Jewish International Film Festival
Bye, Bye Germany: The bittersweet struggle of moving on

Moritz Bleibtreu in 'Bye, Bye Germany'.
Moritz Bleibtreu in 'Bye, Bye Germany'. | © Jewish International Film Fesival

“Hitler is dead, but we’re still alive,” David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) tells his new colleagues in 'Bye Bye Germany'. It’s not just a statement of fact shared between a cohort of Jewish survivors, but a partially comedic pep talk. The year is 1946. The assembled men will soon start peddling linens door-to-door in post-Second World War Frankfurt. They’re doing anything they can to get by and work towards starting a new life — including approaching the situation with levity where appropriate, leaning upon the rest of the German populace’s guilt, and finding creative ways to secure orders.

Pairing laughter with solemnity proved Bermann’s strategy during his previous stint in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, as flashbacks explain; demonstrating a case of symmetry with its protagonist, it proves the film’s method of dealing with its subject matter as well. As directed by Sam Garbarski (Vijay and I), and co-adapted by the director with author Michel Bergmann from two of latter’s three Teilacher novels, Bye Bye Germany attempts a delicate juggling act in its endeavour to adopt two rarely seen perspectives regarding the holocaust: an account of the Jewish community that opted to stay in the country and reassimilate, even after the horrors they’d been through, and even if only briefly; and a story about the period that recognises the undeniable sorrow, but doesn’t eschew humour.

Accordingly, with Yiddish flying thick and fast among the movie’s cohort of salesmen, the feature charts the group’s efforts to etch out a future one day at a time — that is, to make enough money to leave— while coping with the aftermath of their traumatic experience. As the co-owner of a linen store before the war, the well-dressed, smooth-talking, joke-telling Bermann leads the charge, though enlisting former shoemaker Holzmann (Mark Ivanir) and others remains essential to his plans. When he’s not overseeing operations, he’s under interrogation at the US base by Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue), under suspicion of collaborating with the Nazis.

Bleibtreu: Bye Bye Germany’s most convincing element

As Bermann, Bleibtreu deftly navigates the demands of his character — a man whose gift of the gab served him well during his internment, but struggles daily with the fact that he’s alive while his family perished in Auschwitz. Indeed, as the film contrasts the more comic exploits of trying to obtain sales with the dark memories shared during his questioning by the Americans, it provides its star with ample material to convey his range. Like the topic at hand, Bleibtreu is more commonly associated with drama than hilarity, including in recent English-language fare such as Speed Racer, World War Z and Woman in Gold; however, delving into David’s amusing and serious shades of grey is something that he excels at. Crucially, there’s gravitas behind every line uttered in jest and playful piece of sales pitch trickery, belying the pain of going on as the most difficult of tragedies continues to haunt. While the movie might draw blunt parallels between Bermann and the three-legged dog often seen around the displaced person camp he inhabits, the fact that he’s soldiering on with a smile while missing an important part of himself is obvious.

As Bermann, Bleibtreu deftly navigates the demands of his character. As Bermann, Bleibtreu deftly navigates the demands of his character. | © Jewish International Film Fesival If Bleibtreu is Bye Bye Germany’s most convincing element due to his handling of its shifting mood, and he is, then his successes cast only a faint shadow over the feature’s overall tonal balance. The movie itself doesn’t always hit the same heights — sometimes segueing awkwardly from larks to tugging at the heart — though it’s never less than thoughtful in its attempts. Beneath its handsome frames, lensed with period splendour that makes the detail of post-war Germany and the luxury of its pre-combat state apparent, sits a sincere appreciation of the ghosts that linger after life-changing atrocities; a complex, earnest and intelligent line of thinking regardless of whether it’s served with chuckles or tears. Both eventuate, perhaps not in the ideal proportions, but grappling with the hurtful past while finding pleasures in the present always remains a bittersweet affair.