September 23, 2019

Three Israelis turn back clock in Berlin

Alice Agneskirchner is not Jewish. In fact, before deciding to make her latest documentary, “An Apartment in Berlin,” which follows the lives of three young Israelis living in Berlin as they explore the story of a family killed in the Holocaust, Agneskirchner didn’t really know any Jews. Yet, in the film she’s crafted a thought-provoking and often disturbing portrait of life in a land still haunted by genocide, seven decades after World War II ended.

In a recent phone conversation, Agneskirchner spoke of her film and the three Israelis — Eyal, Yael and Yoav — whom she recruited to be at its center. The idea came to Agneskirchner after she heard Israelis speaking Hebrew in a cafe in Berlin one day, which led her to wonder why Israelis would choose to move to a city like Berlin, which had brought the Jewish people so much suffering.

Agneskirchner set out to find Israeli subjects for her film and turned to the Web. “There’s a huge Internet platform [on a] Web page called ‘Israelis in Berlin,’ ” she said. “I think they’ve run it for about five years at least, maybe even longer. … They’re all in Hebrew; I can’t read them.” Undeterred, Agneskirchner got in touch with the site’s administrators to share with them her idea of doing a documentary about Israelis in Berlin. The administrators agreed to help.

“The first time, about 250 people were contacting me,” Agneskirchner said of an ad she ran; she estimates she met with more than 50 Israelis while selecting the subjects for her film.

“You want to have somebody who’s really real — who’s not afraid of being himself, even if you will film him. You don’t want anybody who tries to please you,” Agneskirchner said of her selection criteria. “I wanted to have a big variety.”

“Yoav, it was clear from the moment I met him … he was so different,” Agneskirchner said of the film’s most compelling subject, an Aryan-obsessed Israeli who works as a tour guide for Jews visiting Berlin. “I think pretty much in the first time we met … he told me the story that he would like to have an Aryan girlfriend every night.”

Eyal, the film’s other male subject, was chosen because he was new to Berlin and Agneskirchner wanted to follow someone who was still adjusting to life there. Yael, the third Israeli, who was raised ultra-Orthodox but left her community after divorcing her husband, had not been Agneskirchner’s initial choice for the female subject. But getting the project going took an extended period of time, and the original woman, named Ayelet, moved back to Israel; Agneskirchner recruited Yael through a second round of interviews.

Agneskirchner’s idea was to have the Israeli subjects of the film live together in an apartment for a couple of months — but not just any apartment, one that had been home to a Jewish family killed in the Holocaust. “The research took a long time … not to find the Israelis, that was fairly easy, but to find the apartment,” Agneskirchner said. She eventually chose one, and with it, the history of the Adler family, who worked in the egg trade. Her main challenge, then, became convincing the apartment’s current residents to move out for two months so she could film there. At first the family resisted, but Agneskirchner eventually won them over. 

The film’s three Israeli subjects were initially unaware of Agneskirchner’s central conceit. “They knew it was going to be an apartment, they knew I wanted to do a refurnishing, but everything else they didn’t know,” she said. Only after moving in did they learn that the apartment they were sharing once belonged to a Jewish family who’d been exterminated in the Holocaust.

The film follows the Israelis as they help furnish the Adlers’ apartment with objects similar to what was known, via inventories, to have belonged to the family. The trio learns about the Adlers’ life story and explores the history of Berlin, all while navigating their personal and professional lives in the city.  

The original Berlin apartment of the Adler family, refurnished according to the 1943 Nazi wealth assessment protocol, made prior to the Jewish family’s deportation and deaths.  

One thing that surprised Agneskirchner was how different the political views of her subjects were from one another. In one scene, the three debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It was more or less the first day of shooting. … It was like dogs sniffing at each other. Do we like each other?” 

One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves Yoav, the Aryan-loving Israeli, walking the streets of Berlin wearing an SS uniform from a costume shop. Agneskirchner knew that Yoav wanted to wear the uniform, but she had no idea he’d actually want to go outside in it. “My plan was not going onto the streets. That was his wish, his very high wish. 

“I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen, and if it was really totally legal or not,” Agneskirchner said, given that Germany’s laws against anything Nazi-related are very strict.

In the film, the reactions of people on the street are fascinating, but it’s Yoav’s own words while wearing the uniform that are the most haunting. “And, well, not ‘the Jews,’ but some of them,” he says, “if given the choice to be victim or perpetrator, it seems to me, would know what to choose — perpetrator of course.”

Scenes like that with Yoav made it hard for some of the Adlers’ surviving relatives to watch the film, Agneskirchner said. The Adlers’ niece, who lives in Israel and whom Agneskirchner filmed both in her home and when she came to Berlin to be in the film, “was not too friendly with the three of them,” Agneskirchner said.

Agneskirchner is now an artist-in-residence at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, the former home of Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish intellectual and author who fled the Nazis and settled in Southern California along with his wife, Marta. The Villa is now owned by the German government and is used as a place for German artists to work on projects. Although those projects don’t have to be specifically Jewish, Agneskirchner’s current one is, as well. She’s working on a documentary about the famous 1978 miniseries “Holocaust,” which starred Meryl Streep, James Woods and Michael Moriarty, among others.

“It really changed Germany,” Agneskirchner said of the series. “It was the first so-called TV event. More than half of the German population saw it at that time,” she said. “The word ‘Holocaust’ was not common in German, we wouldn’t use it … we didn’t use it before that.”

It’s certainly surprising to Agneskirchner, who was born in 1960s Munich, that after a long career of doing nothing Jewish, she’s worked on two Jewish projects in a row. “I was editing the film [“An Apartment in Berlin”] with a Jewish editor,” Agneskirchner said, “and she grew up in Munich, like I did. We were of similar age. … We talked about us growing up … there were about 300 Jews living in Munich at that time; she knew all of them, I knew none of them.” 

Although many Jews today, particularly the older generations, still are uncomfortable traveling to Germany, Agneskirchner said she believes the growing presence of Israelis living in Berlin isn’t going away any time soon. “Nobody knows exactly how many are there,” she said. “Some people say there are 50,000 now, and it’s almost an aliyah to Berlin.”

“An Apartment in Berlin” will be screened at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., on Tuesday, March 10, at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Agneskirchner, moderated by the Jewish Journal’s Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/alice-agneskirchners-an-apartment-in-berlin-registration-15794441600