The following article on the Festival of German Films in Australia appeared in a shorter version in the Australian Jewish News on 26 April 2012.
There is something distinctly disconcerting viewing the Jewish experience refracted through contemporary German film. Two hundred-plus years of modern German-Jewish history and the legacies of the murderous Nazi period provide an uncomfortable backdrop for any film with Jewish characters and themes which is made by non-Jewish film-makers in that country.
For these reasons, the Goethe Institute’s annual “Festival of German Films” – running through 30 April in Melbourne and Sydney, later in other states – provides a frequently powerful insight into how Jews have evolved in the German mind and cultural framework. Of the 27 films in this year’s Festival, five have important Jewish-related themes. Perhaps not coincidentally, all of these five have strong Russian connections, with Russian-born directors, stars or locations.
Wunderkinder (playing in Sydney only) is the only film which incorporates a “classic” Holocaust theme, and tells the story of two young prodigy Jewish musicians in the Ukraine in 1941. They befriend a non-Jewish German girl and her family, literally on the eve of the Nazi occupation of that country. The film’s understated approach to the impact of the impending Holocaust on Jewish children is intelligent, sensitive and nuanced. The portrayal of both Soviets and Nazis is remarkably well-done, with rich characters and a fine script. At times while watching the film, I wondered about its German director and writers: they have created sympathetic Jewish characters and willingly portrayed most Germans (excepting, of course, the “good” German family) and Ukrainians as brutally antisemitic. This indicates a modern cultural mindset and attitude towards Jews that is not fully understood or appreciated. Not surprisingly, last year Wunderkinder won a major award from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for “artistic achievement in Holocaust-related film”, and has played at international Jewish film festivals.
By contrast, Moscow-born Leo Khasin’s film Kaddish for a Friend is set in present-day Germany, and tackles one of the more taboo subjects: the antagonism between European Jews and Arabs. When a Lebanese Muslim refugee family moves into a working class Berlin neighbourhood, the tension with an aged but independent Jewish war veteran threatens to blow up. Of particular note is the lead actor, Ryszard Ronczewski, who starred in And Along Came Tourists, a recent German Film Festival hit about young Germans volunteering at Auschwitz.
Also set in present-day East Germany, Combat Girls stars Russian-born German actress Alina Levshin as a very angry young neo-Nazi who hates all outsiders, refugees and especially Jews. It is strongly reminiscent of the powerful Edward Norton film “American History X”.
Two other festival films are both World War Two dramas: 4 Days in May is based on an actual incident between Russian and German soldiers at the end of the war on the Baltic Sea. And the seriocomic Hotel Lux (which screened last week, but will probably open soon in cinemas), is set in 1938 Moscow and 1933 Berlin.