Auschwitz cellist meets the son of Rudolf Höss in brave new film

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Auschwitz cellist meets the son of Rudolf Höss in brave new film

The Commandant's Shadow dares to show the real story behind Jonathan Glazer's 'Zone of Interest'

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, her daughter Maya,Höss’s grandson, Kai and son Hans Jürgen in Daniela Völker’s  The Commandant’s Shadow
Survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, her daughter Maya,Höss’s grandson, Kai and son Hans Jürgen in Daniela Völker’s The Commandant’s Shadow

Thirty years ago, Steven Spielberg won an Oscar for directing Schindler’s List. After the thanks in his acceptance speech, he dedicated his award to “the six million who can’t be among the one billion watching this tonight”.

For those who wept throughout his Holocaust epic, the acknowledgement mattered and could not have been more different to the speech Jonathan Glazer made at the Oscars in March. Winning for The Zone of Interest, his subtle Holocaust drama, the director said: “We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October 7 or the ongoing attack on Gaza.”

Captured – SS Commandant Rudolph Höss who wrote the truth about his creation the Zone of Interest

There was more, but the elation for this ‘Jewish win’ turned to deflation, with analysis of what he really meant going viral. Daniela Völker’s documentary, The Commandant’s Shadow, counters that noise as it shows the real ‘zone of interest’ in a way few could imagine and Glazer avoided. With the words of Rudolph Höss, the SS officer who implemented and ran the concentration camp, and an extraordinary meeting between his son and an Auschwitz survivor, this edifying and courageous film goes behind the wall that hid the horror in Glazer’s lauded production.

The Commandant’s Shadow is the result of a fortuitous lunch in Soho. Literary agent and philanthropist Neil Blair had been searching for a Shoah project to honour his late father, Dennis. “My father had been deeply fascinated, almost obsessed, with the history of the Holocaust, especially in later years,”explains Neil. “Grappling with the pervasive denial and ignorance surrounding it, his interest was personal; he often spoke about his father’s brother, who perished in those dark times. This loss, coupled with his patriotic ties to Britain through his service in the RAF, fuelled his commitment to understanding and preserving the memory of those lost.”

Producer Neil Blair with his late father Dennis, mother Cynthia and brother co-producer Jonathan

At the lunch, Neil met with Gloria Abramoff and Wendy Robbins of Creative Inc, renowned for their expertise and producers of such Jewish-themed films as The Rabbi Sacks Legacy and another about Barbra Streisand’s philanthropy.
Gloria felt she had “done her bit” for the Jewish community, but they took on Neil’s request and, after dismissing most ideas, were about to give up, when Wendy got a call from Daniela Völker, whom she had last seen 25 years ago when they were making a film in India.

“She was crying because she had run out of money, ideas and steam and had all this footage. She remembered me because of a funny story I told her about my Jewish relatives and thought, ‘I know it’s weird and desperate, but I’m going to reach out to her. She might know Jewish people who could help.’”

Yad Vashem award winner director Daniela Völker (centre with Creative Inc producers Wendy Robbins (left) and Gloria Abramoff

On seeing Daniela’s footage, Wendy knew she could indeed help. “She showed me these incredibly powerful interviews with survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and then Höss’s son, Hans Jürgen, talking about his father. It was raw and heartbreaking. I had that goosebump moment where I felt this was very unique, this was special.”

Daniela also mentioned Höss’s autobiography, written before, during and after his trial. “I’d never heard of it,” says Wendy, who ordered the book. “I stayed up all night reading it. It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever read.” In time, Wendy would see the original manuscript in the Auschwitz archives. Written in Höss’ hand, untouched for more than 80 years and “filled with the chilling words of the man who orchestrated such unspeakable horrors”, she says, adding: “Holding it, I felt as if the weight of all those lost lives rested in those pages.”

