Holocaust Doc ‘The Commandant’s Shadow’ Unpacked by Filmmakers

After Jonathan Glazer’s Cannes, Oscar and BAFTA-winning “The Zone of Interest,” Daniela Volker’s “The Commandant’s Shadow” tackles the same subject – what it was like to live next door to a WWII concentration camp.

While Glazer’s film was a work of fiction, based on Martin Amis’ novel, Volker’s film is a documentary. Exploring the legacy of Auschwitz, it follows Hans-Joergen Höss, son of commandant Rudolf Höss, and grandson Kai, on an emotional journey. Their path leads to a meeting with Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, known as the ‘cellist from Auschwitz,’ and her daughter Maya. It features hitherto unseen archival footage and draws from Rudolf Höss’s autobiography, written shortly before his death.

“The Commandant’s Shadow” played at Israel’s Docaviv festival where it won the Yad Vashem Award for outstanding Holocaust-related documentary. It is currently playing at the documentary-focused Mumbai International Film Festival where Volker and executive producers Wendy Robbins and Sajan Raj Kurup participated in a discussion revolving around the film.

The film has some India connections. Volker and Robbins met in Gwalior, central India, while shooting a BBC documentary. They lost touch for 25 years after that and reconnected for “The Commandant’s Shadow.” The film found a champion in Neil Blair, known for producing J.K. Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts” franchise and her “C.B. Strike” series. Kurup, an entrepreneur who owns Creativeland Studios, which recently unveiled a joint venture to establish AIG India, watched a trailer for “The Commandant’s Shadow” at a fundraiser where Volker and Robbins also delivered a passionate pitch for the film.

“Everyone was moved, the emotion was palpable in the room,” Kurup said. Kurup decided to invest in the film on the spot.

Volker began the film when she was approached by Maya. “I always felt there cannot be a survivor or even a victim without a perpetrator, those stories belong together,” Volker said. During her research Volker came across Höss’s autobiography and was amazed that no one had made a documentary about it before.

The house in which the Höss family lived in Auschwitz still exists. “In ‘The Zone of Interest,’ Jonathan Glazer and the team didn’t get access to it, they built another house. Daniela actually got into the real house, there was a Polish family living there and she persuaded them to let us film,” Robbins said. “Taking the son of Rudolf Höss back to his actual home, letting him go back to his bedroom, where he remembers seeing chimneys from his bedroom window, which actually were the crematoria where his father was burning over a million people, is actually quite something.”

“And the other thing is, ‘The Zone of Interest’ doesn’t actually mention the Holocaust. There are lots of very clever, but obscure clues about what might have been happening over the garden fence. But this documentary fully immerses [itself] in the horror, Daniela has found the most extraordinary archive, some of it unseen before. So, you’re left in no doubt of what was happening on the other side of the garden fence,” Robbins added.

Warner Bros. and HBO have acquired rights to “The Commandant’s Shadow,” and the film is currently on theatrical release across more than 700 screens in the U.S. Volker says that, while the film ends on a note of hope, there are some lessons to be learnt from it.

“The Holocaust is something, which was so big and and industrialized and unprecedented in history, that we mustn’t forget it. One of the messages about our film is really, you have to know the past in order to really be able to overcome it,” Volker said. “We end our film with a message of hope, which is also important – our Holocaust survivor meeting Rudolf Höss’s son and saying, ‘We have to talk to each other,’ that can be applied to all sorts of other conflict situations.”

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