Family mystery spurs Israeli filmmaker to dig up Holocaust past
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Family mystery spurs Israeli filmmaker to dig up Holocaust past

Opening Friday in New York, Yael Reuveny’s moving documentary ‘Farewell Herr Schwarz’ focuses on the lingering impact of WWII

Israeli filmmaker Yael Reuveny, graveside in Europe, in the award-winning documentary 'Farewell Herr Schwarz.' (courtesy KinoLorber)
Israeli filmmaker Yael Reuveny, graveside in Europe, in the award-winning documentary 'Farewell Herr Schwarz.' (courtesy KinoLorber)

NEW YORK — “I have to turn this off. This is too sad.”

This is something I said aloud (to no one, strangely) midway through watching “Farewell Herr Schwarz,” an award-winning documentary from new Israeli filmmaker Yael Reuveny.

I’ve seen countless movies about the Holocaust and I figured I had built up a tolerance to its tragedy. But Reuveny’s movie is about her generation – my generation – and ignores imagery of train tracks and chimneys.

The film resonated with me as one of the “grandchildren” and I did turn it off that first night. But the next day I put it back on and when I made it all the way through I found a moving and quite elegant work of cinematic expression.

Reuveny digs into her past – something many filmmakers have done before her. In a way, her family’s saga is no different than anyone else’s — and that’s because it is so strange.

Unlike the block text of history, individual stories are loaded with asterisks. Footnotes that don’t quite make sense. And yet, in the here and now, Reuveny exists, a vibrant, thoughtful sabra, “the Zionist Dream” as she somewhat jokingly refers to herself and her brother. However, for close to a decade, Reuveny, a descendant on her mother’s side from Lithuanian Jews, has chosen to live in Germany.

To what extent are the consequences of World War II still driving us?

Israeli filmmaker Yael Reuveny. (courtesy KinoLorber)
Israeli filmmaker Yael Reuveny. (courtesy KinoLorber)

Naturally, events affect different people differently, and for Reuveny the past is very present. The horrors her grandmother suffered in the camps have always been foremost in her mind. But so has a central confounding mystery.

Her grandmother had a brother who also survived the camps, but after the war they went their separate ways. She emigrated to the rising State of Israel. He, to the bafflement of everyone, chose to stay in the same East German village as the concentration camp in which he was imprisoned. And the two sides of the family didn’t know of one another for decades.

His former tormentors were now his neighbors. He eventually married and had children. To hear both siblings tell it, they claimed they didn’t know the other was alive. There is evidence that they were supposed to meet at the Łódź train station, but then a mysterious person arrived to tell them that the other had died.

Reuveny’s interviews are gorgeously framed interiors

“Farewell Herr Schwarz” digs into all this, and does so with a series of artfully shaped jigsaw pieces, both in terms of the story and the filmmaking. Reuveny’s interviews are gorgeously framed interiors, with a keen eye toward what film scholars call mise-en-scène. What’s more, the story gets altogether juicy when she meets her young German cousin, newly one-eighth Jewish, who is philo-Semitic to the point of near-fetishism.

Suffice it to say that “Farewell Herr Schwarz” is bursting with fascinating themes. It being the first week of January, let’s be bold and call it the best movie of the year so far. I had the good fortune to pick Reuveny’s brain a bit via Skype, an edited transcript of which is below.

It sounds weird to say it like this, but I think of you and your family like characters from fiction. Especially your cousin Stephan – he’s like the third-act twist from a narrative film.

One of the funniest compliments I got was from someone who doesn’t really watch documentary films. She said, “Wow, that was so interesting, it’s almost like a real movie.”

So many documentaries are leaflets these days – arguments for or against fracking or something. This is much more cinematic both in the story development and in the look. There is evocative music. There are a lot of scenes that look very art-directed; all of the apartments are beautifully shot, they’re wonderfully lit. You didn’t just run in there with a handheld camera and capture.

The cinematographer is really fantastic. He’s a German cinematographer named Andreas Köhler, and we worked on this film together for many years. And he had no assistance. There was no extra light. And all I told him is that I want the people’s surroundings to be part of their portraits, that I want to film portraits. I want it very static, because everything is — I don’t know if you can say it in English — very sat-down. We were talking a bit about the, remember “The Simpsons” opening scene where at the end they sit on this sofa? That’s what I wanted.

So what you’re telling me is that all you really need to do is hire the right person and they’ll make it look like someone lit the set for two hours.

I do feel documentaries should also be a cinematic experience. It’s not only about the story, the topic. It has to be cinema. And the problem with that is that sometimes you meet people, maybe they’re not very patient; they’re not actors. They don’t do twenty takes or wait for the lighting technician.

So about that. You’re directing the film so you’re always thinking about how it’s going to cut together. You’re also in the film, and you’re also undergoing these major emotional events – learning about your past, visiting the old home in Vilnius. You’re doing three things at once. As a director you are, to a certain extent, prodding, in this case your uncle — not to dictate his reaction but to get some kind of reaction. How did that flow? Because it felt like a very natural moment.

