Inheritance Relies Too Much on Inherent Interest

Bloggified by Jake on Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I just watched Inheritance, a documentary that seemed a can't miss prospect for tear-jerking, nail-biting, gut-wrenching fascination. Unfortunately, the filmmaker seemed to come to the project knowing all this and brought nothing else to the table.

Wow! Amon Göth's daughter, Monika, grows up first knowing only that her father "died for his country in the war," then later learns that he was executed for being a Nazi. It's not until she visits the set of Schindler's List and sees Ralph Fiennes's cold-blooded portrayal of Göth that she learns the truth about her father... from Steven Spielberg! Apparently, when she protested that the scene where Göth orders the execution of the Jewish woman engineer wasn't a realistic portrayal of her father, Spielberg had to lay out some facts for her.

So to help herself come to grips with her legacy, she contacts Helen, a woman who was spared the concentration camp only because she was enslaved by Göth to clean his house. The two agree to meet at the site of the Plaszlow camp.

The stories leading up to the meeting are interesting as Helen tells of her experiences in the villa and Monika relates what she was told about her father growing up and what she's learned since. How can this not be riveting viewing when these two cross paths?!?!?

Unfortunately, as soon as the two first make contact, everything goes south. In that preview clip above, you'll notice a central line is Monika's "I hope she will understand I am not like my father." Well, in the movie, that is followed almost immediately by a clip of Helen saying, "Oh, I understand she's not her father and I feel for her."

And that's the heart of Inheritance's failure. There is no conflict. You have two people who are tied to a tragic event, but have had 50 years to largely come to grips with it. Neither holds any personal grudge against the other and, in fact, are overly sympathetic to one another. And James Moll largely just let's the conversations between the two roll, without either saying much of value. For example, before the two meet, Helen apologizes for the fact she'll be referring to Amon Göth as "Göth" and not "your father," to which Monika agrees since she calls him "Amon" and never "father."

The two go to Poland and arrive at the memorial site separately, eventually meeting up in the first of a few awkward exchanges. Have you ever gone to a party and someone tells you, "Oh, you've gotta meet Lisa. She's totally into that thing you're really into. You'll have so much to talk about"? Then you meet Lisa and quickly realize the only thing you two have in common is a shared interest in one thing, be it Batman comics or rock climbing or car repo auctions, and otherwise have no interest in speaking to one another? Now imagine how the scene would play out if that one thing you and Lisa had in common was that Lisa was hit by a drunk driver who happened to be your dad, and you'll have a fair idea of how the rest of the movie unfolds.

The two stand and talk near a memorial plaque, largely just trying to think of things to say. "Um... my mom is buried somewhere around here. Yup... I'll never know where. Did I mention Göth killed my boyfriend?" The most memorable part of the whole scene is that a bee keeps buzzing around Helen's head and Monika swipes at it repeatedly, which, when you consider Helen was relating stories about Monika's father having an insatiable need to kill, should tell you something about how compelling the movie is. The interaction between the two throughout the film isn't helped by the fact Monika appears to be about 6'3" and Helen is roughly 4'8" and Monika wants to keep hugging.

After several awkward minutes, the two say good bye to one another and go their separate ways, which kind of blew my mind. I mean, the movie is supposed to be about a holocaust survivor meeting the daughter of the guy who ran the camp where she was taken. I expected them to spend more than five minutes together.

I have to imagine the producers then stepped in because Helen and her daughter then decide to go visit Göth's villa, so they go find Monika and invite her. When they arrive at the villa, the movie fails on another level. Helen begins rattling off details about the house that might be interesting if they weren't so random. Monika, unsure of what to say much of the time, just finds herself repeating whatever Helen says, but with a question mark at the end, to which Helen answers by repeating herself and creating a feedback loop of uninteresting commentary.

"These doors were this same color of red,
"They were the same color of red?"
"They were the very same red."
"These doors were red?"
"Just like this. They were red just like now."

Other observations like "this shelf wasn't here" or "there was a table over there" serve no purpose and only distract from the few poignant moments, such as when Helen looks out the window of her old bedroom and relates what it was like watching people walk to the factory every day. Of course, this emotional scene of Helen expressing how she was jealous of those people because she was a prisoner in the villa degrades into another feedback loop of which direction the people were walking.

"They walked left to right in the morning and right to left in the evening."
"So in the morning they were coming from there on the left?"

The only moment of conflict comes when Helen, who is in the midst of a nervous breakdown, snaps at Monika for repeating some of what her mother had told her growing up. Again, you can see this scene in the preview above, but while it plays well in a six second clip, it's frustrating in its entirety because Monika is simply expressing how overwhelming it is that what she was told--that her father killed a few Jews for sanitary purposes because they refused to use the toilets--and reality are so far apart. But Helen refuses to let Monika express this, cutting her off repeatedly, saying, "I'm not even going to let you say that. He killed them for being Jewish." Yes, and Monika acknowledges that. Now shut up and let her speak because personally I find it fascinating to know someone tried to justify the Holocaust as a necessary evil because six million Jews refused to use toilets.

After a tour of the house, they split up again and we get a series of interview clips that Moll must have felt needed to get into the movie even though they really didn't fit anywhere else. Helen's description of how her husband, another Holocaust survivor, went mad and eventually killed himself might have been compelling if it wasn't a three minute story introduced 72 minutes into an 80 minute film.

At the end of the film, we're left with nothing more than we came with. In a post-movie "we have 15 minutes until the next show comes on" filler interview with Moll, the director says, "People ask me, 'Aren't there enough Holocaust movies?'" Moll seems to think he's made something to change their minds, but rather Inheritance lends credence to their question.

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