According to filmmaker Daniel Eisenberg, "Persistence" is intended as "a meditation on the time just after a great historical event, about what is common to moments such as these, about the continuous and discontinuous threads of history." All of which makes the documentary sound a lot more interesting than it really is. Despite Eisenberg's grandiose ambitions, "Persistence" comes across as a facile and pretentious attempt to find similarities between post-WWII and post-Cold War Germany. Pic isn't likely to travel far beyond the global fest circuit. Eisenberg devotes a significant amount of time and effort to stating, restating and belaboring obvious points. Pic intercuts static glimpses of the newly reunified country with archival photographs, footage shot in 1945-46 by the U.S. Signal Corps and a few well-chosen snippets from Robert Rossellini's "Germany: Year Zero." The mosaic is meant to illustrate that, much as it was in the postwar era, contemporary Germany is a place where signs of a tumultuous past, an anxious present and an uncertain future are superimposed.
Unfortunately, Eisenberg makes his observations with an off-putting mixture of studied whimsy and know-it-all irony. Narrator John DiStefano compounds the problem by trying too hard to sound both casual and sagacious, sort of like Mr. Rogers as a bus-tour guide. At one point, Eisenberg focuses on the ruins of an ancient church and takes a long, quiet pause. Pretty soon, the audience is ready for lightning to strike, metaphorically or otherwise. But then, as though shrugging off the whole interlude, the narrator announces, “After waiting for something to happen, I eventually give up and move on.” At this point, members of the audience can be forgiven for shouting rude things at the screen.
“Persistence” quotes lengthily from the postwar writings of Max Frisch, Stig Dagerman and Janet Flanner, and features musical quotes from such operas as Ferrucio Busoni’s “Dr. Faustus” and Franco Donatoni’s “Argot.” Even so, the pic might be more enjoyable if viewed without sound, so that the frequently striking images of Germany then and now could be savored as the cinematic equivalent of a coffee-table book. In particular, the U.S. Signal Corps footage, some of it in color, is remarkably well preserved, and often fascinating in its details of postwar German life.
To give them fair credit, the filmmakers occasionally uncover a factoid or anecdote that is perfectly suited to their “And so it goes” presentation. During the war, a damaged church was adorned with a banner that promised, “The Fuhrer will rebuild and renovate this church.” Unfortunately, the building was in even worse shape by war’s end. So the original banner was replaced with another that read, “This is how the Fuhrer has rebuilt and renovated this church.”