Seventy years after the end of World War II, the Holocaust remains a vital source of drama for motion pictures. Two very different documentaries opening at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema this month demonstrate how the act of filmmaking can be commemorative, investigative, and even revelatory.
Farewell Herr Schwarz (currently playing) represents the compelling personal quest of Yael Reuveny, an Israeli member of “the third generation” (grandchildren of Holocaust survivors). She explores family history in an accessible and illuminating way, tracing ancestral burdens from Israel to Germany, where she now lives.
The Touch of an Angel (opening January 16 at the Quad, as well as the Laemmle Town Center 5 in LA) is rooted in the testimony of “first generation” survivor Henryk Schönker, a Polish Jew from the town of Oświęcim (renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis). After the war, he moved back to Oświęcim, but was forced to leave in 1955 and emigrated to Israel.
Farewell Herr Schwarz , a co-production of Germany and Israel, traces Yael Reuveny’s fascination with her grandmother Michla’s tale of separation from her brother Feiv’ke: originally from Vilna, both survived the Holocaust, but never found each other in 1945 at the Lodz train station where they were supposed to meet. She traveled to Palestine, assuming he died.
But he was alive. He chose to stay in the very area of Schlieben where he had been a Buchenwald prisoner. Renamed Peter Schwartz, and married to a Gentile woman, he remained secretive about his past. His son Uwe learned only in 1995 that his father was Jewish–a heritage he embraces during the film’s second section. The third part focuses on Stephan—the grandson of Peter Schwartz–who studies Jewish history in Berlin and then moves to Jerusalem.
Photographs are suggestive in Farewell Herr Schwarz , which returns to a cracked pre-war photo in which the two siblings are beside each other–the crease representing all that ultimately separated them. Later, Stephan shows Yael a framed photo of her great-uncle Peter, taken three months after his Liberation from Buchenwald: while still wearing a concentration camp uniform, he is smiling–along with other inmates, now holding rifles.
Given the importance of photos in Farewell Herr Schwarz , the film’s inclusion of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel–with everyone frozen in place–suggests a static memorializing. This is a contrast to the very mobile act of commemoration practiced by Reuveny’s filmmaking.
Tel Aviv is also the current home of Henryk Schönker, but The Touch of an Angel begins with him entering an abandoned, ruined space and painting a canvas there. What a surprise to learn that this was his family home in Oświęcim, which the Nazis turned into their headquarters. He is a riveting subject and–although deaf–speaks an elegant pre-war Polish.