For a film encompassing generations of fraught history, Germans & Jews is awfully short, but hardly superficial. Condensed rather than compact, it features dozens of voices both German and Jewish — and sometimes both, though the fact that the two identities can overlap is often forgotten in discourse on the Holocaust and what’s happened in German society since.
With subtle, skillful editing, director Janina Quint wisely allows such paradoxes to arise on their own while giving the viewer enough historical context to make sense of them. Quint’s interviewees seem conscious that they are continuing a conversation that, in Germany, is at least two hundred years old and was once known, darkly, as the “Jewish question.” (The Jewish tradition of ongoing conversations resulted, somewhat differently, in the Talmud.) Are we responsible for the wrongs of our ancestors? Are Germans victims as well as perpetrators? Can a Jew ever be at home in Germany? Germany’s Jewish population is growing, yet many Germans find themselves afraid to say “Jew” or “Jewish,” as if they were slurs — and many Jews recoil instinctively at the sound of spoken German. How can it all be true at once?
The individual conversations add up like Stolpersteine, the “stumbling stones” embedded in streets around Germany that mark the names, occupations, and births and deaths of the Jews who once lived there. But conversation is not fixed like stone, nor is it as rigid as a staged interview. It’s flowing, cacophonous, overlapping. Quint films a Berlin dinner party of non-Jewish Germans and Jews living in Germany and lets us listen in. The discussion is fascinating, but the party is also robustly bourgeois. Is this nuanced conversation only available to the elite, or only of interest to them? Nearly every German television, rich and poor, tuned in to the miniseries Holocaust in the 1970s. A conversation like this could not have happened without it, but how much have attitudes changed?
As Jewish Voice From Germany founder Rafael Seligmann points out, “A society is like a tanker; it doesn’t change course in ten minutes after a speech.”
Germans & Jews
Directed by Janina Quint
First Run Features
Opens June 10, Cinema Village