Yael Reuveny is an Israeli living in Berlin. Her grandmother, Michla, was a Holocaust survivor from Vilnius who had arranged, after the war, to meet any surviving family members at the train station in Lodz, Poland. Nobody ever turned up, so Michla left for Palestine and made a life in the Jewish state that grew up around her.
Reuveny’s family can’t imagine why she chooses to live in Germany, the country whose cruelties her grandmother fled, while Reuveny is baffled and fascinated by the loss that defines her family’s sense of themselves. The stark, difficult documentary Farewell Herr Schwarz is Reuveny’s gorgeous effort to fill those voids of understanding.
Michla’s brother Feivush, Reuveny learns, also lived through the war. Told that all his family was killed, Feivush changed his name to Peter, married a German woman, and lived the rest of his life within sight of the East German concentration camp where he nearly died. As Reuveny meets his children, who still live in the area, she is forced to ask difficult questions. What would her family look like if the siblings had reunited? Is it possible that these Germans could feel like her kin?
Instead of dwelling on Nazi cruelty and shocking images of concentration camps, as Holocaust films often do, Reuveny’s documentary obsesses over whether Jewishness is taught or inborn, how a family is made, and whether past cruelties ruin us for one another in this vulnerable present. Most compelling is Reuveny’s own ugly anger at history and her tangible, raw need for love and resolution, manifested in long silences and moments of fumbled translation. She makes no effort at objectivity, but frames each shot with an architect’s eye. Can what we’ve built so easily crumble?