Israeli Cinema
Made in Berlin

“Anderswo” by Ester Amrami
“Anderswo” by Ester Amrami | Photo (detail): © Film Kino Text

More and more filmmakers from Israel are coming to Berlin to develop their ideas and shoot their films. Serving also as a springboard for Israeli-German co-productions, the city has become an important location for contemporary Israeli cinema.

When Dror Zahavi, now a successful Berlin director, came to the socialist part of Germany to study film, the Berlin Wall was still standing and there was no sign of this ever ceasing to be the case. His friends in Israel had felt extremely sorry for him when they said their goodbyes – it was the wish of his father, an Israeli communist, that he should go to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). He began his studies at the Potsdam-Babelsberg University of Film in 1982 and graduated in 1987. The GDR seemed to him like a kibbutz on a large scale, where things may generally have been in short supply but there was a strong sense of solidarity.

Escaping the social and political conflicts

In 1991, Dror Zahavi returned to the then reunited Germany from Israel for reasons that were not all that different from those which motivate Israeli filmmakers who come to Germany today. Even though the Israeli film scene has long since blossomed in artistic terms and produces internationally acclaimed talent and major festival successes, the industry there is only small and does not provide nearly enough work for all the young filmmakers onto the market. This is because Israel, a country roughly the size of Wales, boasts a number of excellent film academies which train highly-motivated students. In recent years, the film academies in Berlin and Potsdam have also seen far more Israeli applicants. “First and foremost, however, it is already qualified filmmakers who come to Germany with a concrete project to do research or indeed to search for producers or work in the film business”, explains Dror Zahavi. He goes on to say that many, however, were seeking an escape from the social and political conflicts taking place in their home country. Berlin, however, has not become an almost mythical place just for film-makers from Israel, but the city where the cost of living is still affordable has also become a somewhat idealised rallying point for the creative with a formidable, perceptible history and a vibrant present.

Dror Zahavi has become one of Germany’s most sought-after directors. He has made some big films, especially for television, such as Die Luftbrücke (2005), Mein Leben – Marcel Reich-Ranicki (2009) and München 72 – Das Attentat (2012); weighty films dealing with contemporary history. Although Germany has become his home, Zahavi says that Israel still remains his spiritual home, as it is formany of his compatriots and colleagues who live here. In 2008 he made a moving drama about a Palestinian suicide bomber called Alles für meinen Vater (For My Father), a German-Israeli co-production. Since 2009, Dror Zahavi has observed a migration of film professionals who come from Israel to Germany to take advantage of its diverse production scene, its host of television companies and its strong regional and national film funding. Young people from his old homeland contact him increasingly often because they are looking for work in the German film business, and Zahavi helps them as best he can.

The past is still present

“Youth” by Tom Shoval (Trailer)

The Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, the most important film funding body in Berlin and the surrounding area, is also very much aware of this influx and supports Israeli filmmakers in Berlin, including experimental and internationally known video artists such as Dani Gal and Amir Yatziv. Many Israeli-German co-productions have received support from public-sector funding budgets. One particular programme gives Israeli film artists a scholarship to come and work in Berlin. One of the more recent recipients was the director Tom Shoval. His film Youth (2013), a haunting portrayal of the impact of the crisis on Israeli civil society, was shown to great acclaim at the Berlinale 2013. This was also a co-production with Germany, proving that it is by no means only German-Jewish material that is addressed in such joint productions. Nonetheless, the past is naturally a motif that continues to influence the work of Israeli filmmakers and often has a very personal significance for them.

“Israel’s third generation is rediscovering Germany – the one-time enemy – for themselves. This has to do with the passing away of the generation of victims whose ambivalent attitude towards their lost homeland is prompting their grandchildren today to go and see the country that committed the crimes against their forebears for themselves”, believes Daniel Saltzwedel from Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. He regards this very much as a poetical movement – “reclaiming their origins” – and sees the filmmakers who are coming to Germany as a great gift.

“Why Germany of all places?”

When young Israeli director Yael Reuveny moved 2006 to Berlin, her parents were far from happy. However, this was the only place that Reuveny could shoot Schnee von gestern (2013, Englisch Title: Farewell, Herr Schwarz). It took her years to make this wonderful documentary film about her family’s history and about the scars that the Holocaust has still left on the grandchildren of the generation of victims and perpetrators. She tracked down some unbelievable family secrets and revealed, emphatically but always with respect, the way all sides had suppressedtheir knowledge of what had happened: an important film made by the third generation that is able to approach this subject in a more impartial and open manner.

To make this very complex film about her great-uncle, who survived the war and remained in the GDR and denied his Jewish identity, Yael Reuveny travelled through Germany talking to many people who had known the man. What came about was a panorama of attitudes and opinions in which the director herself and her experiences also played a part as the questioner and seeker, yet without any form of self-righteousness. The film that was highly praised by the critics and awarded many prizes was also shown in German cinemas.

Searching for a homeland

Like Yael Reuveny, Babelsberg Film University student Ester Amrami from Israel also found a home for herself in Berlin. She built up a large circle of by no means only Israeli friends and even started a German-Jewish family. She came here ten years ago, initially just for a few months. “Berlin was a lot cheaper than, for instance, London. What is more, it still had a taste of freedom and adventure back then”, she remembers. “Of course, Berlin is extremely interesting for Israeli filmmakers. The past is far enough away but still important. Berlin certainly offers fertile soil for exciting and emotional stories”. Her highly successful feature film debut Anderswo (English title: Anywhere Else), which has autobiographical elements, revolves around the feeling of living between different worlds and plays very wittily on the German concept of “Heimat” (i.e. homeland) as well as on the slight tensions that still exist between Germans and Israelis.

Amrami wrote the original and marvellously relaxed screenplay in collaboration with her German husband, Momme Peters. A lot of the things they show in the film about their experiences in each other's country, about misunderstandings, insecurities and embarrassing incidents of all kinds, are all similar to things they actually experienced themselves and things which they can now laugh about. Let us hope that audiences will be able to do the same for the film is to be launched in German cinemas in January 2015. Israeli films are indeed often very much favoured by critics and festival juries, but often have a difficult time at the box-office due to their very special content and the fact that the actors are mostly unknown in Germany.

Filmmakers like Yael Reuveny and Ester Amrami live in Berlin and through their refreshing films create bridges between Germany and Israel, as their works have their roots in both countries. As such, the German film scene is profiting from these young directors without the Israeli film scene having to lose out.