The objects themselves are insignificant. Seven gold coins, a dirt-encrusted wristwatch, a bracelet. Taken together, they might be worth several hundred dollars but their value really can only be calculated in human suffering and the power of memory.
This handful of personal belongings was taken from the unlikeliest of places, an empty field on the grounds of the Majdanek death camp, just outside of Lublin, Poland. The process by which they were brought to light is the subject of a new documentary, “Buried Prayers,” which opens on Friday, Nov. 18.
In a very different pastoral setting, headstones with German and Hebrew inscriptions stand in relatively orderly rows, surrounded by trees and dense vegetation and frequently visited by families of the deceased, by tourists, by art students. This is the hundred-acre 130-year-old Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, the oldest and largest Jewish cemetery still in use in Europe, located in eastern Berlin and the improbable subject of “In Heaven, Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery,” a very different documentary opening on the same day.
Taken together these films represent radically dissimilar visions of the relationship between Judaism and death, yet they complement one another surprisingly well. If “In Heaven” presents a normative version of the Jewish treatment of the dead and their mourners, a peaceable and often quite lovely presentation of a unique setting, “Buried Prayers” gives a dark vision of the worst possible alternative, of mass murder and unbelievable and unmotivated cruelty. Yet each film offers its own vision of redemption made possible by the care and concern of the generations that come after. As the chief carpenter at Weissensee notes, a mitzvah done for the dead is even greater than one done for the living, because there can be no expectation of reciprocity.
Majdanek was unique among the death camps in Poland. First, it was situated near Lublin, near enough that, as photos displayed in the film prove, you could see the fires and smoke of the crematoria from the city. Equally unusual, in 1943 the influx of Jewish deportees was so great that they could not all be housed or killed on arrival. There was a large empty field somewhat removed from the buildings, in which prisoners were made to sit waiting for hours. While they were there, many of the thousands took personal belongings they had brought with them and hurriedly buried them in the earth of the “midfield,” as it was known. It was, as survivor Adam Frydman says, “the last act of defiance we could do.”
Film producer Matt Mazer assembled a film crew and a team of trained archeologists, supported by young volunteers and, for their first journey to the former death camp, a handful of survivors, to begin to excavate the midfield “archaeologically, systematically, to bring [these hidden objects] into the sunlight and set them free,” as Mazer explains.
The resulting film is wildly uneven, a rather uneasy mixture of Holocaust testimonies from the handful of survivors; archival footage that ranges from the startlingly unfamiliar, like a Soviet newsreel made after the Red Army liberated the camp, to the much too familiar; Mazer recruiting for the dig and negotiating with the Polish officials; and the first two days of the dig itself. There is much here that is moving, and Majdanek’s story is perhaps the least known of the death camps, well worthy of an in-depth cinematic study of its own. The five survivors, particularly Frydman, who died before the film was completed, are sturdy and thoughtful, and their stories are subtly different from the ones that we have heard in many other documentaries about the Shoah. And one can understand Mazer and Meyer wanting to record those first two days of digging.
But one senses an opportunity lost here as the film tries to embrace all of these elements equally in a brief (81 minutes) running time. Perhaps the results would be more satisfactory had they waited a bit longer and focused a bit more on the nuts-and-bolts elements of the archaeological process, certainly a subject that has been underexposed on film. Still, there are moments of undeniable power, and, as a rather elaborate “commercial” for the ongoing project the film is quite useful.
Weissensee Cemetery doesn’t need any commercials. It is a singular Jewish institution in Berlin, among other things one of the only Jewish institutions to remain under Jewish administration throughout the Nazi period, and in nearly constant use for its 130 years of existence. Britta Wauer, who wrote and directed “In Heaven, Underground,” is a German filmmaker with a particular interest in Jewish-German history, and this film shows a firm grasp of both her topic and her craft.
With 115,600 people buried in the cemetery, each with a story of their own, Wauer was spoiled for choice of subject. She chose to focus much of her attention on the staff of the cemetery, a genial and warm group, and Rabbi William Wolff, who offers wry and sage observations on Jewish rituals and beliefs surrounding death and mourning. But there are also family stories ranging from the poignant to the surprisingly humorous. Most of all, the film lives and breathes with the effect of biological time on the cemetery itself, a beautiful, quiet setting that resembles a forest more than a graveyard. (In fact, one of the most charming sequences in the film involves a pair of ornithologists who have been tracking the goshawk population of the Weissensee.) Aided immeasurably by the elegant cinematography of Kasper Kopke and a graceful and charming score by Karim Sebastian Elias, “In Heaven, Underground” is a delightful surprise. n
“Buried Prayers,” directed by Steven Meyer, opens on Friday, Nov. 18 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-2243, or go to www.quadcinema.com. For more information on the Majdanek project itself, go to www.fundforremembrance.com.
“In Heaven, Underground,” written and directed by Britta Wauer, opens Friday, Nov. 18 at the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St,). For information, call (212) 924-3363, or go to www.cinemavillage.com.