Don’t let its deceptively simple title and brief 76-minute running time fool you. “Germans and Jews” is a nuanced look at a complicated situation that offers insights into the intricacies of the human condition.
This documentary started with the realization of two old friends, director Janina Quint (a non-Jewish German) and producer Tal Recanati (a visiting American Jew), that the relationship between Germans and Jews remained a fraught subject even more than 70 years after the conclusion of World War II and the end of the Holocaust.
The pair put together a Berlin dinner party between the postwar second generation of Jews and non-Jewish Germans, filmed the resulting conversation and expanded their interviews to more than 30 people, with absorbing results.
Each person interviewed had his or her own particular experience with and specific take on this torturous, intertwined relationship. Taken together, they demonstrate how countries and people can change, often in ways no one expects.
This is an issue of special interest now because Germany turns out to have the fastest growing Jewish population in Europe. The country had 533,000 Jews in 1933, virtually none by the war’s end, 27,000 by 1990 and an estimated 250,000 today. What has changed to make this happen, and how did that change take place?
Fritz Stern, a refugee whose grandparents had converted to Catholicism and who notes wryly, “the Nazis made me Jewish,” returned in 1950 and was surprised to notice the postwar “German capacity for self-pity, ‘look how bad we have it.’”
Jews came back for a variety of reasons, and 80% of those early returnees ended up leaving again. They were uneasy about the persistence of unofficial anti-Semitism and the difficulty of what one person characterizes as “living among perpetrators and survivors.”
Criticized though it was at the time for being the equivalent of paying blood money for an unpayable moral debt, the 1952 reparations agreement between Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Israel’s David Ben-Gurion was, the American Jewish Committee’s Deidre Burger says, that country’s essential “ticket back into Western civilization.”
The key change that happened, “Germans and Jews” contributors say, was that Germans themselves came to realize that their homeland was liberated, not destroyed, by the end of the war and that the country would have to confront the past if it was to have a future. (A similar thought, interestingly enough, drives the protagonist in the current German drama “The People vs. Fritz Bauer.”)
Several milestones in this process of public awareness are recounted, starting with Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem. Then came the 1968 student movement and the silence-shattering questions posed by rebellious children to their parents. Finally, in 1978, the U.S. TV miniseries “Holocaust” became essential viewing in the country.
Though it’s noted that Germany has become one of the few countries that puts up “never forget” monuments to its own crimes, several people note that just as important if not more so than the official state reaction were grass roots efforts, like the placement on streets of memorial paving stones to specific murdered Jews.
Presenting further problems, as it turned out, was the reunification with East Germany, where World War II remembrance had been limited to celebrating the triumph over fascism, leaving East Germans to feel they had finished with the past while West Germans felt they had hardly begun to deal with it. As one observer said, “integrating divergent realities” had to take place.
“Germans and Jews” makes these points via thoughtful interviews with people who continue to live with the situation and its repercussions. Like journalist Rebecca Gop, who feelingly describes how confusing it felt to hear her Jewish son chanting “Deutschland, Deutschland” as his German soccer team in the European Maccabi Games took the field.
Is Germany different, more multicultural? Are Jews, lately from Israel, flocking there because the country has changed or simply because, as musician Yuval Halpern asks, it’s become trendy. “Germans and Jews” is too sophisticated to provide a glib answer, but it shows how deeply involving just asking the question can be.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Playing Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Town Center 5, Encino.