Film Review: Germans & Jews

Mostly engaging, mostly talking-heads documentary features second and third-generation Jews and non-Jewish Germans now all living in Berlin and sharing their thoughts (with occasional vague references to the Nazi past) about their evident rapprochement.
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It’s not just the city of Berlin that, since 1991, has been reunited. As Germans & Jews has it, Berlin and even Germany itself and its Jews today are also reunited. That the Jewish forebears were victims of the 1933-1945 Nazi oppression and mass murders is given scant attention, as if so many other docs have done that dirty work.

Director and producer Janina Quint, who is a non-Jewish German, and her American-Jewish friend and producer Tal Recanati tell their rapprochement story through modern-day Germans sharing their impressions. Almost equally prominent are the key moments pinpointed here of Berlin’s post-war evolution from a defeated country in denial of the Holocaust and its treatment of Jews to a city that now has Europe’s fastest-growing Jewish community.

Events cited that precipitated Berlin’s eventual realization of its horrific past include the 1952 Ben Gurion-Adenauer agreement that brought German money to Israel to further its growth. In the early ’60s, Holocaust awareness grew as a result of the widespread coverage and shocking testimony of the Eichmann and Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, followed by the 1968 student rebellions that motivated youth to question their parents’ wartime roles.

Another eye-opener that awoke Germans to shame and awareness came some years later by way of the TV phenomenon “Holocaust,” which an estimated 20 million Germans saw. In more recent years, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall brought more Jews to Berlin. (An interesting point is made that most Nazis lived in the West, so East Germany carried less Holocaust guilt.) And the ’90s saw the country more aggressively creating Holocaust-themed exhibitions, memorials, museums, and street plaques in front of former Jewish victim homes.

But as the filmmakers’ main purpose is the examination of attitudes from the two sides today, they give their featured subjects—a cross-section of smart, likeable second and third-generation Berlin Jews and non-Jewish Germans—a platform to air their views. Quint and Recanati even throw their subjects a dinner party that brings many together and provides a framework for the film. Among the many weighing in are a young Israeli musician boastful of Berlin’s openness, a recent Jewish-Russian emigré in Berlin given what he calls “the Jewish ticket,” an orthodox rabbi characterizing “a thriving Jewish life here,” and a handful of German academics, including one who reminds that “citizens were willing to watch as Jews were pushed out of society.” No wonder the Israeli musician, noting that Germans do both “Auschwitz and Mercedes,” says he’s comfortable with young Germans but “less so” with those older.

Above all, the talking heads convey, even indirectly, the liberal, progressive tendencies that have made modern Berlin’s reputation (and recall the pre-war Weimar heyday). But several Jewish subjects concur that the Palestinian conflict is giving rise to “new forms of anti-Semitism,” with the young Israeli musician saying he feels safer in Germany than in Israel.

Germans & Jews isn’t quite a feel-good doc about the Holocaust, although many viewers may see things that way. Others may question why references to the massive horrors and scale of the Holocaust are generally left out of this picture.

And is Berlin, which has progressed from the power center of Nazism into the thriving, permissive culture capital it is today, a reliable example? Are the doc’s subjects, as appealing as many are, even a reliable sampling, or might they be among the fortunate rewarded in a temporary utopia?

Even the boldly drawn thematic demarcation line here might be questioned. It’s not the usual good-vs.-evil one that demands, “How could they?” Rather, the line here is the divide separating the second and third generations viewed here and their unseen, ghostlike first-generation forebears. This dialectic suggests that Germany’s haunting “Jewish question” is more the result of historic and economic causes than one with origins in the German character and nature, or human nature itself. This conclusion may seem a copout to many, but, however perceived, viewers might be driven to books like Götz Aly’s Why the Germans? Why the Jews?, which confronts the big “why” question full-bore by digging back more than two centuries into what made the Germans and Jews tick.

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