Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland) (2017)
Dir. Sam Garbarski; Moritz Bleibtreu, Antje Traue, Mark Ivanir
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
Calmly smoking a cigarette, David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu), a German Jew recently freed from a concentration camp, struts down a muddy road as if he owned the place. At first glance, it doesn’t look like he’s even been freed, as the displaced persons camp he is walking through is made up of dirt roads, dingy shacks, and a wooden gate. But Bermann is in a fedora, overcoat, and clean, three-piece suit, and he’s surrounded by life; cars and people pass by, even a three-legged dog is sniffing around the gate post that labels this as Frankfurt am Main. It’s 1946, and Bermann is one of a half-million Jewish survivors trying to scratch out a new life in the postwar ruins of his homeland and with the wreckage of the Holocaust bearing on his mind.
Bermann tracks down his old friends, other Jewish survivors, and tries to rope them into helping him with a plan he says will make them enough money to leave Germany, forever. His plan? To exploit the demand for fine linen, selling it at marked-up prices. He and his friends do this by pretending to commiserate with those who lost sons in the war, and using the postwar chaos to convince people that they’re a legitimate endeavour, offering “exclusive deals” to the families of railroad workers, postmen, etc. They’ll use any means possible; any means, that is, except for guilt-tripping. Bermann is adamant that they are to be survivors, not victims: “Hitler is dead,” he tells them, “but we’re still alive.” Primarily a comedy, Bye Bye Germany takes us through the salesmen’s ridiculous attempts: at one point, for example, one of the characters, posing as a chiropractor selling linen on the side, is forced to massage the feet of a woman twice his size before she agrees to buy from them.
But Bermann’s backstory isn’t as straightforward as his plan. He can’t get a business permit, which is, as one of his companions reminds him, rather suspicious: “But all of us [Jews] can get one!” He also seems to be sneaking off during the day, and finally, one of the salesmen, who doesn’t believe Bermann’s excuse that he has a mistress, follows him. Bermann, we realise, is secretly meeting with Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue), a competent and pretty American officer investigating him on charges of collaboration with the Nazis. Through a series of flashbacks, he tells Agent Simon his version of the story. Standing in line one day in the concentration camp, he tells a joke, and the grotesque officer “Obersturmbannführer” Otte (Christian Kmiotek), hears him and laughs. The officer takes a liking to Bermann and recommends him to be a personal joke tutor to Hitler, who apparently wants to impress Mussolini, but cannot tell a joke. In fear for his life, Bermann accepts and is then sent off to Austria. Behind her desk, with arched eyebrows, Agent Simon listens to his increasingly implausible story of wooing a maid, attempting an assassination on Hitler with a kitchen knife, and escaping via bicycle into the Alps. Bermann eventually talks his way out of the situation and makes his friends and himself enough money selling linen to leave the country.
Bleibtreu is by far the best part of the film. Known for roles in Run Lola Run (1998) and The Experiment (2001), he has become an icon of German cinema, and it’s easy to see why. He possesses a charming wittiness reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr., as well as good looks – (he was once ranked #2 on Bild magazine’s list of “The 50 Most Beautiful Germans of Today.”) As Bermann, Bleibtreu uses his wit and charm to get himself out of tight spots, and to woo potential customers, Agent Simon, and us. He plays up the mob-boss aesthetic of his character to an almost comic effect. He’s continually the suave, cigarette-smoking, mustached mastermind, and even when we’re silently doubting whether he’s a “good guy” or not, we can’t help but root for him.
Just before the closing credits, director Sam Garbarski presents a statistic on the screen: by the end of the war, the vast majority of German Jews were tragic victims of the Holocaust, and most of the half-million survivors left in search of a better life. Of the only four thousand Jews who remained in Germany, “none”, Garbarski tells us, “could ever tell their children why they did it.” Bermann stays for several reasons, including a sense of family history, since his parents owned a beautiful linen shop; opportunism, as he recognises a market in postwar Germany; and a desire for retribution – he wants to stick it to the Nazis. “We are the Jewish revenge,” jokes one of his salesmen. This idea of a “Jewish revenge” for the crimes of Nazi Germany has been explored in other films, notably Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009), and the group dynamic of Bermann and his companions often feels like a nod to that film. (Interestingly, Bleibtreu was originally cast in Tarantino’s film but had to cancel due to filming conflicts.)
German films will always have to consciously decide how to represent past horrors, and Bye Bye Germany chooses an, shall we say, interesting atmosphere. The biggest issue arises in what some critics have noted as an over-aestheticisation of the period. It’s certainly true that aesthetically the film looks more like (and clearly owes more to) the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016) than Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948). The colours of the film, rich wooden tones and deep reds, as well as the soft lighting, are gorgeous – the shots of the linen shop, in particular, are breathtaking. This atmosphere, however, detracts from the serious subject matter, and even the depictions of the concentration camps come across as superficial, and sometimes even insincere, when paired with the horrifying backstories of Bermann’s friends.
At the same time, the “Jewishness” of the film feels forced: common Yiddish phrases, like “L’chaim” or “meshugge,” are awkwardly thrown into dialogue, and several tropes, (e.g., the Jewish peddler) are used for cheap jokes. Although it’s never unclear in Garbarski’s film that the Nazis are the bad guys — a lesson America could learn — there are issues with this presentation. For example, after Bermann grows vocally frustrated with Agent Simon’s tactics, she tells him, “I’m only doing my job,” to which Bermann responds: “…said the SS man on the edge of the grave.” Playing up German guilt for comic effect occurs several times throughout the film, and it sometimes feels like a weak attempt to make an apologetic film. This isn’t to say that tragic material can’t be handled in a comedic way, just that Bye Bye Germany doesn’t seem to know where the humour should stop.
Bye Bye Germany is certainly a clever and fun film, and Bleibtreu brings life and wit to the screen. Despite its sometimes questionable aesthetic choices and an often implausible plot (I find the ending particularly weak), I have to applaud the writers, Michel Bergmann and Garbarski, for attempting an out-of-the-box story. As David Rooney notes in his review, not many films have been made about the Jews who decided to stay in their homeland rather than those who chose to emigrate. Although Bye Bye Germany embraces many Jewish stereotypes, at least it tells a different, and somewhat heroic, story. As a clever dramatic comedy, richly steeped in costume and period representations, Garbarski’s film is worth watching, even if it probably won’t win many international awards.