Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Bye Bye Germany’ and ‘The Judge’

Mark Ivanir and Moritz Bleibtreu in Bye Bye Germany

I suspect there’s a great movie to be made about the Displaced Persons camps of post-World War II Europe. Though neither as brutal nor as deadly as the concentration camps that preceded them, DP camps were far from pleasant places for the hundreds of thousands of wartime survivors — including ‘stateless’ refugees, Jews, and other victims of Nazism — compelled to live in them.

Es War Einmal in Deutschland… (Bye Bye Germany, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 4) takes on the subject but tackles it with kid gloves. Directed by Sam Garbarski, the film follows the misadventures of half a dozen Jewish men in a DP camp in Frankfurt am Main, where life is depicted as frugal but generally pleasant, its inmates adequately clothed, fed, and entertained while awaiting their uncertain futures.

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu, Das Experiment and Run Lola Run), the only surviving member of a family of Frankfurt merchants, is determined to reach greener pastures on the other side of the Atlantic. In order to get there, however, he needs money — and money can only be acquired with the permission of the American occupying authority, which is withholding a business license from the one-time linen salesman.

The hurdle is overcome by appointing avuncular fellow DP Holzmann (Schindler’s List’s Mark Ivanir) chairman of their new enterprise, and — license now in hand — Bermann and his motley crew of direct marketers take up door-to-door sales throughout the city. Largely played for laughs, these scenes are reminiscent of classic Ealing comedies such as The Lavendar Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, with the thoroughly amateur salesmen going to any lengths to earn a pfennig.


The tone shifts, however, when wartime collaboration accusations are leveled against Bermann and an investigation opened by the American Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps. With his troubles revealed, Bermann’s compatriots begin to suspect their boss may have once been a kapo at Sachsenhausen — not something you want on your resumé when hoping to acquire a green card.

Bye Bye Germany’s prologue claims the film is “a true story, and what isn’t entirely true is nevertheless correct”. If that’s so, this is certainly a case of truth being much, much stranger than fiction, as Garbarski’s tragi-comedy edges into eyebrow-raising, absurdist territory. Though the end result mayn’t be the definitive tale of DP camp life I was hoping for, the film still succeeds thanks to Bleibtreu’s excellent performance and the director’s carefully calibrated screenplay, penned in collaboration with Michel Bergmann.

‘The Judge’

Kholoud al-Faqih is The Judge

Continuing for a second week at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, The Judge tackles one of contemporary America’s bugaboos, Islamic shari’a. Misunderstood (intentionally or otherwise) as a tool of creeping Muslim supremacism, shari’a is actually on par with Jewish halakhic law and has nothing to do with the domination of unbelievers.

The titular subject is Kholoud al-Faqih, one of two female jurists promoted (despite conservative objections) to the Palestinian Authority’s shari’a court in 2009. Director Erika Cohn examines the judge’s work — which primarily revolves around family issues and divorce (Palestinian civil courts adjudicate all other matters) — from a sympathetic perspective, emphasizing al-Faqih’s grit, fortitude, and commitment to justice for all. The Judge makes a commendable effort to demystify both the Palestinian people and shari’a.