The set for Volker Koepp’s latest documentary, the town of Czernowitz, has led a changeable life. It has belonged to Austria-Hungary, Rumania, the Soviet Union, German-controlled Rumania, and now Ukraine. Many nationalities have lived side by side in this town, and it used to have a flourishing Jewish community.
Only few of the Jews from Czernowitz survived the Holocaust, but two who were born here and still live here are Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckermann. Volker Koepp portrays these two friends who, like their hometown, have lived a long and unsettled life. As he did brilliantly in “Wittstock, Wittstock”, Koepp demonstrates his talent in this documentary for telling a piece of contemporary history through personal fates. Actually, his focus is the opposite: getting close to his protagonists and their peculiarities enables him to show how larger historical events have influenced individual lives.
In this film he especially investigates how different persons react to real hardships, Frau Zuckermann being a true optimist and Herr Zwilling being a bitter pessimist. During the nazi era, Frau Zuckermann was taken to the Transnistria concentration camp where her father, mother, husband and son died within a week. After the war she felt ashamed to be alive, but she survived nonetheless, and despite her tough destiny she has an impressive positive attitude to life and a natural cheerfulness. Herr Zwilling’s well-educated family were among the few Jewish families in Czernowitz that barely escaped deportation as their professions were needed in Czernowitz. Once leading citizens, they slid rapidly down the social ladder ending up in poverty. This is still a bitter experience for Herr Zwilling who feels his whole life has been ruined and could have been much better. Since he believes everything is predetermined, he makes no attempt to change his fate, and living in modern-day Ukraine, he and Frau Zuckermann are still forced to struggle, now with salaries and pensions that are not paid.
Volker Koepp personally chooses a positive attitude to life by creating a loving atmosphere around his characters, filming in warm colours and composing the pictures carefully so that they are a real pleasure to watch. Together with cameraman Thomas Plenert he manages to capture the beauty of each person in close-ups of faces – the old people who have lived their lives, and the children in a Jewish school who still have everything in front of them.