rudolph Höss (who was executed by hanging in 1947), so it’s easier for Kai than Hans to give criticism about the horrible things that Rudolph Höss did. Kai has an interracial marriage and interracial kids, and he welcomes all races to his congregation. He seems to actually live the opposite of the hate-filled ideology of the Nazis.

Kai talks a lot about tolerance and forgiveness in the documentary, although he understands how many people could never forgive those who were direct causes of the Holocaust. Kai, who has read Rudolph Höss’ memoir, says that his impression of Rudolph from the memoir is Rudolph was someone who was “a clinical observer” to the Nazis’ murderous hate and had a “coldness to his soul.”

One of the more memorable parts of the documentary is when Hans has a reunion with his beloved older sister Püppi, whom he hadn’t seen in about 45 years. The reunion took place at the home of Püppi, who lives in the East Coat of the United States. In the documentary, she is the Höss family member who is the most in denial about the horrors caused by Rudolph Höss and other Nazis during the Holocaust. Püppi says that Rudolph Höss was a “good person” who “got into a situation he couldn’t get out of,” and she doesn’t really want to acknowledge the murders that her father oversaw. Püppi is an example of someone who downplays the horrors of the Holocaust and the role that her father had in this atrocious genocide.

“The Commandant’s Shadow” includes archival photos of the Höss household in Auschwitz that were recreated in the production design for “The Zone of Interest.” There is also some archival footage of Rudolph Höss during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch shares poignant memories of her family, including her sisters Marianna and Renata, their attorney father and their violinist mother. Anita says that her father stubbornly refused to move from Germany, even after indications that the Nazis were persecuting Jewish people.

Fortunately, “The Commandant’s Shadow” doesn’t make the mistake of overstuffing the documentary with the usual talking-head commentators for history-based documentaries (such as academics or politicians) and keeps the story very intimate by centering it on these two families. The musical score by Gabriel Chwojnik and the film editing by Claire Guillon are also effective in conveying the moods for the documentary. By the time Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Höss and Hans Jurgen Höss are shown together in a group meeting, it’s a “full circle” moment that proves that although families can be affected by traumatic damage, the damage doesn’t have to exist in constant hate and can leave room for much-needed healing.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Fathom Events will release “The Commandant’s Shadow” in select U.S. cinemas for a limited engagement on May 29 and May 30, 2024, and June 7 to June 13, 2024. HBO and Max will premiere the movie on July 18, 2024.

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