Exactly what happened when the concentration camps were liberated?
Did all of the survivors simply stand outside the barracks and shower accolades on those who saved them, as we saw in “Schindler’s List”? Or did they go back to Warsaw, Lodz, Berlin, or a remote shtetl, expecting to be able to return to their homes?
How many wound up dying from an inability to eat? How many from overeating? Who wound up in displaced persons camps, and who ran off to the mountains to find their way to Palestine?
Survivors’ stories, some fictionalized, are the subject of countless books, plays, and films, but how many of these works look at a Holocaust survivor firsthand, returning home, bewildered, broken, and unsure of her way?
And how many are written by a German filmmaker?
Since the turn of this century, German moviemakers seem to explore their history continually as they ponder the complexities of how a modern and sophisticated nation could have been responsible for the Holocaust. For many young Germans, uncovering secrets about Nazis in their families or learning that the kind old woman who lived next door was a guard at a concentration camp seems to be an ongoing experience.
Only last week, a German court sentenced a seemingly sweet nonagenarian who was an SS officer and accountant at Auschwitz to jail time. Many Jews now feel that they have studied, read, and watched movies about the Shoah, and have come to a place where maybe it is enough for now. “Yes,” they say, “We have read about that or have seen it, so I simply don’t want to read or see any more.” I have heard Jewish friends and colleagues say, “Teach it to the next generations. It is so important! But I am already saturated.” But after decades of silence and denial, Germans cannot seem to get enough. The search for answers has become a German passion.
The postwar months in Germany were complicated by efforts to find the monsters responsible for war crimes and moving ahead with a program for de-Nazification, while also creating an atmosphere that might allow the German people to heal. Once the Cold War began, America and Britain, feeling that they needed all the friends they could find, embraced Germany, often looking the other way when Nazi criminals were identified.
And what about the victims, the survivors? Certainly, many amazing agencies, like HIAS and JDC, did an incredible job in assisting and providing support for survivors. But what actually happened to those survivors in the weeks and months that followed their liberation? How did they transition into society after experiencing untold horror? How many first-hand survivor accounts are there from that time?
What German writer and director Christian Petzold brings us is the story of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish woman who survives the camps and returns to her home in Berlin, her face disfigured by a bullet. She is damaged and broken, as is everything around her — her home, her neighbors, her country. Her entire family has been murdered. Nelly is in a state of trauma, as is the world outside her window. Encouraged by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) to bandage her psychological and physical wounds and chsose life, Nelly reconstructs her deformed face — but it is to be a new face. Throughout the film the symbolism is strong, as we see this Jew, scarred by her experience, emerging into a new life as a fresh person.
Is she not like the new Germany? But can a new persona enable Nelly to reintegrate herself into German life? She and Lene struggle to figure out how Jews can continue to live in the country that they both still love. At one point, with the radio on, Nelly turns to Lene, and they agree that they can no longer listen to German music. Still, neither is ready to turn it off. Lene sees departure to Palestine as the only way to sanity, yet neither seems ready to leave. As I watched their exchange, I pondered today’s Berlin, which has more than 30,000 Jews. It makes you wonder!
Petzold weaves a story of intrigue into the film when we learn that Nelly’s husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a non-Jew, has survived the war. Lene has spotted him. We also glean that he believes his wife to be dead and is hoping to inherit her wealth. But exactly what has Johnny been doing these many months since the day when his wife was found in hiding and taken away to Gestapo headquarters? Will Nelly be reunited with her husband, who might not recognize her on first sight? She goes out to see.
These are but some of the twists and turns that turn this powerful study of one survivor into a film noir-style mystery. Petzold does a fine job at it.
How do you put onto film the plight of a defeated, suffering, and unapologetic nation, when you introduce a surviving Jew, a reminder of the crimes to which you were complicit, into the drama? Decades ago, Germany as a nation admitted its culpability, but Christian Petzold and a generation of German filmmakers continue to struggle with their legacy.
Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.