Director Daniela Völker with crew filming Höss’s autobiography which is  kept in the Auschwitz archive

Convinced of the film’s potential, Wendy arranged a meeting with Neil just before Christmas 2022 and pitched the idea so passionately she burst into tears. “He gave me a tissue and quietly said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to help you fund this.’” With Neil’s substantial investment, the determined producers raised the rest of the money at speed because of the advancing age of the key participants.

Maya, daughter of cellist survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch with Kai and Hans-Jürgen Höss at Auschwitz

It would be an all-female production team that brought the film to fruition. “We were able to support each other emotionally and creatively in ways that might not have been possible otherwise,” said Gloria, highlighting the difficulties of the subject that had them filming in Höss’ real house (Glazer did not) and working from an office at Auschwitz. “Right outside the window, you could see the Arbeit Macht Frei sign and, inside, someone was boiling the kettle for tea,” says Wendy, describing the surreal experience and then the initial hostility she had towards Höss’ son who had never publicly acknowledged his father’s atrocities.
“I just thought, ‘What have you done with your life? Your father killed over a million of my people; what have you done to counter your father’s darkness?’ But Daniela explained that he was part of a generation of German men who dealt with it by being very small, anonymous and quiet. I now see him as someone who stood up to be counted.”

Hans-Jürgen Höss, son of the Auschwitz Commandant standing by the concentration camp ovens

In addition to Neil and his brother Jonathan Blair, the other executive producers were Matti Leshem, Joel Greenberg, Len Blavatnik, Sajan Raj Kurup, Jani Gues, Jamie Jessop and Danny Cohen, who was also executive producer on Glazer’s Zone of Interest, which was being made at the same time. “It felt serendipitous,” says Neil. “I see them as complementary rather than competitive, and our documentary offers audiences a broader understanding of the Holocaust.”

The significance of the film reached another level after the Hamas attacks on October 7. Grappling with the shock and then the hate towards Israel, Gloria and Wendy considered the need for additional filming to address the heightened relevance. “Should we do a bit more about antisemitism, about Holocaust denial? We went through the rushes again and realised a lot of material we had was as relevant today as it was a year ago.”


Anita’s  daughter Maya, Daniela Völker, producers Wendy, Neil and  Gloria

For Gloria, whose mother was born in Israel – “My family were early Zionists” – the film is essential. “If I hadn’t been involved in this what would I, as a Jew, have done to raise our profile and campaign against antisemitism? Gone on marches, written letters, seen senior editorial figures at the BBC? I’m doing that anyway. But what would have been my contribution? What do I tell my grandchildren? The fact we’ve been making this film at this time has been such a gift, it’s an honour I feel personally.”

The Commandant’s Shadow is now in Warner Bros’ stable, where it feels personal to CEO David Zaslav, the child of two Holocaust survivors. There were emotive discussions after the premières in New York and Berlin. “The film is really about conversation,” says Wendy. “Connecting with people across the divide can lead to the situation in our film, where a 98-year-old woman invites the son of the man who killed over a million Jews into her living room.”

There has already been Oscar talk, but no accolade will compare to the Yad Vashem award. “To be in Israel and receive this prize was special,” says Gloria. “We have so much respect for the work Yad Vashem has done as the world’s leading Holocaust education institution.”

But the film is about more than trophies. The team is working with Holocaust educators to develop an educational legacy campaign in partnership with schools and universities. “We are also planning screenings and discussions in the Gulf states and the UAE,” says Neil. “The aim is to foster understanding in regions where Holocaust education is less prevalent. With more engaging social media, we want to reach the younger generation – those who might be unaware of or deny the Holocaust.”

From a desire to honour his own father, Blair has honoured victims of the Shoah with a documentary that shows the hate but also the hope. So would Dennis like it? “He would be immensely proud,” says Neil. “He would have seen it as an essential tool in fighting denial and ignorance.”

‘Zone of Interest’ was how Rudolph Höss referred to Auschwitz, where he lived behind the wall this film dares to climb.

The Commandant’s Shadow is released in cinemas on 12 July


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