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The Four-Part TV Miniseries Väter und Söhne – Eine deutsche Tragödie (FRG/Italy, 1986, directed by Bernhard Sinkel)

 a  Heinrich Beck: “Why do you of all people want to testify against me? Against your own father. Do you want revenge? We—I was involved in it, I admit it. But nobody in this war is guiltless.”

Carl Beck: “The only thing that can wipe out our guilt is to look with open eyes and see what we’ve done [...] Our victims, all these dead don’t demand revenge. They demand something quite different. They’re waiting for our mourning. But all your justifications here show only that you are incapable of mourning.”

“The very German, Faustian thing that these men share: they dream the great dream, and stop at nothing in the process—which then causes them to suffer […]. For me, it is not a question of accusation, petty argumentation, second-guessing […] and settling accounts, but of the tragedy of our century, a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.”[1]


Bernhard Sinkel frames the history of I.G. Farben from 1911 to 1947 in grand dimensions, as a fictional family chronicle, which he simultaneously presents as a “history of the relationship” between Germans, the family of “Privy Councillor” (Geheimrat) Deutz, and Jews, the family of the banker Bernheim.


In four parts, each covering chronologically selected years of the story line (I: 1911–1916: “Dear Fatherland,” II: 1923–1929: “The Corporation,” III: 1932–1938: “Power and Powerlessness,” IV: 1940–1947: “Honestly and Frankly”), Sinkel sets forth the “entanglements” of the extremely different members of the two families in the political developments of the day, against the backdrop of family relations. All too often, the portrayal of this relationship as an “entanglement” becomes clichéd, especially in the case of the Jewish characters: It is none other than the Jewish banker Bernheim (Martin Benrath) who explains, while slurping an oyster, to Geheimrat Deutz (Burt Lancaster) how democracy could be replaced by a dictatorship of the economy, along the lines of the “American model.” Bernheim’s pacifist daughter Judith (Laura Morante), on the other hand, has long since made her exit from the story line by this point, has eluded marriage to Friedrich, the Geheimrat’s son, a union both families also favor—because of poison gas, against which she fights as a political radical, a gas which stands in the way of her love for Friedrich, and which is partly financed by her father. The banker Bernheim is later deported to Auschwitz and gassed: a pitiful but also slightly ridiculous old man, who remains a German patriot to the very end. Everything moves in a circle in this film: the images and the characters. To advance the plot, this genre—the chronicle of a family or other social group, in the roman-fleuve tradition—demands a high degree of “facework” and promiscuity (within the family circle itself, if at all possible) on the actors’ part.


The relationship between Bernheim’s son Max and Geheimrat Deutz’s granddaughter Elli also has no prospect of success. Over the course of the miniseries, Max changes from a student with a German National orientation (who converts to Christianity) into an expert witness for the prosecutors in Nuremberg. He never returns to the woman he loved, to Elli, however. Elli sacrificed herself for him and, to enable him to escape from Germany, married the prototypical Nazi Sokolowski: a nasty type whose first name is not even mentioned to the audience. But Max does not get in touch with her after the war, though he knows that she now is separated from Sokolowski. On the other hand, he is not aware that Elli’s little daughter is his, Max’s, child. Thus Elli ultimately is one of those heroic German female figures who sacrifice themselves (their innocence) to their love for a Jewish man and, like Willie Bunterberg (Hanna Schygulla) in Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen (FRG, 1980), are betrayed by him in the end. And to make us impulsively feel that this is inevitable, Max’s personality has to comply with the clichés used in so many melodramas to signal to us in due time that a person is not suited for a happy love relationship (and marriage). Elli, the innocent young girl who even gives herself to a Nazi to save her true love, is not the right match for an unstable type who seduces widows and plays with cocaine, who first renounces his Jewish identity and then appears as a “Jewish” accuser, who first tests car tires (made of Buna) for the Nazis and then emigrates and returns to Germany as an American.


The tragic narrative unwinds among the generations. Heinrich Beck’s son Carl, like his father a witness of the extermination in Auschwitz, wants to testify against him in Nuremberg.  a  What is important for Sinkel, in his own words, is to transcend the divide and reconcile with the fathers. “And this quest is not associated with any settling of accounts, that is, it’s not a way to say ‘you incurred guilt,’ but rather a quest pursued with a great deal of understanding.”[2] 


Therefore his “tragic” postulate also does not end in a cathartic judgment, but in its denial—and with the mothers. The reconciliation is accomplished in the end not with the fathers, to be sure, but between the generations. While the film began with the big, wondering eyes of little Georg Deutz as he watched the alchemistic miracles performed by his grandfather, it ends with an embrace between Georg (Herbert Grönemeyer) and his mother Charlotte (Julie Christie). The fact that it is Georg, who has become a film director rather than a chemist, who has the last word also bounces the film back to its author in the end. Sinkel’s great-grandfather was one of the “founding figures” of the chemical industry, his father was an I.G. Farben company officer with signing authority, and his uncle was Fritz ter Meer, who was sentenced at Nuremberg to seven years in prison.[3] Supposedly Sinkel learned only while working on the film that ter Meer himself was involved in Auschwitz. In a conversation with Alexander Kluge, however, he left no doubt that his project focused on his own “identity,” on the question “Where are my roots?”[4]

(HL; transl. KL)


(Abridged version of an article by Hanno Loewy: “Tragische Märchen? Deutsche Generationendramen” (Tragic Fairy Tales? German Generational Dramas). In: Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte 31 (2003), pp. 335–358.)


Title: Väter und Söhne (Fathers and Sons; shown as Sins of the Fathers in the United States in 1988)

Country: FRG/Italy

Year: 1986

Direction and script: Bernhard Sinkel

Cast: Burt Lancester (Geheimrat Carl Julius Deutz), Martin Benrath (the banker Bernheim), Laura Morante (Judith Bernheim), Bruno Ganz (Heinrich Beck), Herbert Grönemeyer (Georg Deutz), Julie Christie (Charlotte Deutz), Alexander Radszun (Sokolowski), Dieter Laser (Friedrich Deutz), Rüdiger Vogler (Ulrich Deutz), Tina Engel (Luise Deutz), Christian Doermer (Dr. Körner)

Production: WDR

Four-part television production: 134 min. / 124 min. / 128 min. / 133 min.



Grefe, Christiane: “Rekonstruktion eines Filmprojektes.” In: Bernhard Sinkel: Väter und Söhne. Eine deutsche Tragödie. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1986, pp. 394–413.

Kluge, Alexander / Sinkel, Bernhard: “Gespräch über die Väter und die Söhne.” In: Bernhard Sinkel: Väter und Söhne. Eine deutsche Tragödie. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1986, pp. 414–418.

Loewy, Hanno: “Tragische Märchen? Deutsche Generationendramen.” In: Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte 31 (2003), pp. 335–358.

Sinkel, Bernhard: Väter und Söhne. Eine deutsche Tragödie. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1986. (accessed on August 25, 2008).

[1] Bernhard Sinkel, quoted by Christiane Grefe: “Rekonstruktion eines Filmprojektes.” In: Bernhard Sinkel: Väter und Söhne. Eine deutsche Tragödie (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1986), pp. 394–413, here p. 407. (Translated by KL)

[2] Alexander Kluge / Bernhard Sinkel: “Gespräch über die Väter und die Söhne.” In: Sinkel: Väter und Söhne, pp. 414–418, here p. 414. (Translated by KL)

[3] After the eight-year sentence given to Otto Ambros and Walter Dürrfeld, this was, mind you, the second-longest term of imprisonment imposed in the trial.      

[4] Kluge / Sinkel: Gespräch, p. 414.