Yael Reuveny is at her parents’ home in Israel, visiting family and friends and escaping from the relentlessly Christmas-y atmosphere of her current residence in Berlin.
“I’m too Jewish for the holiday season there,” the 34-year-old filmmaker says, laughing. “I brought a few fugitives from Germany with me, and they can’t believe that people in Israel don’t acknowledge the year is changing.”
A humorous pleasantry, but the contradiction at its heart goes to one of the central themes of Reuveny’s elegant debut feature documentary, “Farewell, Herr Schwarz,” which opens on Friday, Jan. 9.
“Farewell” focuses on Reuveny’s own family, specifically her maternal grandmother Michla and a grand-uncle she never knew. Michla survived the camps and after the war tried desperately to find her favorite brother, Feivush, who had also disappeared into the inferno of occupied Poland. They almost found one another in the Lodz railroad station, today an abandoned Victorian hulk, but for unknown reasons they missed one another that day. After the war, Feivush, who had been a prisoner in Buchenwald, returned to the town of Schlieben, where the camp had been located, settled down there, married a non-Jewish German woman and raised a family. Living as Peter Schwarz he was a modestly successful businessman and Communist Party member who played on the local soccer team and fit into his new life in East Germany with dismaying ease.
“I was finishing film school in 2005 and I went to Germany as a tourist on vacation,” Reuveny recalls. “I was really surprised by what I found there, and I knew that I wanted to make my first film in Germany, examining how the past is present in the present.”
But it would take some time for her to understand that her grandmother’s story was the one she needed to tell.
“Berlin is a very contemporary city, very young and hip, but haunted,” she says. “You feel you’re walking in history constantly. As a young person who is somehow haunted [by that history], I could identify with that; I knew it would be the general topic, but it took me a year to realize that I had to deal with my family story.”
Michla was dead, but her daughter, Reuveny’s mom, was very much alive, and that meant extensive interviews between mother and daughter. Reuveny also had to meet and interview inhabitants of Schlieben, most importantly, Peter Schwarz’s family, her seemingly mysterious cousins.
The first result was a half-hour film about her own family story, “Tales of the Defeated” (2009), which won several awards and attracted some attention. The short film made it possible for her to explore the German side of the story, essential to making a feature-length film.
“The people in the film are not actors,” Reuveny says. “I’m asking a lot of them. It was harder for the German family than for my family, because they discovered a lot of their own story from someone who was a stranger. But they saw the short film, so they trusted me and knew what I wanted to do. They reached out to me.”
Reuveny divides her film into three sections, one for each of the generations since the Shoah. She interviews Peter’s German in-laws, particularly the endlessly affable Helga. (“Call me Aunt Helga,” she insists.) At one point the pair are looking through a family photo album in which some of Helga’s brothers are depicted in German uniforms. Reuveny shudders and explains to Helga, “In my family album we don’t have pictures of the Wehrmacht.”
The second generation juxtaposes the filmmaker’s mother, a woman who has heretofore refused for five years to visit her Berlin-based daughter, and Uwe, Peter’s son, who has sought out the Reuvenys, seeking to forge a family link across the historical schism.
Finally, Reuveny herself meets up with Stefan, Uwe’s son, who is a curator at the Great Synagogue of Berlin and a dedicated Judeophile. He tells his cousin, “I want to live in the center of the world.” She replies, “New York?” and he disarmingly responds, “No, Jerusalem.”
Not surprisingly, Stefan “is very happy with the film,” Reuveny says. He is the relative from the German family with whom she enjoys an ongoing friendship.
But is he family?
The answer to that question is really as much the heart of the film as the complexities of Jewish-German history.
“We’re relatives, but to me ‘family’ is something else,” she says. “I was very impressed by my mother’s answer to that question: ‘Family is not only blood.’ I think there’s great wisdom in that. Growing up is about creating that family circle, the most important people in your life. The third generation are still looking for that.”
“Farewell, Herr Schwarz,” directed by Yael Reuveny, opens Friday, Jan. 9 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.); for information call (212) 255-2243 or go to www.quadcinema.com.