Taking a new tack on the Holocaust documentary, “Jealous of the Birds” examines why any Jews would choose to stay in Germany after the war. It’s a question helmer Jordan Bahat addresses first and foremost to his own grandparents, but it’s answered with surprising variations by other survivors and their descendants. The film then traces the aftermath of that decision among Jews and Germans alike. Refreshingly free of pathos and violins, Bahat’s matter-of-fact exposition gives added impact to his interviewees’ sometimes shocking revelations. Picked up by 7 Arts Releasing, this laid-back docu should resonate strongly with target auds.
In 1948, the World Jewish Congress declared that Jews should never again live in the “bloodstained territory” of Germany, and Holocaust survivors who settled there felt guilty about betraying that covenant. Bahat proves sparing, but highly judicious, in his use of archival footage of the camps to represent the unfathomability of Jews settling in Germany, relying instead on oncamera testimonials.
Survivors’ reasons for staying behind, initially at least, were purely circumstantial; as yellowed documents attest, those sick with tuberculosis or other diseases were rejected for emigration to the U.S. or Canada. Some, too demoralized by their experience and too disoriented by further internment in displaced-persons’ camps, were ill equipped to decide about the future or consider adapting to another culture. Others tell of returning to Poland, only to discover that their homes and families no longer existed. Bahat’s grandfather’s account of his liberation from the camp — he wandered out and hopped a passing freight train — reveals how unprepared the liberators were to deal with the severely traumatized deportees.
For most, staying in Germany did not imply joining German society; Jews mainly interacted among themselves, profoundly uncomfortable around possible or even probable ex-victimizers. Bahat intermittently intercuts a hypothetical scene, shot in high-contrast black-and-white, wherein two elderly men play chess in the park, one’s arm bearing the tattoo of a concentration-camp inmate, the other’s an SS mark. This suppositional confrontation places Jewish-German interaction squarely in the realm of fable.
In perhaps the film’s most astonishing anecdote, a woman relates that in her high-school history class, the teacher asked students if they would feel more comfortable if she, the only Jew, could discreetly leave the room during discussion of World War II, and was told yes. When she refused, the history teacher simply passed over the Third Reich in silence.
But silence reigns on both sides of the divide, an observation that keenly distinguishes “Jealous of the Birds” from other films on the subject. Curiously, Bahat’s docu relates less to increasingly threadbare Holocaust docus than to Anne Aghion’s evocative films about post-genocidal Rwanda, depending less on sentiment or outrage than on the spectacle of survivors daily confronting the inadmissible.
Early in the film, Bahat’s grandmother faces the camera and admonishes, “This is not a story, this is a life,” implicitly voicing survivors’ resistance to the expectation, by their own progeny and by filmmakers (or in this case both), that they must bear witness to the horror of the Shoah. Indeed, when Grandma revisits Auschwitz in a by-now obligatory scene, her flat-voiced reminiscences register less tellingly than her quiet unreadability.