(This article originally appeared in a slightly different format in the Australian Jewish News on 25 April 2013.)
German films about Jews and Judaism carry a heavy weight of history. While the many hundreds of American films that feature Jewish characters and themes focus mostly on upper-middle class angst (come on, Woody Allen lovers, admit it), German films deal with big issues. The lingering impacts of Nazi persecution along with the guilt of later generations and the questions of communal responsibility for Nazi atrocities: these issues continue to engage German film-makers seven decades after the Holocaust. For every “Go For Zucker” comedy, there are more than fifty Holocaust dramas.
The Goethe Institute’s annual “Festival of German Films” takes its pick of the best recent German films. And this year the dominant Jewish theme is how German Jews and German Christians make life-long connections.
“My German Friend” is undoubtedly the highlight Jewish film of the festival. Writer/director Jeanine Meerapfel’s parents were German-Jewish refugees living in Argentina when she was born in 1943. At age 21, she went to Germany to study film, and all of her films reflect the dislocation that she and her family have felt. “My German Friend” is clearly a semi-autobiographical story – Meeraapfel’s own. A young Sulamit Löwenstein (Celeste Cid) becomes friends with a neighbouring boy, Friedrich (Max Riemelt), who in turn is the son of a former senior SS officer.
The film charts the course of their relationship over twenty years through two countries and numerous political upheavals. Produced in Spanish and German, it arrives with five recent Argentinean film award nominations. “My German Friend” has some flaws: shot on a limited budget, the young actors who play the main characters in early scenes are not strong and some of the director’s pacing is slow. The necessity to include such a long span of years burdens the film with a great deal of narrative and incident. But something happens mid-way through “My German Friend”: as Sulamit and Friedrich grow older and mature, their characters’ responses to the historical events start to live, giving a deep insight into the German-Jewish South American émigré experience that I cannot recall shown so well on film. A scene towards the end – when Sulamit visits Friedrich in remote prison – is an understated but powerful experience.
Meerapfel has written articulately about her childhood. German Jews and the former Nazis “emigrated to Argentina within a few years of each other [and] came from the same German cultural circles …. It is an irony of history that the German Jews and the German Nazis in Argentina favoured similar places to live, had similar tastes in architecture, and chose similar places to holiday.”
The Australian-German documentary co-production “German Sons” tells a similar story, although without the same level of danger for its characters. Philippe Mora was born in Paris and emigrated to Australia with his artistic parents (Leipzig-born Georges who fled the Nazis in 1930, and Lithuanian Mirka, who barely escaped deportation to Auschwitz) while very young. He started making films at an early age, with his second film (“Swastika”, 1973) one of the earliest films to examine the popularity of Hitler. After many years of successful film-making in Australia and the USA, Mora met Harald Grosskopf, the German son of a Nazi party official, and the two of them decided to make a documentary together, exploring and comparing their family histories and the legacy of the Nazi period. The result is “German Sons”, a very personal account that will hold special interest for the many fans of the Mora family, who have made such a profound contribution to Australian art, film, acting and restaurants.
Also playing in this year’s Festival are two other films of special interest. “Cinema Jenin” is a documentary about how German film-maker Marcus Vetter helped to restore and re-open a cinema in Jenin, on the West Bank, working closely with Israeli actor and political activist Juliano Mer-Khamis (who was later assassinated). “Hotel Lux” is a delightful but biting political satire set in Russia and Germany in the 1930s; it has previously screened in Sydney and Melbourne and this year travels to Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Byron Bay and Newcastle. The “Audi Festival of German Films” starts in Sydney on 30 April, Melbourne on 1 May, followed by the other locations.