Argentina’s troubled past is the backdrop of a lifelong personal connection to “The German Friend,” a romantic drama from Argentine filmmaker Jeanine Meerapfel.
It’s about a Jewish girl who becomes infatuated with her new neighbor in 1940s Buenos Aires, a relationship that takes them both through decades of Argentine shame and activism.
Sulamit, played by Julieta Vetrano as a child and Celeste Cid into adulthood, is quite taken with Friedrich (Juan Francisco Rey, later Max Riemelt) when he and his family move in across the street. It may be the fact that he’s blond, or that he has a cute dog.
When that dog is taken by the dog catcher, she tries to get her parents to help recover it. But they’re a little leery of the Burgs. Yes, the neighbors speak German as well as Spanish, like the Lownesteins. But Dad (Jean Pierre Noher) goes so far as to snub them in the street.
To Sulamit — who has to go by “Susana” on official forms in Peronist Argentina — “He’s Argentine, just like me.”
The parents tolerate the kids’ budding friendship, Sulamit’s eagerness to celebrate Christmas with the Burgs instead of Chanukah with friends and relatives at home, Friedrich’s “soul mate” connections to the “interesting girl” his parents allow him to take up with.
Friedrich figures things about his family out as he gets older. And as he turns against them and against the ideas they represented — fascism was still in full flower in South America well into the 1960s — he becomes an activist and then a revolutionary.
Sulamit shares that enthusiasm, writing radical pieces for the school newspaper in their early college years (and beaten up for it), following Friedrich to Germany where his 1960s radicalization is completed.
Meerapfel makes the relationship the heart of the story, and then loses track of it for several stretches. The tale is told mostly from Sulamit’s point of view, quarreling with her parents (Noemí Frenkel plays her mother) over her devotion to Friedrich, who seems more devoted to “The Cause” than her by the time they’re studying in Germany.
Radical political action turns to violence as The State — many states — start responding in kind during the Castro/Che era. Sulamit finds herself in the meetings where the “revolution” is talked up, and at later meetings with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — women protesting children who “disappeared” in 1960s and ’70s Argentina.
The film is inelegantly-framed within a train trip Sulamit takes later in life, and she remembers the ebb and flow of their love affair on her journey. The characters may be archetypes, but they’re vividly played by the leads, turned into flesh-and-blood representatives of their generation in those turbulent years.
This 2012 film, new to video, isn’t a lost masterpiece. There’s very little of the “history” that plays out behind our lovers actually shown on screen. But “The German Friend” still manages to tell a compelling love story showing a generation rejecting much of what their parents represented, loving each other and “the struggle” almost equally as they grew up in an age when disillusions died hard and the generation gap was never wider.
MPA Rating: Unrated, violence, nudity, sex
Cast: Celeste Cid, Max Riemelt, Benjamin Sadler, Hartmut Becker, Noemí Frenkel and Jean Pierre Noher
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jeanine Meerapfel. A Corinth Films release.
Running time: 1:40