Human beings rewrite their personal and shared memories endlessly. History is a frighteningly fluid thing. It can be reshaped not just by the agendas of people and groups but by previously buried information. Both forms of historical rewriting are in play and under scrutiny in Farewell, Herr Schwarz, a documentary which is itself an attempt to collate several pre-existing narratives into a newer, “cleaner” whole.
Director Yael Reuveny’s story will doubtless undergo more changes throughout the rest of her life, and beyond it. But committing this particular iteration to cinema means it is preserved now as an artifact, a reference. People can use it as a tool, through which they can think about how their biases affect their perceptions of their memories and of history. This is documentary as ceaseless self-interrogation and investigation, and an endlessly riveting one.
Reuveny is an Israeli-born Jew who lives in Berlin, much to the consternation of her Zionist parents. Her grandmother, Michla Schwarz, resided in Germany prior to World War II, and was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. She relocated to Israel after the war and never looked back. But Reuveny moved to Germany after a startling revelation: Michla’s brother Feiv’ke also survived the concentration camps. After an abortive attempt at reuniting in Lodz after the war, she believed him dead, and they both went the rest of their lives without ever meeting again.
Reuveny had to understand what happened. Meeting family she never knew she had in Germany, she learned that Feiv’ke Schwarz overhauled his whole identity. He changed his name to Peter, married a German woman, never acknowledged his Jewish heritage, and spent decades living within a few miles of a former concentration camp. The “whys” of these actions haunt the movie. Reuveny has to play detective with what little evidence there is left, and relies on interviews with Feiv’ke/Peter’s children and grandchildren.
But the “whys” are unattainable. They always will be. The strangeness of this situation encapsulates the legacy of the Holocaust and all its inexplicables. Something staggering and ungraspable occurred, and all the survivors and their descendants can do is make sense with what little they have to go on. Like many in her generation, Michla went through the remainder of her days speaking as little on the matter as possible. Feiv’ke/Peter said even less. Their children were the ones with questions. Somehow, those who haven’t experienced the event are more hungry for an explanation than those who have.
The subject matter of Farewell, Herr Schwarz speaks deeply to me as a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. Certain details of my grandmother’s escape from Germany during the war will forever remain unknown to me and my family, because she closed much of that part of her life off from us. We can guess. We can speculate. We’ll never know anything for sure.
Farewell, Herr Schwarz is of a kind with 2011’s excellent The Flat, which also followed an Israeli filmmaker trying to unravel the legacy of his Holocaust survivor ancestors. Both are aesthetically direct, built from simple, digital-camera over-the-shoulder material. Though where Flat director Arnon Goldfinger narrated his journey, making it something of a diary, Reuveny prefers to let interviews speak for themselves. It’s a more challenging but more elegant method of exposition. Additionally, in dividing the story into three parts that each focus on a generation of her family, she manages to strengthen her film’s themes about how their history is evolving over time.
Beyond its more universal aspects, Farewell, Herr Schwarz also dives into what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. It’s present in the physical tension Reuveny’s camera captures whenever she speaks with her parents about her decision to live in Germany to make her film. Her father denies the security of the Diaspora. When they meet Feiv’ke/Peter’s offspring, there’s undeniable awkwardness — they’re not sure how these people fit with them. But the Schwarzes want to make the best of it. Feiv’ke/Peter’s son Uwe plans to add his father’s original name to his gravestone, and Uwe’s son Stephan is immersing himself in Judaism, even working at a local synagogue. While history might not be unknowable, it is reconcilable, and in the end, this documentary assuages its unanswered questions with the comfort of seeing people make the best of what they have.