August 22, 2019

Jewish Humor Flavors Post-WWII ‘Bye Bye Germany’

Of the many films that have been made about the Holocaust experience, few focus on survivors’ lives after the war, and maybe none do so with as much charm and humor as “Bye Bye Germany,” a film festival favorite that will be released on DVD on Aug. 7.

Set in Frankfurt in 1945-46, the dramedy follows Jewish entrepreneur David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his friends, as they scheme to sell overpriced linens to gullible Germans in order to raise the funds to leave Germany behind. Meanwhile, Bermann is suspected of collaboration with the Nazis, and the astonishing reason why unfolds as he reveals to a United States Army investigator (Antje Traue) how his talent for telling jokes was a ticket out of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and saved his life.

Director Sam Garbarski, 70, himself the son of German Jewish Holocaust survivors, collaborated on the script by Michel Bergmann, whose autobiographical novels “Die Teilacher” and “Machloikes” inspired the film. He spoke to the Journal by phone from his home in Belgium.

“If you look at literature and cinema, this period between 1945 and 1955 has never been treated because people just didn’t talk about it. It was taboo,” Garbarski said. “[Germans] probably felt uncomfortable about what they had done and didn’t want to talk about it. Survivors didn’t talk to their children about it. My parents didn’t, and I was not the only one. I filled the gap and let Bergmann’s story become my story.”

While David Bermann and his fellow survivors’ experiences in the film are based on true stories, “the one thing that is not true is the American major was a man,” Garbarski said. He switched the character’s sex to provide a romantic storyline, “but the interrogation was true.”

Garbarski’s aim was to convey how the survivors felt, “how horrible it had been for each of them, then having hope and starting over again. I wanted to show the strength of Ashkenazi Jews, their humor and the self-irony that gave them the strength to survive,” he said. In Bermann’s case, humor served him well because he made the Nazi camp commandant laugh. “He survived because he told jokes to the killers of his family, which is not an easy thing to live with.” 

Garbarski knows little about the details of his late parents’ experiences during World War II. “I know that my mother had been in a labor camp and my father had been in a concentration camp. They felt uncomfortable talking about it, and I felt uncomfortable insisting,” he said. “The rare things I know, I want to keep them for myself.”

He can only speculate why his parents didn’t leave Germany after the war, like the thousands who left for America, Palestine and elsewhere. He suspects that there was more than one reason, but in particular, echoing what Bermann says in the film, “They didn’t want to leave this beautiful country to the Germans.”

“I wanted to show the strength of Ashkenazi Jews, their humor and the self-irony that gave them the strength to survive.” — Sam Garbarski

Garbarski, however, left Germany for Belgium in his youth. “I followed a woman,” he said. The relationship didn’t last, but he stayed and had a family that now includes two grown children and two granddaughters. His son is studying business administration in San Francisco and his daughter is an actress. She plays a waitress in “Bye Bye Germany.”

The director, who describes himself as “a cultural Jew with a little bit of tradition, but not religious at all,” nevertheless identifies strongly as a Jew. He pointed out that his first feature film, “Rashevski’s Tango,” had a Jewish theme, involving Holocaust survivors and a funeral in Israel. 

After a 27-year career as a director of television commercials, Garbarski had no trouble segueing into features that include “Irina Palm” and “Vijay and I.” 

“You just make the commercials longer,” he said. “Filmmaking is filmmaking. If you can tell a story in 30 seconds, you can tell it in two hours.” 

His next film, based on a script he wrote with a friend, is not a comedy. “It’s a tough story, an impossible love story, set in 1954,” he said. “It’s very Jewish.” 

Gratified that he’s been lucky enough “to be able to make the films I want to make,” Garbarski hopes that “Bye Bye Germany” reminds people that the lessons of the Holocaust still bear repeating. 

“Every generation, we start again with the same atrocities and the same stupidity. [Although] Jews may not be the main target, right-wing extremists are starting up all over the world, even in the States. Refugees have to start all over again in other countries,” he said. “It’s frightening and it’s all going on again.”

“Bye Bye Germany” will be released on DVD on Aug. 7.