When filmmaker Yael Reuveny sought backing in Israel and in Germany to make “Farewell, Herr Schwarz,” film people would ask her, why make another Holocaust film after so many have been made?
“The answer,” Reuveny told the Forward, “is that the movie is not about them [Holocaust survivors], it’s about now. It’s about who we are and how the Holocaust influenced who we are and what we want to be.”
“Farewell, Herr Schwarz” — which won the Best Documentary prize at last year’s Haifa International Film Festival, and premieres in New York January 9 — is an unusual Holocaust documentary. The film avoids the sweeping group characterizations seen in Hollywood Holocaust dramas like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” Instead, it captures the real complexities and difficult choices made by two individuals caught in turbulent times, and the impact of those choices on their descendants. Directed by Reuveny, a graduate of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, “Farewell, Herr Schwarz” casts a spotlight on the families of two deceased Holocaust survivors, brother and sister Feivke and Michla Schwarz, who reacted to the horrors of the war in very different ways.
Feivke and Michla, Reuveny’s great-uncle and maternal grandmother, were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust, and were supposed to reunite at the train station in Lodz after the war. For reasons that are never entirely clear, they never met again. But when Feivke’s son Uwe sought to reconnect with Michla, for some reason she rebuffed him.
The most shocking part of the story belongs to Reuveny’s great-uncle Feivke, for whom the film is named. After he was freed from a concentration camp in the East German town of Schlieben at the war’s end, he decided to rebuild his life just a short walk away from the site of his suffering. He even went several steps further and married a local German girl, changed his given name to Peter and never told his children that he was Jewish. His German sister-in-law warmly recounts that the entire family happily celebrated Christmas together, even though her husband had served in the Wehrmacht during World War II.
In contrast, Reuveny’s grandmother Michla immigrated to Israel, married and raised a family, but never really left behind the horrors she experienced. Her friends were also Holocaust survivors and her wartime trauma remained part of the family’s story. The documentary adeptly shows how this became a major part of her identity and helped shape the lives of Reuveny’s mother Etty, and of Reuveny herself.
As Reuveny’s first full-length feature documentary, “Farewell, Herr Schwarz” is a bit rough around the edges. For example, the director’s narration of her family’s story has a lyrical quality to it, but which, in the context of a complex documentary, seems a bit forced and simplistic. For example, when speaking about Fievke, Reuveny says that he “died twice.”
Likewise, at several points in the movie Reuveny seems to forcefully reach for a dramatic encounter with both her Israeli and German family members. However, the real drama in the film often lies in barely voiced subtexts behind such events as Uwe’s desire to place a rock from his father’s tombstone at Michla’s grave in Israel, or Peter’s grandson Stephan’s decision to move to Berlin and reconnect with his Jewish roots.
Whatever minor flaws the movie has, it succeeds admirably in its purpose as a documentary. It makes the viewer reassess their views about the meaning of the Holocaust today, and the impact it still has on people’s lives.
As Reuveny told the Forward, “I started out more judgmental toward Feivke/Peter, his behavior and what happened in 1945. But the film made me look again at my grandmother and realize that in a way her choices were just as strange as his.”
“He lived like the last Jew on Earth and stayed in the landscape of his disaster. She left that landscape and never came back, but was always surrounded by people who had been through similar things and reflected her pain. Maybe for him there was a certain kind of release or freedom in not meeting people who went through similar things? Maybe he made the healthier choices?”