May 20, 2019

Actress Rafaëlle Cohen Explores Israelis’ Love of Berlin

The “Cities of Love” film franchise showcases great metropolises around the world. “Berlin, I Love You” features 10 vignettes set in the German capital, introduced by the Israeli character, Sara, played by Los Angeles-based French-Jewish actress Rafaëlle Cohen. However, it’s easy to miss Cohen’s name in the marketing materials, especially alongside some of her famous co-stars, including Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Luke Wilson and Mickey Rourke. 

The film was released in the United States in February to lackluster reviews, many of which blasted the vignettes for barely scratching the surface of what makes Berlin so lovable. It only received a two-star rating on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb) and a one-star rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film can be streamed now on Amazon Prime.

But the story of an Israeli singer (Cohen) and her German love interest, a street performer named Damiel (Robert Stadlober), frames and anchors the film. A review in Variety said, “But at least these two characters offer a semblance of continuity, against which the shorts serve as variably amusing digressions.” 

Brushing off critics, Cohen told the Journal at a restaurant in West Hollywood that she would rather focus on the film’s beauty as well as her good fortune in being cast in a tale that resonated with her as a Jew who periodically visits friends and family in Israel. 

Having spent several weeks living in Berlin in the summer and fall of 2017 to film the movie, Cohen said she sees Israelis’ attraction to Germany among third-generation Holocaust descendants as a unique, postwar act of German-Jewish reconciliation. 

While the Israeli Embassy in Germany has no official statistics on how many Israelis currently live in the German capital, NPR’s Daniel Estrin reported that according to Tal Alon, the Berlin-based editor of the Hebrew-language magazine Spitz, at least 10,000 of them are estimated to have moved to Berlin in the past decade.

“I know there was a movement of Israelis for many years to Berlin, and it fascinated me to see that the flower that blossomed out of the crack of the war was coming back to meet its root.” — Rafaëlle Cohen

Of her time in the European hot spot, Cohen said, “First of all, I felt the presence of Israelis in Berlin who had true open minds. And I know there was a movement of Israelis for many years to Berlin, and it fascinated me to see that the flower that blossomed out of the crack of the war was coming back to meet its root. I found that so beautiful.”

Berlin, Cohen added, is “the only place in Europe that I felt was really willing to seek forgiveness and ask for forgiveness, and realize the harm that has been done.”

Cohen was born in Paris. Her mother is from Tunisia and her father is from Morocco. The family moved to London when she was 3. Cohen originally became an engineer in London but abandoned the profession in 2011 to follow a career in the performing arts. She landed the role in “Berlin, I Love You” just two months after moving to Los Angeles from London in 2017. 

“I believe in divine alignment and divine timing,” Cohen said. “I believe I create my own reality and I came [to Los Angeles] to create what I was here to create, and I see the magic every day.”

She also described meeting the director of “Berlin, I Love You,” Josef Rusnak, as one of those magical moments. “I was told he met many celebrities, but he really wanted to find someone who could sing and have this Israeli feel,” Cohen said. 

With her long curly hair and olive skin tone, Cohen certainly looked the part. But more importantly, Cohen found the Israeli character intriguing. In the film, Sara takes her German beau on a mini-journey from the home her Holocaust survivor grandmother was forced to flee, to the steamy dance floor of the famous Berghain nightclub and the beloved public outdoor karaoke extravaganza at the Mauerpark Sunday flea market.  

“It was a dream to be able to interpret so many different aspects within one character,” Cohen said. “There’s this angelic kind of innocent being who wants to enjoy life. There’s the peaceful being. There’s the raw woman who has sensuality who wants to eat [Damiel] up and to give him so much pleasure. There’s the singer, with the ability to sing in front of 2,000 people and share music.” 

These days, some Jews look askance at Jews who make their lives — and loves — in a capital stained by its attempt at Jewish genocide. Sara, Cohen said, captures that third generation who find healing in returning to Germany. It’s part of the process of forgiveness, she said. 

“There is no resentment to be had. There is only now,” Cohen said. “Sara’s grandmother is proof of that. If there is one thing that the Shoah survivors teach us, it’s let’s be grateful for the life that we have. And let’s not darken our days with resentment.”

Cohen notes the contrast between Berlin and Paris, where today, bubbling anti-Semitism is making headlines in the French capital. She said she believes these expressions of Jew-hatred come in part from a lack of honest confrontation over the past among descendants of French Nazi collaborators, and she would rather they express their frustrations, however negative, and begin to heal.

“Anti-Semitism is mostly unspoken, precisely because it is so shamed, so people don’t even want to go near their thoughts on the matter, let alone express [them],” Cohen said. “They use the conflict in Israel, which is talked about on the news, to express their hidden frustrations against Judaism; hence the many amalgamations between French Jews and Israelis or French Muslims and Palestinians.”

Cohen still regards Paris as one of the most beautiful cities in the world but said she is now falling for Los Angles. And since shooting the film, Berlin has given L.A. some competition. 

“I sensed the same sense of freedom that I feel [in Los Angeles in Berlin],” she said. “The freedom [to become] who you want to be. And it’s the only place I felt that way in Europe. I think it’s totally linked to the fact that Berlin is the only city that really faces its darkness. I fell in love there.”  


Orit Arfa is a journalist and author based in Berlin. Her second novel, “Underskin,” is a German-Israeli love story.