Sunday, November 13, 2011

IN HEAVEN, UNDERGROUND: Britta Wauer gives us Jewish history in a Berlin cemetery

Reading about a film's subject mater is often the least precise or helpful manner by which to understand what you're about to see. TrustMovies notes this because he's just viewed a documentary -- IN HEAVEN, UNDERGROUND -- that tracks the history of a particular burial ground, the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin. Prior to viewing and reading what he's just told  you, he could never have imagined a film so lyrical and lovely about a topic so fraught with, well, history and Holocaust. And while the filmmaker, Britta Wauer (shown below), certainly doesn't ignore history, what she does here is to stick with this very special cemetery over more than a century, in seasons warm and chill, and takes us with her on a trip that proves full of humor, sweetness and emotion. Her movie's a genuine surprise.

"Nothing can stop me from getting that coffin in the grave, notes Ms Wauer's sort-of narrator, a charming senior citizen, below, with a near-constant smile who, I guess, is the grave-digger. He sits and chats with us from time to time, beginning and ending this unusually brisk, frisky and novel, 90-minute documentary. We hear the history of the place via the staff and from descendants (from all around the world) whose forebearers are buried here. We're even privy to a visit by the Israeli military.

We hear more about the place from a local police inspector and from a couple who, along with their small child, move into a home which seems to be located right in the midst of things.

We see the cemetery in all four seasons, in color and black-and-white, archival and present-day and especially before, during and after the Nazis and the take-over of anti-Semitism. And yet -- and this, as much as anything, is what makes the movie so special -- even during the worst of times, Ms Wauer manages to keeps things full of charm and interesting surprises.

For instance, we learn some differences between German Jewish customs and Russian Jewish customs; how the suicide rate among German Jews increased once they had received their deportation orders. (Yes, that would be expected, but I don't recall hearing about this before.) A group of present-day high school students visit and then design their own gravestones, including the year in which they imagine they might die. We also learn why this particular Jewish cemetery was not desecrated under Nazi rule.

In one of the molt affecting scenes, visitors from the USA come to find the graves of their parents, and a British citizen tells of the very late discovery of his own Jewish roots.  Then, one fine postwar day, our cemetery suddenly lies in East Berlin -- which changes everything. Official government "birders" show up to band the young in a Goshawk's nest. And we learn all about tomb restoration from a smart but diplomatic woman who notes, apropos which tombs are chosen for this, even as the camera pans some rather odd-looking choices, "We never use words like ugly, beautiful or kitsch."

There is so much that's delightful here that I suspect I could have sat listening and watching for another hour. But like any smart performer, Ms Wauer beats her retreat while we're still eager for more. In Heaven, Underground, is like a breath of fresh air in the Jewish Holocaust documentary genre. All the odder, then, that the air is wafting in from a cemetery.

The movie, from Seventh Art Releasing, spoken in German, Russian, English and Hebrew (with English subtitles, when necessary), opens this Friday, November 18, in New York City at the Cinema Village. A limited national release will follow.

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