'Farewell Herr Schwarz': Film Review

Farewell Herr Schulz Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Kino Lorber Inc.

Farewell Herr Schulz Still - H 2014

An endlessly intriguing, and resonant, true-life family mystery 

Yael Reuveny's documentary delves into the mystery of why her Holocaust survivor great-uncle abandoned his Jewish heritage and forged a new identity in East Germany.

A provocative true-life family mystery is fascinatingly dissected in Yael Reuveny's documentary, which gains even greater emotional resonance due to its Holocaust background. Acting as a determined sleuth trying to uncover why her great-uncle would seemingly forsake both his surviving family member and Jewish identity and spend the rest of his life living in the East Germany where he was formerly a prisoner, the filmmaker poses endlessly intriguing questions whose answers have been lost to the mists of time. Opening for an exclusive theatrical engagement at NYC's Quad Cinema, Farewell Herr Shwarz is an unusual and worthy addition to the canon of Holocaust-themed documentaries.

The central figure, seen only in a few hauntingly faded old photographs, is Feiv'ke Schwarz, a Polish Jew who was imprisoned at Buchenwald. Along with his adoring sister, Reuveny's grandmother Michla, he survived the war. But their reunion never materialized: Michla, having moved to the city of Lodz, was informed in 1945 by an acquaintance that her brother was still alive and would meet her the next day at the train station. He never showed up and, assuming that he was dead, she later moved to the then new country of Israel, where she married and started a family.

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But as we soon learn, he in fact moved to the East German town of Schlieben, where he hid his Judaism, changed his name to Peter and married a German woman whose brother was a Wehrmacht soldier. Having several children with her, he lived for decades in a house that was converted from one of the barracks in which he was imprisoned until his death in 1987.

Despite the warning of her parents not to delve too deeply into the matter, Reuveny contacts the surviving members of her great-uncle's family, including his son Uwe, who proclaims his intention to remove his father's remains to a Jewish cemetery and change his headstone to include his real name. She also meets his grandson Stephan, who studies Jewish history and discusses his possible desire to convert. He also, in one of the film's few amusing moments, reveals himself to be a passionate fan of SpongeBob SquarePants.

That there is no way to understand Feiv'ke's motivations for his dramatic change of identity is both the film's strength and its weakness. While viewers will no doubt be left frustrated by the lack of neat resolutions, it's a vivid reminder of the messy aftereffects that inevitably resulted from the horrific events.

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Although artfully photographed, the film becomes static at times, consisting almost entirely of low-key conversations between the gently interrogating Reuveny and her numerous subjects. We also get the sense that the filmmaker is occasionally holding back at times, as if afraid to probe too far into the highly charged emotional ramifications. But there's no denying that this is a fascinating story, albeit one that raises far more questions than it answers.

Production: Black Sheep Film Productions, Made in Germany Filmproduktion
Director/screenwriter: Yael Reuveny
Producers: Melanie Andernach, Knut Losen
Director of photography: Andreas Kohler
Editors: Nicole Kortluke, Assad Lapid
Composer: Volker Bertelmann

No rating, 96 minutes