Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland): a movie review by Ron Jontof-Hutter

May 21, 2018 by Ron Jontof-Hutter
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Sam Garlanski’s film, “Bye Bye Germany“  based on Michel Bergmann’s autobiographical novel is an entertaining addition to Holocaust stories, though this one is set in 1946 Frankfurt.

Ron Jontof-Hutter

The film starts with the a three legged dog hobbling along an austere street- a metaphor for  the destroyed city of Frankfurt  and the  Holocaust survivors wrecked lives . David is affectionate and nurturing to the crippled dog-what he surely would have craved from his fellow German citizens. The film rapidly progresses to mostly sardonic humour.

Bleibtreu( David) is determined to get to America no matter what  and no matter how. He plays his roguish role superbly, selling French linen to Germans who want to rebuild their lives, and obtain luxuries seemingly unconcerned about the Holocaust.

David and his friends, are determined to leave Germany’s displaced persons camps, build a strong bond and get to selling their wares in order to pay their way that will help get them to be part of  the American Dream.  Their selling methods are shonky but their anything-goes attitude is justified by them for the trauma they suffered in Germany.  Germany betrayed them, so why should they not exact revenge? They also proudly exclaim that “Hitler is dead and we are alive,” in an attempt to celebrate their personal pyrrhic victories.

The mood of the film changes when David is summoned before US Army investigator Sara Simon (Antje Traue.) Herself a German Jewish refugee—her physician  father having been dismissed from Berlin’s renowned Charite Hospital—plays her role well, trying to uncover David’s alleged collaboration and hence survival.

There are some unexpected twists to the story which add to the entertainment—the film incorporates comedy, romance, pathos and drama.

For the discerning viewer, the film also raises questions that make it not only entertaining but also educational. There has been a tendency to romanticise or understate the Holocaust horror with comedies, such as ’Life is beautiful , ‘He’s back again!’ and the sentimental ‘The boy in the striped pyjamas.’

This film, despite its minor flaws such as somewhat excessive use of Yiddish slang words as well as terms like Kapo, the death camp meaning of the’ramp’ and l’chaim, which the average viewer won’t understand,  nevertheless has points worth discussing.

These would include the blurred line between survival and collaboration which is essentially David’s story. This suave confident man breaks down when he relates how the German SS officer demanded that he engage in a contest with another camp inmate as to who could tell the better joke. David  having won,  earned some chocolate while the loser was sent to the gas chamber. David’s feelings of helpless guilt is a known phenomenon amongst survivors. Many post Holocaust survivors also committed suicide as did Krautberg (Vaclav Jakoubek) in the story.  Arguably,the most famous Holocaust survivor who committed suicide was Primo Levi.

Other points for discussion from the film’s dialogue could be why many Germans continue to state they had no idea of what was going on in their country despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Then there is Sara’s father and thousands of other German Jewish doctors, professors, judges scientists  and teachers who never were offered  their former positions after the war, despite a shortage.

There is also the topic of Germans priorities after the war ended. They focussed on acquiring white goods and cars rather than self-examination and dealing with their shame. Or lack of it.

And, does “never again” have a different meaning for Germans and Jews?

This film is a good point of departure for discussion, especially in the light of growing antisemitism in Germany. The film is still showing at the ACMI and worth seeing. The music by Renaud Garcia-Fons  is beautiful and the cinematography by Saint Martin  superb.


Starring Moritz Bleibtreu, Antje Traue

ACMI Cinemas Melbourne

Ron Jontof-Hutter is the author of the comedy satire “The trombone man: tales


One Response to “Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland): a movie review by Ron Jontof-Hutter”
  1. Paul Winter says:

    I have not seen the film, but I hope that it is better than the translation of its title which should read: This is how it was once in Germany.

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