A small apartment in an anonymous building from the 19th century in Paris can hide the key to the drama of European history. For Philippe Sands, grandson of the former tenants, it is Proust’s cupcake, whose simple smell reveals a whole world of memories and sensations, or an aleph, the point from which to contemplate the entire universe.
The lawyer’s method
Jurist Eli Lauterpacht, mentor to lawyer Philippe Sands, once gave his disciple some advice: “When you are before judges in an international court, never tell them what to do. Your role is to present the material in such a way that the judges reach the same conclusion that you want them to reach, but in a way that allows them to believe that they alone have reached this conclusion ”. The advice of Lauterpacht – the son of the jurist who formulated the concept of crimes against humanity – was useful to Sands for his other career: that of a writer. The judges are the readers. And he, in his books, adopts the same attitude as a lawyer when faced with a new case. First, research the facts. Afterwards, he exposes them as clearly as possible, without showing his emotions and avoiding pontificating. “What happened? Who did what? Who gave the order? ”He wonders. This is how the investigations begin. “When you have the facts, you analyze them,” he adds. “But you always run into surprises. You arrive and open a door, which takes you to another place, where there are three other doors, and you must open all three ”. It is painstaking work and you never know where it will lead. In 2011, while preparing ‘East-West Street’, he met Horst von Wächter, the son of a Nazi war criminal who refused to convict his father. It had been introduced to him by Niklas Frank, the son of another Nazi who, unlike Horst, condemned his father without excuses. Sands, the grandson of Jews who escaped the Holocaust, ended up filming with Niklas and Horst the documentary ‘What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy’ (it can be seen on Filmin under the title ‘My Nazi Legacy’). In ‘Escape Route’ he delves into the story of Horst von Wächter’s father. Another author would have been lost among the 10,000 pages of documents in German that Wächter gives Sands about Otto and Charlotte von Wächter, his parents. “The first thing you do,” he explains, “is take your time. And you end up reading everything. But some things stick in your head. They end up being the central points in the story ”. Then comes the writing phase. “The truth is that I start without knowing where I am going,” he confesses. “I write a first draft and then I completely restructure it, I do a lot of cut and paste. For both ‘East-West Street’ and ‘Escape Route’ I did four complete drafts. The first is the most difficult. Afterwards it is a pleasure ”. At the time of writing, he returns to the advice of his teacher Lauterpacht. “I do not impose my conclusions on the reader,” he says. “I let the reader extract theirs. Readers prefer that the writer does not tell them what to think ”. Sands is not alone in the family of legal writers. He quotes the Germans Bernhard Schlink and Ferdinand von Schirach and the British Alexander McCall Smith. But sometimes he toyed with the idea of leaving the law profession and devoting himself to writing full time. The writer Hisham Matar, author of ‘The Return’, gave him another piece of advice that he does not forget: “Philippe, never stop being a lawyer. The law distinguishes you and nurtures you. You meet people, you see details, you understand things differently ”. Sands smiles and concludes: “I guess I’ll take the advice.”