Review: ‘The German Secret’

One woman's search for her own identity -- and that of her mysterious father -- becomes a potent look at notions of loyalty, love and family in the midst of war and its aftermath. Carefully crafted, highly personal docu is a natural for all nonfiction-minded fests and POV-type pubcasting slots.

One woman’s search for her own identity — and that of her mysterious father — becomes a potent look at notions of loyalty, love and family in the midst of war and its aftermath. Carefully crafted, highly personal docu is a natural for all nonfiction-minded fests and POV-type pubcasting slots.

Kirsten Blohm, now 60 and a handsome, thoughtful woman, grew up in war-weary Denmark, shunted between family members. She only occasionally stayed with her mother, Signe Gondrup, a great beauty whom several acquaintances and family members describe as the coldest person they ever knew. Signe heated up at times, however, as evidenced by the obvious torch she carried for a handsome German officer whom she followed to Czechoslovakia and for the Reich itself — much to the dismay of her Danish compatriots, who later imprisoned her.

Nonetheless, when Kirsten was born and shipped back to Denmark, everyone remained mum about dad. Only after finding yellowed photos of the Nazi in question did the grade-school girl start to do the math. And it was only after Signe’s recent death, at age 80, that the daughter decided to seek out the truth, with the help of filmmaker Lars Johansson (also her husband, although this is never mentioned in their on-screen interlocutions). Johansson maintains just the right balance of intimacy and distance along the way, as Blohm follows vague and often frustrating leads through towns in the Czech Republic and Germany.

A surprising number of old-timers remember bits of Signe’s story. Eventually, she even begins to wonder if her father was not the handsome German officer but a squat American soldier who might even have raped her mother. The fact that said Yank is still living in the former occupied zone when Blohm gets there is tantalizing, but her hopes are dashed when the sickly old man refuses to see her.

The subject, like the viewer, is ultimately led to ponder what was learned on the journey. Through an astute mix of archival images, well-lensed travel footage (including Blohm’s blue-tinged soliloquies at each juncture), and a few delicately handled recreations, “The German Secret” satisfies nonetheless. Video footage of the octogenarian Signe, saved for the end, is another reward for viewer patience. Johansson is planning a sequel, based on new research.

The German Secret

Denmark

Production

A Final Cut Prods. production, in association with Multimedia Film & Fernsehenproduktion, ZDF and Westman & Srenderup, with support from the Danish Film Institute, Eurimages and the European Community Media Program. (International sales: Final Cut, Copenhagen.) Produced by Mikael Opstrup. Co-producers, Claudia Schroder, Harald Wigankow. Executive producers, Opstrup, Thomas Stenderup. Directed, written by Lars Johansson.

Crew

Camera (color), Johansson, Henrik Bohn Ipsen, Lars Beyer; editor, Niels Pagh Anderson; music, Magnus Dahlberg; sound (Dolby), Kristian Eldnes Andersen. Reviewed at Hot Docs Festival, Toronto, April 29, 2005. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Kirsten Blohm. (Danish, German, English, Czech dialogue)
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