A young woman inherits her grandmother’s old farm. Her name is Noga. The place is crumbling, the yard is overgrown and the house needs a serious tidying-up. The film starts out joyfully with Noga inviting her friends over, and while having a party they rummage through the cupboards. As is often the case with holocaust survivors, the grandmother was a hoarder.
This is the seemingly innocent beginning of a new documentary by Israeli filmmaker Noga Nezer, The German. It was screened at the Docaviv 2018 film festival in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The farmhouse seems like a sinister time capsule of bygone days. The morning after the initial celebration, when the visitors have left, reality sets in.
A young man passes by and offers his help. He is polite, almost shy. He wants only to help – he does not expect payment. His name is Gunnar, and he turns out to be German. Noga accepts his offer, and he starts by clearing out the weeds in the yard. A few days later he suggests that he move in, and while helping in the house, he takes more and more control. A love affair develops between the two, but their relationship is undermined when Noga begins to suspect that Gunnar is plotting something.
«The film is about the very tangible traumas that many Israelis still have about the Holocaust.»
The film makes you think of Biedermann und die Brandstifter, the Max Frisch classic from 1953. Noga’s grandmother, now in a retirement home, warns her, but she does not listen. Noga only realizes what is happening when Gunnar forces her to give him a haircut that makes him look like a Nazi storm trooper.
«I like my hair this way,» he says, admiring himself in the mirror.
Noga Nezer has turned her personal experience into a thought-provoking film about fear and stereotypes. It is about the very tangible traumas that many Israelis still have about the Holocaust, and it questions the way those feelings are dealt with so many years after.
You start to wonder what really triggers the downward spiral of the relationship between Noga and Gunnar. A scene where they share the bathtub for at bit of romantic relaxation suddenly turns awkward when one of them mentions the word «soap,» and there is a mess when the gas oven in the kitchen does not work properly. Coarse symbolism one would say, but it makes sense. Is he getting provoked by her behaviour or by her words? Because he seems to be a nice guy, a product of modern Germany, and disconnected to past evils. Is she just overly sensitive?
Coping with the Holocaust
Nezer’s documentary has become an important statement in the on-going Israeli debate of how to cope with the Holocaust. As part of their routine, Israeli high school kids are offered a so-called educational trip to Poland, where the highlight is a visit to the Auschwitz death camp. Some decline, but many go for what often turns out to be a trip with highly nationalistic undercurrents. This whole program is under heavy criticism because of the participants’ young age. The students are simply not capable of taking in the magnitude of meeting with history in this way, and it is feared that this one-sided emotional experience leads to the creation of stereotypes.
«Stereotypes can make life unreal and frightening.»
Another important issue that the film brings to our attention is how to commemorate the Holocaust as it gradually turns from active to passive memory. The number of survivors and actual witnesses is dropping, and in a number of years nobody will be alive to tell about it from personal experience. This is Noga’s dilemma. Her grandmother is still among the living, but has retired from the active world. At a certain stage Noga decides to go for a visit, and Gunnar insists on joining her. The meeting is tense, the conversation polite and superficial, correct in a very «German» way, and you clearly sense the grandmother’s emotional turmoil. But somehow she has a right to feel appalled by the young German invading her home turf.
Noga is in at totally different situation. She is caught between her bond to her grandmother (she shares her opinions and moral judgement) and her attraction to Gunnar. She does not have the life experience to handle the situation, and from there the relationship spirals out of control.
You get the feeling that the relationship between Noga and Gunnar could have resulted in something else. But she is driven by misconceptions and his mannerisms are easy to misinterpret. What does he mean when he casually says that a man needs a cold beer at the end of long day’s work under the sun? It is a natural urge, but gives unmistakable connotations to the Bier Halle Putsch.
Noga Nezer made herself a name with her personal film, My Arab Friend. Widely released in 2015, it is about her relationship to a Palestinian man and how he is automatically seen as a «terrorist» in her Jewish-Israeli surroundings. It is in many ways a similar story to The German illustrating how stereotypes can make life unreal and frightening.