An ostensibly obscure subject takes radiant, deeply moving cinematic form in “Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckerman,” a German-made docu about elderly Jews living in the western Ukraine. Pic is destined for Eurotube slots — a pity, since its methodical pace and oft-stunning photography work best on the bigscreen. Jewish-themed fests won’t want to miss this exquisitely crafted window on a rapidly disappearing culture.
The titular figures are both still-active teachers (Frau Zuckerman takes in private students for German and English language lessons, Herr Zwilling holds a university-level chemistry class) in Czernnowitz, a town in a region once ruled by Austria, then Romania, then Russia. After its World War II invasion by the Germans, the area reverted to Russian control. It’s a poor region — one suspects the beautiful old buildings glimpsed here exist only because there was never any money to raze them.
Frau Zuckerman, some 90 years old when filmed, lost her entire family to a concentration camp during the war — only being bedridden with typhus kept her from the same fate. Subsequently she remarried and would have moved to Israel if not for a lone son’s residency in Ukraine. Herr Zwilling was just a boy during the early 1940s; his father’s prestige as an architect allowed him safe passage to Ecuador during Holocaust years. (Frau Z. is still alive; Herr Z. died after filming in 1999.)
These two spend every evening together. (Whether it’s a romantic relationship they’re not saying.) Frau Z. at first seems the imperious one, but readily admits that she plays dogged optimist to doleful-looking Herr Z.’s perpetual doomsayer. (His mother once told him “You’re a pessimist … but then you’re always right.”) They discuss their tragic family pasts, sans self-pity. Harder to watch is a sequence in which another elderly local Jew, Rosa, weeps at her father’s ill-kept grave.
The film visits the few remaining signs of Jewish life here — a lone synagogue (before WWII, we’re told, there were 55), a Jewish school, a free clinic. Residents lament the fact that younger Jews continue to emigrate en masse, yet can’t begrudge them the desire for a better life. Gentle humor marks many of these scenes, as when two aged volunteers mount garish neon numbers above the synagogue altar to designate the Jewish calendar’s new year (5759).
Despite the heart-wrenching nature of many stories told — and the evident economic shoestring by which these lives still hang — pic communicates a genuine warmth and stoic perseverance among its subjects. Pace is extremely slow , with many long takes; but the effect is engrossing rather than tedious.
Tech aspects are first-rate. Thomas Plenert’s lensing is always beautifully composed, with some gorgeous, if somber, shots of the wintry local landscape. There’s no musical score, excepting initial sequence in which the community’s gray-haired folk ensemble rehearses in a saloon, making quite a fascinating, cacophonous racket. DEFA-trained vet documentarian Volker Koepp is often heard posing questions behind the camera.