Documents from Great Uncle Peter, who chose to stay in the same East German village as the concentration camp in which he was imprisoned. (courtesy KinoLorber)
Documents from Great Uncle Peter, who chose to stay in the same East German village as the concentration camp in which he was imprisoned. (courtesy KinoLorber)

That was more or less the last thing we filmed with him, so we had already gone through a journey. I mean, I guess it’s more about creating the situation and then letting both of us be in it. It’s like fiction-directing in that way, that you set up a situation, and you see what happens somehow.

If you’re relying on people to go with the narrative that you have in your head, what do you do when they don’t behave the way you expect them to behave?

It took about six years to make the film and we brought about 130 hours of filmed material to the editing room. It took almost a whole year of editing with two editors, in Israel and in Germany, to actually put this together as a film. In a certain way, the script was written in the editing room.

Did you always know you’d make a film about your family?

Yeah, in a way it was kind of waiting to happen. If I look at what I did in film school, it very often somehow circled around the character of my grandmother. There was something unsolved there. She died my first year of film school, so it was somehow a way to deal with her absent character and her story.

But this film — I finished film school and I came to visit a friend in Berlin. I came as a tourist, and I had a very strong experience there, where I suddenly realized that I wanted to make my first film there, and that I wanted it to be about how the past is present in the present. So about the Second World War somehow, about family history, about how it affects me and my life now. Not about what happened, but about the impact it has on generations.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Berlin, but it’s a very strong experience there. On one hand it’s a very contemporary city; it’s very hip and very cool and very young. On the other hand, it’s really haunted. Especially if you’re looking for it or if you have it in you somehow, you see the history.

Is this something that may be more noticeable for Jews?

Poster for 'Farewell Herr Schwarz' (KinoLorber)
Poster for ‘Farewell Herr Schwarz’ (KinoLorber)

Definitely more than others — especially for Jews who grew up in Israel — Germany is such a strong symbol. And you can see a bit of that in the film. It was fairly common for whole families to say, “We don’t go there. We don’t buy products from there.” It’s also a forbidden place, which makes it interesting.

You have to wonder when you’re there, why did everybody make such an effort not to see this place? I try to explain when I have Q&As in Germany, and somehow people don’t completely believe me. And I tell them that in Israel, when they talk about the Second World War, they don’t say “then,” they say “there.” As if it’s an ongoing thing, and it’s just happening there. And for me, growing up in that atmosphere, going there was somehow mind-blowing. Like, “I’m finally there.”

There is an influx of Israelis who are now expats living in Berlin, specifically. You’re not a pioneer; there are loads of you over there, as I’m sure you know.

In the last two or three years, it’s been completely — you suddenly hear Hebrew everywhere, you see Israeli restaurants opening. And a lot of Israeli artists, writers, fine artists, performance artists. Tons of musicians. Classical musicians have always been there. And I think it’s an experience that maybe a lot of people have, that you go there finally, and you feel weirdly at home.

But if I can psychoanalyze you for a moment — if you were looking to go back to your ancestral homeland, you would be an expatriate in Lithuania. Now, granted, Lithuania doesn’t have a bursting economy and a thriving arts scene, but to go back to Berlin isn’t quite a fit. But I would imagine that you are friends with other Israelis there. Do you guys talk about this? Obviously, you have your reasons for going; what are some of the other people’s reasons for being there?

I’ve been in Berlin for almost nine years now, and when I arrived there weren’t so many Israelis, and also they were trying to avoid each other. I think the people who have come in the last two or three years, they’re more of a community than we were when we arrived.

There’s this political discussion in Israel now: politicians call it “the spoiled generation, they’re only going there because it’s cheaper. You’re giving up the Zionist project for cheap beer.” I think that’s cynical, they don’t completely understand.

‘In a way, it’s like the other side of the mirror’

People are never there ignoring the past. On the contrary. I think many of the Israeli people are there dealing with being there, what this common past has to offer. Germans and Israelis share this obsession with the past. I’ve found in Lithuania they don’t have that as much. I guess Lithuanians or Poles or whatever, they feel they’re the victim of this story.

Germans dealt with it and it’s part of their biography, so people my age they grew up with it in a weird way, the same way that I did. We have National Holocaust Day. It’s part of the national identity. In Germany, it’s the same. In a way, it’s like the other side of the mirror.

That’s why your cousin, who’s even younger — you might even say younger generation — is so fascinating. Here’s a guy who did not grow up with the Jewish tradition at all. How old was he when he learned about the family secret? Did he know it his whole life?

Cousin Stephan Kummer has recently converted to Judaism. (KinoLorber)
Cousin Stephan Kummer has recently converted to Judaism. (KinoLorber)

No. He did not know. I made a short film already about Schlieben, the village where Peter lives. A half-hour film. And I didn’t know about him. And he had heard about that film, and he wrote me an email saying, “I’m sorry I’m writing you in English. My Hebrew’s not so good yet. I heard you’re making a film about my grandfather.” So the short film I made before brought us together, and he learned a lot of things through that film that he didn’t know. He didn’t know about the different name, for example.

