Monday, 17 April 2017
Es war einmal in Deutschland (4½ Stars)
The literal translation of the film's title is "Once upon a time in Germany", but the English title of the film is "Bye bye Germany". Both titles would be adequate.
The film was advertised as a comedy. When I went to see it today I was surprised that there was so little humour in it. The jokes were there, but they were subtle, nothing to make the cinema audience roar with laughter. I can understand this. It's difficult to make a comedy about a group of Jews who survived the Second World War. Maybe the English could get away with it, because the English are expected to make fun of anything, but it's a tricky subject for a film made in Germany. One false step and the film could be decried as a work of racism. As it is, the director has managed to create the film tastefully, while allowing the audience a few smiles along the way.
The film takes place in Frankfurt in 1946. The American army has set up an office to give licenses to anyone who wants to found a business. I assume that they took over this responsibility to prevent ex-Nazis becoming influential as business leaders. David Bermann, a Jew whose family had owned a large textile shop before the war, is refused a business license, even though all his Jewish friends have been granted licenses, To deal with this David arranges for a friend to register a business in which he can act as the unofficial boss.
David and his six Jewish employees make money fast selling linen imported from France. The business isn't exactly honest, but it's not illegal either. For instance, they approach the wives of men whose husbands have died in the war, claiming to have made business arrangements with the men before their deaths.
Despite the humour of their trickery, a shadow is over the men. All seven of them have suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Almost all of them have spent time in concentration camps and have stories to tell.
Then there's the question why David is mistrusted by the Americans. They accuse him of having collaborated with the Nazis. He strongly denies this. In a series of interviews with an American intelligence officer, Sara Simone, he tells her what he did to survive in the camp, but what he tells her is so ridiculous that she can't believe it. Nevertheless, Sara slowly falls for David's charm.
The film is full of so many subtle ironies, always in contrast with suffering, that it's difficult to know whether you should laugh or cry. The film is introduced from the standpoint of an unreliable narrator, who lets the audience question whether the story is true or not. Maybe this narrator is David himself, since he takes over the narration at the end of the film, but it's not clear. Whatever the case is, we can't help but love David as the silver-tongued slippery conman.