A collaboration between an American Jew (producer Tal Recanati) and a non-Jewish German (director Janina Quint), this thoughtful, wide-ranging discussion covers the changing relationship between Jewish and German intellectuals since the Holocaust.
The documentary features lively dinner party dialogue, interrupted regularly by talking heads, including those of Jews who recently chose to settle in Germany for professional reasons. Many describe what it was like to grow up German or Jewish and compare that to living in the country today. Through it all, the camera roams mostly through Berlin, finding old and new evidence of Jewish lives, from the many memorials to new Jewish culinary, cultural, and religious centers.
The older generations have memories full of familiar images: Jews recall lovely childhoods threatened by the appearance of Nazis in the street and their families escaping after Kristallnacht in 1938. The Germans, meanwhile, remember the privations of the war years and afterward, with many families having lost grandfathers.
Younger generations of Jews reflect on how their parents passed down accounts of animosities, and some—the children of survivors who settled in Germany immediately after the war—report growing up amid undercurrents of anti-Semitism. Alexa Karolinski’s Oma & Bella (2012) explored more how some concentration camp survivors, with no family left and rejected back in Eastern Europe, felt no pull toward Palestine, and so they viewed occupied Germany as comparatively safer and more welcoming than other options.
Journalists and historians muse on the impact of the required Holocaust education in the West German school curriculum, particularly in comparison to the lack of it in East Germany, as the Communist leadership insisted Nazis were only from the west, and so no lessons were needed. Several interviewees insightfully note that the tributes to Nazi victims, as well as educational exposés of the perpetrators, were initiated by grassroots activists as opposed to the government.
In determining how Berlin came to have the fastest growing Jewish population in Europe, much is attributed to the families of émigrés from the former Soviet Union, who could only leave, as one man chuckles, on “the Jewish ticket.” There is also a too brief visit to the encyclopedic Jewish Museum in Berlin, including its noted Jew in the Box live conversational exhibit in 2013. (Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat (2011) marvelously portrayed the blend of German/Jewish cultural characteristics considered so distinctive that Israelis sarcastically call them Yekkes.)
Some naiveté goes awkwardly unexamined. The Israeli hipster musicians and artists who have flocked to Berlin seem pretty clueless about how to be a minority in the new multicultural society there, in terms of talking sensitively with others. Similarly, the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi’s enthusiasm is portrayed as somehow a unique approach to reviving (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism in Germany. However, his recruitment speech is the same one any of his organization’s missionaries give anywhere in the world.
Overall, this articulate documentary doesn’t come close to being as visually compelling or moving as the exploration of contemporary Polish Jewish identity and relations in Adam Zucker’s The Return, which has been making the festival rounds for the past couple of years. Nevertheless, Germans & Jews serves as a useful and revealing where-are-we-now marker.
Produced by Quint, Tal Recanati and Maria Giacchino
Released by First Run Features
English and German with English subtitles
USA. 76 min. Not rated