I think clearly the fact that his grandfather was this secret Jew certainly instigated his philo-Semitism. But he might have done it anyway, as there seems to be that vibe among young people there. Do you think Stephan is going to ultimately wind up moving to Israel, converting to Judaism? He seems like a pretty secular guy.

He wrote me, I think a month ago. He wrote me a message: “Congratulate me, I’m Jewish now.” So he finished his conversion.

Mazel tov.

I was like, “There’s always room for one more. Welcome.”

There is a recurring theme, like a recurring Greek chorus almost, when you and your mother go to your grandmother’s grave. And it’s a wonderful visual image, and it’s also great to see you and your mom talking, because Jewish mothers are always very entertaining.

But was there prodding? Was it like, “Mom, we’ve got to go back to the grave again; we need more footage”? To what extent were you disturbing your family for this project, and to what extent was there any pushback, like, “Oh, leave me alone; I don’t care about your movie this week.”?

My mom likes to go to the cemetery alone. She says it’s very peaceful when she’s there alone. But about the filming thing, it was really spectacular how obedient especially my parents were, and it really became part of their lives, because we were filming for so many years, and we would come back once in a while. And I think the first time we came there I drew like a timetable with who needs to be home when, and it really wasn’t easy for them. I think you can also see that they’re not the kind of people who are used to being in front of cameras, but I really appreciated how much trust they had.

The extended Reuveny clan. (KinoLorber)
The extended Reuveny clan. (KinoLorber)

Both my parents really did what I asked. And the funny thing is, in the final scene, when they came to Berlin — it was after years already, and we had a new sound guy, and he was kind of shy, and said, “Okay, we have to put neck mics on them, so can you please tell them before that it’s going to have to be under their shirts?” And I was like, “Just wait and see. They’re pros.” And he came to them and said, “Hello. I’m the sound guy,” and they both immediately lifted their shirts.

They’re movie stars!

Also with the cinematographer, he somehow became part of the family. It slowly got kind of cozy. It’s nice to have an interviewee that when the battery runs out and you need to stop for another half an hour, gets up and makes sandwiches for you.

You were asking about how much scenes were planned, and the thing is, after a while, you realize that everything that happens is part of the film. If I’m unhappy with what my mother has said, if we disagree, if I roll my eyes at her, that’s all part of the story, because it’s about who we are and how we are.

The movie has this central mystery of what really happened in Poland, in Łódź, at the train station. Who got a message from whom? It’s the big question mark at the center of your family history. For me, forgive me if this sounds distasteful, but that’s great, because it makes the movie really click as cinema.

I agree. I agree. At a certain point, I was very happy that that stayed as the blind spot of the film. The weird thing about making a film about yourself and your family is that I also slowly stop thinking about it — you have to have this split personality. The first day in the editing room, everything is — I can only see how my makeup is smudged and how I don’t like my hair, and then I forget it’s me completely.

What do you think happened? Do you think that he knew that she was still alive? Or vice versa?

‘Maybe there was a meeting; maybe they did miss it’

Oh, it changed so many times. I definitely think that for both of them, it was not the story as they told their children and grandchildren. I think they both could have looked more and they both decided not to look more. That’s the closest I can say to what I think happened. Maybe there was a meeting; maybe they did miss it. But they had the rest of their lives after that to look. I think, with my grandmother, there was always a bit of a doubt, but maybe it was comfortable for her to not deal with that. I don’t think they were so different to each other in the end.

History doesn’t go the way you expect. Things slip through the cracks.
I think Errol Morris said that, right? That the big stories make sense but the small stories are really freaking weird.

‘He stayed with the landscape but she stayed with the people’

I don’t have any judgment toward what he did, and I think their choices in life are equally strange, because this huge, horrible thing that I could never fully understand, that happened to them, this full stop of everything they knew, and then this need to restart. So she went to Israel like many other people, and she went away from the landscape. She never came back to Europe, and he decided to stay. He stayed with the landscape but she stayed with the people. He lived there, like the last Jew in the world, and she lived here surrounded by survivors.

We see some of her friends, these survivors, that also went through horrible things and reflected her pain to her all the time. They were living in this mirror world, where everybody shared this horrible story that couldn’t be spoken about, that was in a way too painful. I could also see how there is a relief to live [in Europe], like the last survivor.

What’s your next project?

I’m at the very beginning of something. Some people make one film a year. This one took me six or seven years, and I’m now crawling into the next one. I’m trying to think of it not as slow, but thorough. It will deal with Zionism, but I don’t know from which angle. The connection between Jews and land is something that I’m interested in, as an Israeli who lives somewhere else.

“Farewell Herr Schwarz” opens January 9 at the Quad Theater in New York City. It will also play at the JCC in Manhattan on January 10 and 11. Check KinoLorber’s website for future cities and home video/VOD dates.

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