Review: Germans & Jews (2016)
In 1945, Germany was the scourge of the civilized world. It had started a world war that killed 50 million people and had decimated Europe’s Jewish population through the Holocaust. In 2016, Germany enjoys a reputation as a defender of democracy and progressive politics. Janina Quint’s Germans & Jews bridges the gap between these two identities of Europe’s largest nation. The film explores the uneasy relationship between second-or-third post-war generation Germans and the Jewish people who increasingly call Germany home.
Janina Quint’s Germans & Jews is a fascinating documentary examining historical guilt and social reconciliation. It will hold particular relevance to anyone with German heritage (as I have). It’s a documentary of many questions and few answers. The film has no interest in definitively diagnosing modern Germany’s relationship to the Jewish people. Instead, it examines the many factors and experiences that inform that relationship. This approach allows it to rise above the average sociological doc in terms of quality and nuance.
Most of the documentary consists of interviews with ordinary folks who relate their experiences being Jewish or German or both in modern Germany. Quint interviews historians and artists and examines their diverse perspectives on dealing with the nation’s atrocious past. She also arranges a dinner party frame narrative that allows the various interviewees to discuss the issues amongst themselves. While initially gimmicky, this set-up offers surprising depth and a window into social discourse about taboo subjects.
Germans & Jews also reveals the many ways that Germany came to terms with the Holocaust in the years following the war. Most intriguingly, Quint shows how Germany has uniquely dealt with its Nazi history by foregrounding its past sins in every social and political discussion. For instance, the country did not symbolically acknowledge its culpability for the Holocaust through a formal apology and then move on, forgetting the consequences of its actions. Instead, since 1968, Germany has actively reminded itself of its past mistakes in an effort to avoid their repetition. These reminders have taken the form of reparations to the state of Israel, massive monuments to the horror of the Holocaust, and constitutional measures to weed out fascism and anti-Semitic policy. These efforts haven’t erased racism or Semitic discomfort in modern Germany. However, they have made Germany the unique country where the present is constantly discussed and modified in relation to the past.
Germans & Jews doesn’t favour the macro over the micro, or vice versa. Incisively, it shows that both are interrelated. The personal experiences of German and Jewish individuals in modern Germany are linked to the nation’s social and political relationships to its Nazi past. And if the past is impossible to expunge, a constant awareness of its consequences can empower the nation moving forward.
7 out of 10
Germans & Jews (2016, USA)
Directed by Janina Quint.
This article was originally published at the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.