The opening image of “Bye Bye Germany” is of a three-legged dog, hopping out of a “Displaced Persons” repatriation camp in Frankfort months after the end of World War II.
That’s the perfect metaphor for the story to be told in this After the Holocaust tale. How could a three-legged dog survive the war? You don’t really want to know.
This mostly “true story” (“and what isn’t true is nevertheless correct.”) is about a group of survivors — from camps and elsewhere — who team up to hustle Germans in order to secure the cash to escape the Nazi-infested homeland that tried so hard to kill them.
Moritz Bleibtreu, most famous for “Run Lola Run,” plays David Bermann, a well-turned-out Jewish survivor who keeps his shoes shiny, his mustache trim and his cigarettes in a shiny, gold cigarette holder.
And he’s having trouble getting a U.S. occupying Army license to do business. The big question for most anybody on either side of the conflict is “What did you do in the war?” For a German Jew, it’s trickier. “How did YOU survive?”
He talks a shoemaker, Holzmann (Mark Ivanir), into partnering with him, just until they have the cash to flee to America. Holzmann will get the license to do business and pose as “the boss.” The “real” boss Bermann recruits “peddlers,” salesmen — with a cutthroat eye for closing a deal.
“What do Germans need most right now? Linens!”
Working in teams, scanning the obituaries to pick out their marks, scamming whole groups (railway workers, postal workers), they will prey on “German guilt” over the genocide carried out, directly or in their name, by Germans against Jews, Gypsies and gays.
“Germans feel guilty?” one potential salesman is puzzled to learn.
Everybody Bermann recruits has a story, one they’re barely willing to sketch in. This fellow served in the French Foreign Legion’s “Jewish Brigade,” that one “was saved by some German named Schindler.” An actor hid under the stage of a theater, another lost an eye spending the war in occupied Shanghai.
“Hitler is dead,” is Bermann’s pep talk to his hustlers. “But we’re still alive!”
This picaresque adventure, passing themselves off as a doctor (“Say what you want about Jews,” one not-quite-closeted-Nazi enthuses, “but they make the BEST doctors!”), as a combat veteran who served with a son who died in the Army, doesn’t always go according to scheme. But it’s a delightful form of payback that grabs an ugly stereotype of “Jews in business” and runs with it.
And nobody gets cheated, really. They’re just talked into buying French linen from people they don’t often realize are Jewish.
But this fairytale-like fable — the original title “Es war einmal in Deutschland” translates as “Once Upon a Time in Germany” — has a darker-than-dark subtext. The one thing the solitary (save for his three-legged dog, Motek) Bermann keeps from his comrades is that he’s being grilled, several times a week, by a prosecutor from the U.S. Army (Antje Traue). And under her questioning, Bermann spins (mostly in German, with English subtitles) a fantastic version of his “How did you survive the war?” story.
German-Jewish director Sam Garbarski, working from a script by the author of the books this story is based on, strikes a near perfect balance in this familiar “survivor’s guilt” version of a Holocaust tale. There’s a little of “Sophie’s Choice,” of “Enemies, a Love Story” here.
The lightness comes from Bermann & Co.’s hustles, and from the standout skill he supposedly had in the camps — telling jokes — and even from the racist Nazis’ idea of humor.
“Bermann, do you know why so many of you are in concentration camps? Because you heard it’s FREE!”
The film’s darkness come from the effrontery of anyone, especially an American, questioning any survivor about what they did to survive. Ponder that question for a second yourself and maybe you’ll see the wide range of answers that should be acceptable.
“Anything I had to.”
The film’s “getting even with the Germans” element has a dark side, too. But compare the sober and very human reaction of the men gathered for this enterprise to the violent vengeance cartoon “Hunters” on Amazon and repent for ever wasting your time on that.
It’s true, what Robert Palmer used to sing, that “Wise men know that revenge does not taste sweet.” And every Ricky Gervais Golden Globes crack about “Holocaust” movies, that there have been more than seem humanly necessary committed to film, is true enough, too.
But “Bye Bye Germany” makes for a sly, smart, funny and still touching peek into that horrid past, a dramedy with pathos and a reminder that “L’chaim, to life” is the best way to remember it — with a toast to life. In the end, that’s the best revenge of all.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, adult situations
Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Antje Traue, Tim Seyi, Mark Ivanir, Václav Jakoubek
Credits: Directed by Sam Garbarski, script by and Michel Bergmann and Sam Garbarski, based on the novel by Michel Bergmann. A Film Movement Plus release.