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The reality of displaced people struggling to reassimilate in their own homeland seems distinctly contemporary, and yet a significant part of the charm of Sam Garbarski’s Bye Bye Germany lies in its sturdy, old-fashioned upholstery. Adapted from the first two books in German-Swiss novelist Michel Bergmann’s Teilacher trilogy about a group of Jewish traveling salesmen, this post-World War II period drama veined with melancholy humor has some tonal issues and an unpersuasive romantic subplot. But it tells an unusual story with gusto, enlivened by an enjoyable performance from Moritz Bleibtreu as a joker whose way with a punchline probably saved his life.
According to onscreen text at the end of the movie, approximately 4,000 Jews remained in Germany or returned there soon after the defeat of the Nazi regime, many of them at a loss to explain that conflicted choice to their children. Focusing on a small group of Jewish men dreaming of America while scratching out a living in Frankfurt in the two years immediately following the war, this handsome drama instantly distinguishes itself from countless other screen depictions of Germany’s difficult reckoning with its past. That alone should help secure some exposure in international markets.
Bleibtreu plays David Bermann, a Jewish concentration camp survivor whose brothers and parents were killed at Auschwitz. Like the three-legged dog that limps undaunted around the American-run camp for displaced persons — its residents hailing from a cluster of European nations — David is determined to make the best of life amid the rubble of postwar Frankfurt, despite the weight of brutal memories and of the compromises he had to make to stay alive.
His family ran an emporium of fine linens that was among the city’s swankiest stores until Jewish businesses were seized and their owners arrested. (The store in its ravaged postwar state is among production designer Veronique Sacrez’s most evocative work.) When David attempts to get back into the family trade, selling imported French linens door to door, the Yanks refuse his request for a license due to unanswered questions about his wartime activities. He gets around that restriction by partnering with Holzmann (Mark Ivanir), a former shoemaker, assembling a band of five “peddlers” to sell their wares.
The group’s colorful methods of persuading the Germans to part with their money involve elements of theatricality and wily deception, like humoring gullible housewives, offering an employees-only deal for railway workers or claiming to have received orders from deceased household members. They assiduously avoid playing the Jewish victim card for fear of discouraging their touchy customers. “Hitler is dead, but we’re still alive,” David reminds his crew.
The larkish camaraderie of these sales-pitch episodes provides several of the movie’s most engaging scenes, played in affecting counterpoint to each salesman’s traumatized memories of the horrors he endured under the Nazis. For one of the men in particular, Krautberg (Vaclav Jakoubek), the past collides inescapably with the present when he becomes convinced that a local newsstand owner is the same man who torched a synagogue in which his parents were killed. That realization yields a revenge plan with wrenching consequences.
Declining to explain his frequent absences to the sales crew, David regularly reports to the local U.S. military headquarters to be interrogated as a suspected Nazi collaborator by Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue). This generates some smoothly integrated flashbacks that reveal how his droll sense of humor tickled the camp commandant (Christian Kmiotek) and secured him an unlikely brush with Hitler himself. But that supposed privilege failed to gain him the leverage necessary to protect his brothers.
David is quietly tormented by confronting reminders that he played the clown while his family perished, but Sara remains coolly unconvinced, her suspicion shared by his colleagues once they learn of the investigation. The screenplay by Bergmann and Garbarski deals with survivor guilt in various intelligent ways, notably Sara’s conviction that putting Nazis through the wringer is her way of contributing after she escaped unscathed by fleeing early to America.
David’s backstory is engrossing, and Bleibtreu’s innate suggestion of wise-guy slyness makes him a good fit for the role, keeping us guessing for much of the duration about the degree of his innocence and the extent to which he’s embellishing the facts. But the stiff performance of Traue (best known as General Zod’s sneering lieutenant in Zack Snyder’s execrable Man of Steel) pushes Sara’s professional impassivity to such flat extremes that it kills any sexual chemistry between interrogator and suspect, resulting in a wet romantic fuse that ignites and fizzles in the same puff.
In a script liberally sprinkled with Yiddishisms, the strain of sweet comedy doesn’t always land, with some of the jokes that get David singled out for special treatment losing a lot in translation. But Garbarski (Irina Palm) mostly balances light and dark with an ease mirrored in Bleibtreu’s appealing performance. Ultimately, even if some secondary characters and plotlines are underserved, the strength of the story and the emotional range of the experiences depicted prevail.
While cinematographer Virginia Saint-Martin might have benefited from a more expansive widescreen canvas, the film looks sharp, summoning the 1940s even in the gorgeously lit confection of the studio sets. The burnished bronze tones of the interiors and the grays of the city provide a nice contrast to the burst of light and color in a rare excursion into the pretty countryside. And deft use is made of the flavorful score by Renaud Garcia-Fons to modulate between jaunty and pensive moods, with especially lovely diegetic incorporation of the theremin among elements that add ethnic specificity.
The film at heart is an admiring salute to European Jews who chose to stay put, toughing out the painful reminders of the past to reclaim their violated patria. Their postwar lives have largely been overlooked onscreen in favor of their emigrant brethren, giving Bye Bye Germany a narrative freshness that outweighs its flaws.
Production companies: IGC Films, Samsa Film, Entre Chien et Loup
Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Antje Traue, Tim Seyfi, Mark Ivanir, Anatole Taubman, Hans Low, Pal Macsai, Vaclav Jakoubek, Jeanne Werner, Christian Kmiotek, Tania Garbarski
Director: Sam Garbarski
Screenwriters: Michel Bergmann, Sam Garbarski, based on Bergmann’s novels Die Teilacher and Machloikes
Producers: Jani Thiltges, Roshanak Behesht Nedjad, Sebastian Delloye
Director of photography: Virginia Saint-Martin
Production designer: Veronique Sacrez
Costume designer: Nathalie Leborgne
Music: Renaud Garcia-Fons
Editor: Peter R. Adam
Casting: Heta Mantscheff
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Sales: Match Factory
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