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There have been a spat of German films taking place around the beginning or the end of the Third Reich. In our coverage of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, I reviewed The Last Supper, a drama about a Jewish family in Berlin that got together for dinner on the night Hitler was elected into power. Phoenix, one of the finest films of the decade, is on the other end of the spectrum: It is about an estranged married couple who run into each other after the war, when the woman returns from a concentration camp (her husband does not recognize her).
Indeed, there are films like this all the way back to classics like The Third Man, suggesting there is ample dramatic material about ordinary people who are still reeling from history and genocide. Bye Bye Germany continues in this tradition, with two key differences: It is a genuine crowd-pleaser, and it can be surprisingly funny.
Directed by Sam Garbarski, the film opens on an image of a dog with three legs. It is an obvious metaphor, yet it works for the material: A bombed out Berlin is a fraction of what it once was, yet still has just enough going for it to get by. The hero is David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu), a concentration camp survivor who used to work in Berlin’s most glamorous linen shop along with his family. He wants to leave Germany for America—so does every Jew in the city—and Bermann has a plan to raise the cash he will need: He recruits a team of survivors to scam Berliners by overselling linens and tablecloths.
While this is going down, Bermann undergoes a series of interviews with an American named Sara Simon (Antje Traue) who suspects him of collaborating with the Nazis. Bermann protests—the psychic wounds of the concentration camps are still raw—and we see his wartime activities through flashback. Garbarski films with vivid colors, recalling lavish entertainments from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and they add a grim irony to a milieu where everyone is guarded and traumatized.You may recognize Bleibtreu from Speed Racer, or the German comedy Soul Kitchen. He brings charm and irreverence to his roles, sort of like a German Paul Newman, and that is crucial to the success of Bye Bye Germany. He has a way of standing outside the action, offering a cutting aside or a glib joke. When Bermann finally confesses his feelings, they land with genuine power. That is part of Garbarski’s strategy: He eases the audience with an ensemble of smooth-talking con men, only to obliterate flashes of nostalgia with the ugliness of Nazism.
The most amusing scenes in Bye Bye Germany involve Bermann and his team selling their wares. There are elements of The Sting and Glengarry Glen Ross to these scenes, which will require non-German speakers to read the subtitles faster than usual. They’re so successful because their marks cannot believe that things are so normal in 1946 that they’re being swindled again. The crucial subtext, of course, is that the salesmen see their upselling as retribution for German inaction during the Holocaust (almost all their marks were former Nazis or “good Germans”). This is the easiest form of anti-Nazi propaganda, and yet also the most forceful: By making them into dupes who are prone to guilt, German Jews are reclaiming the economic power/status they lost.
The interrogation scenes are not quite as exciting, even if they give Bleibtreu and Traue an acting showcase. They play into classic archetypes: He’s a smooth-talking scamp, she does things by the book. This blossoms into a romantic subplot, as it must, except neither Bermann nor Simon have any delusions of true love. As for the flashbacks, they start with an air of plausibility, only to give way to more exaggeration. It could be that Bermann is making fun of the proceedings, or the actual truth is too painful, or both. Either way, this leads to broad sight gags, like the shot of Bermann in Lederhosen groping a buxom German secretary. In the ’40s, such imagery would be shocking, but even now it strikes a subversive note.
As Bye Bye Germany leads to its inevitable conclusion, Garbarski develops a political subtext that is as relevant to modern Europe as it was back in 1946. Bermann may be a lifelong German, yet he has a completely new identity now that he is a concentration camp survivor. And despite it all, he has a stubborn affection to Germany he cannot shake. The Jews who stayed in Germany are more than survivors: In their own way, they’re also the country’s first modern refugees. Bye Bye Germany meanders sometimes, and some of its jokes are almost certainly funnier in the original language. But it is rare to see comedy entertainment this ambitious, or keenly aware of history. That Garbarski pulls it off is an achievement unto itself.
Bye Bye Germany opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.