'Back to the Fatherland': Film Review

Back to the Fatherland-Publicity Still-H 2019
GreenKat Productions
Big ideas, handled in a way that limits appeal.

Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon's doc talks to the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors about the complicated appeal of Germany and Austria.

How many generations need to pass before descendants of a persecuted group feel at ease around the descendants of the group who persecuted them? It's a question with universal relevance — an American might ask it every time she steps onto the street or watches the news. But in Back to the Fatherland, Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon make it seem practically navel-gazey, a question for young Israelis to ask when they want to seek economic and cultural opportunities in Germany or Austria. Though its cross-generational discussions hold some interest, the documentary's approach makes it mostly worthwhile for those who hold conflicted loyalties to the nation of Israel and the psychic weight that seems integral to the country's self-image.

Rohrer and Levanon do nothing to explain their project here, or even to identify themselves as the women making the movie. When we meet the two in a room with Levanon's grandfather, and she broaches the subject of her possibly moving to the country he still hates, our most natural assumption is that they are a couple ready to put down roots somewhere. (Nothing in press materials suggests this is the case.) We learn right away that Rohrer is Austrian, but the film doesn't bother to say until much later that her own grandfather was a "super-Nazi," something one might expect to be relevant during the group discussions to follow.

The doc introduces two more pairs of grandparents and offspring; in both cases, the grandsons are already living abroad. Guy, in Salzburg, seems burdened by a fear that the world's rightward shifts will make his home unlivable — specifically, he worries that Arab immigrants will get anti-Jewish laws passed. Dan, in Berlin, seemingly has no such fear: He fled Israel out of disapproval for what he describes as "Apartheid."

Sitting in coffee-shop gatherings, these and other youngish Jews struggle to decide what attitude they should have toward their grandparents' adoptive home, which they all seem to have problems with on one level or another. Most seem to agree that Israel clings too much to its victimhood, dooming itself never to move on in the way other nations seemingly have. These conversations touch on big subjects that could have a broader appeal, but the doc always moves away from the big picture toward more personal, anecdotal content.

Presumably at the filmmakers' request, grandparents go to visit the countries they never expected to see again. The visits don't seem to produce major epiphanies. Dan's grandmother Lea, an artist, enjoys visiting her childhood street more than expected; Guy learns that his grandfather Uri's oft-told stories about Nazi occupation carry more weight when told in the place they occurred.

A couple of scenes (including one between Rohrer and Levanon) glancingly witness what seem to be long-running disagreements in which a Jew might feel fearful or aggrieved in a way his Gentile partner thinks is unreasonable. But the film is loath to dig into such discomfort, or even to confirm that's what we're seeing. In this and other ways, Back to the Fatherland is too shallow to do justice to its psychological quest.

Production company: GreenKat Productions
Distributor: First Run Features
Directors-producers: Kat Rohrer, Gil Levanon
Screenwriter: Anneliese Rohrer
Director of photography: Tom Marschall
Editor: Georg Eggenfellner
Composer: Tao Zervas

In English, German and Hebrew
75 minutes