lIn Susanne Kovács’s intimate dive into her family history, memory is a stormy mistress. Brittle as glass, the ghosts of the past haunt generations of the Kovács family. Guided by the director’s desire to learn more about her grandmother’s time in the Mauthausen concentration camp—a painful chapter that the elderly matriarch refuses to trust in detail—turns this documentary into a historical dig. Startling revelations reveal how violence can breed violence.
As the camera patiently peers over a wealth of family photos, viewers get a glimpse of Kovács’ grandmother Eva as a young girl. There are also childhood photos of Kovács’ father, Peter, a smiling boy nestled between his parents. The contrast between reality and happiness that can be seen in these close-ups is especially poignant. Soon Eva, the lovely princess of a wealthy Jewish Hungarian family, is deported to Mauthausen. As for Peter, he endured years of physical and mental abuse by his parents. His father, also a Holocaust survivor, yelled terrible insults at his child, also calling Peter a fascist.
As Kovács views this abuse through a compassionate lens, Peter wonders if his father’s sadism was innate, predating his ordeal in the camp. Yet Kovács also feels distance from her grandmother. The fact that Kovács’ mother was German with family ties to the Nazi regime certainly complicates matters. It Takes a Family opposes the linearity of memory and history and recognizes the impossibility of tying up loose ends. It is touching to see Kovács rocking her baby towards the end of the film: a new creature enters a gnarled family history. Kovács’ willingness to face the past suggests that the wounds of intergenerational trauma can be healed.