Documentary Review: Descendants of Holocaust survivors go “Back to the Fatherland”

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How do you make a Holocaust documentary that fails to move and struggles to connect on any level?

As “Back to the Fatherland” ably illustrates, you start by stripping away most of the context. You make no effort to include images of human suffering, leaving out newsreel footage of the actual horrors altogether.

The survivors profiled tell no truly harrowing or wrenchingly moving stories, and as one, Lea Ron Peled puts it on returning to the country that almost murdered her, “I’ve dealt with this and I’m done with it.”

Not every survivor is a great Font of Remembrance, and no, you cannot blame them for wanting to move on.

That’s what “Back to the Fatherland” is about, Israeli Jews, descended from survivors, telling their elderly relatives that they’re moving to Austria and Germany.

It’s a troubling time to be making such a move, as survivor Uri Ben Rehav tells his grandson, Guy Shahar — In Europe, America and Israel, “The entire political map is moving to the right.”

Anti-immigration fueled nationalism and racism mean that, as artist Lea explains to her sculptor grandson Dan Peled, “What took years to happen in Germany, in Austria happened in two weeks!”

But younger Israelis are just as troubled by their own dogmatic, entrenched reactionary government, with “the war” that Guy’s wife Katherina (a European) married into, which her husband euphemistically insists on calling “a military operation,” one decades and decades long.

Others declare that they’re moving because they realize they need to find “a better place for my children, somewhere else.” Dan Peled flat-out says he’s not willing to be identified with the government of “an apartheid state” any longer.

They’re moving to Europe, with its rising nationalist movements, large anti-Jewish Islamic immigrant populations and ugly, ugly history of anti-Semitism. Because even that’s better than Netanyahu’s Israel.

The two photos from the film posted here illustrate the conundrum — two generations, three generations apart, not even making eye contact over the subject.

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But “Back to the Fatherland” is a maddening documentary, hand-wringing and disconnections at every turn, and not just between the generations depicted here.

The principals switch from German to Hebrew to English, the filmmakers (Gil Levannon and Kat Rohrer) inject themselves and their own stories (one is the descendant of survivors, the other’s grandfather was an officer in the German War Machine).

Back and forth we go, from Tel Aviv to Salzburg and Berlin, arguing without coming to a conclusion. Yes, that captures the dilemma of embattled people, history’s Eternal Wanderers, trying to find a safe haven to ride out the next coming storm.

“We are tired,” young and old agree. The “victimhood” thing is wearing, especially on the children and grandchildren of survivors.

The argument, “Jewish people need their own country…because we cannot trust anyone else” still resonates. But where do you go when that “own country” is repellent?

The debate depicted here is a worthwhile one, even when it’s delivered in a movie that feels like a maddening muddle, too much of the time. How can Israelis and international Jewry “go forward” and leave this tragic past of victimhood behind when the world seems poised to revisit it, even if on a milder scale?

Perhaps a better film, more emotional, with more budget for context and survivors more willing to open up about their experiences and those of relatives, will get a handle on it.

All “Back to the Fatherland” manages to do is suggest the subject is worth  more attention.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Gil Levanon, Uri Ben Rehav, Kat Rohrer, Dan Peled, Lea Ron Peled

Credits: Directed by Gil Levanon, Kat Rohrer, script  Susan Korda and Anneliese Rohrer. A First Run Features release.

Running time 1:17

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