It’s hardly surprising that evenness of tone is the biggest challenge facing German director Chris Kraus’ uncategorizable dramedy “The Bloom of Yesterday,” probably the only movie ever to take the generations-spanning, history-scarring legacy of the Holocaust as its subject while also boasting a scene in which a small, recently bereaved dog is thrown out the window of a moving car for wacky effect. It’s a film that frequently plunges heedlessly into treacherous territory, for which audacity it should be admired. And the sincerity of its intentions — to entertain while also contending with thorny questions about the sins of the father — are above reproach, which doubtless contributed to its winning the grand prize at the Tokyo Film Festival.
But rather like the dog-flinger in question, who immediately goes in search of the abused pug, the impact of the movie’s more dramatic flourishes is often undercut by a kind of instant remorse; the film seems to spend half its time being daring and the other half apologizing for being daring. That wouldn’t matter as much if we weren’t already hanging on to our hats as the narrative lurches from skewed romance to Depression drama to screwball comedy to provocative socio-historical investigation. This is a bucking bronco of moods and genres, which is the source of both frustration and a surprising amount of fun.
That the movie manages to be so enjoyable is largely due to how well put together it is — glossily photographed and attractively soundtracked (Carla Bruni’s “Quelqu’un m’a dit” is a representative cut), it also benefits hugely from the engaging central performances of Adèle Haenel and Lars Eidinger. The French Haenel, recently seen in the Dardennes brothers’ “The Unknown Girl,” alternates easily, like her character, between her native French and fluent German, and negotiates the sharp turns of her role so well she just about saves it from becoming too much Manic Pixie Holocaust Girl to bear. And the German Eidinger, whose most recent international credits include Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” and “Clouds of Sils Maria,” manages to wring a sympathetic portrayal from a character who on the page is unappealing: willfully self-serious and Teutonically humorless. Together, the actors and Kraus’ impeccable craftsmanship smooth out the rougher patches and conspire to make us forget that, sensationalist hook aside, the architecture of the plot can reductively be described as yet another example of an emotionally repressed man saved from a passionless life by an unconventional, free-spirited young woman.
Toto (Eidinger) is a dedicated Holocaust scholar, married, with an adopted daughter, but recently afflicted with impotence, which has led him to come to an agreement with his wife whereby she has sex with other men. He is deeply invested in the success of an upcoming Holocaust conference, though he clashes with colleagues over its direction: Toto advocates the high road of least compromise in regards to corporate sponsorship and other potential instances of “selling out.” He is also, we discover early on, the grandson of a notorious Nazi war criminal, and his unswerving, blinkered commitment to his work is more or less explicitly shown to be part of a lifelong act of atonement.
But the arrival of an intern, Zazie (Haenel), the granddaughter of a Holocaust victim, churns up his inherited guilt, already at war with his misanthropic instincts. Toto is initially dismissive of Zazie (whose capriciousness is later revealed to be symptomatic of actual psychological problems), but when they discover that their family histories interconnect, they become unlikely allies. In fact, their mutual prickliness is part of the reason they seem to be able to talk about their antecedents in a more honest way than with anyone else. When Zazie asks Toto what his Nazi grandfather, whom Toto knew and grew up with, was like in person, the militantly anti-Nazi Toto is quiet for a long while before choking out one word: “Kind.”
Are Toto and Zazie trying, through their relationship, to transcend history or repair it? The idea that together they can somehow gain closure on events that didn’t actually happen to either of them is as crazy as viewing these two idiosyncratic individuals as representative, like they were some two-person peace and reconciliation commission. And to be fair, Kraus takes pains to ensure the picture that emerges is in no way as simplistic as that. Indeed it’s arguable whether a distinct picture emerges at all, as there are times when the film’s humor cleverly counterpoints its serious themes, and there are other times when it simply cancels them out.
“The Bloom of Yesterday” is too herky-jerky a film to present a definitive statement on how the twenty- and thirtysomethings of 2016 need to address the Holocaust as it comes close to passing from living memory. And maybe that’s, finally, the most valuable and honest thing about the movie: all its contrivances and even its rather cop-out ending serve to leave us with a sense of incompleteness. As an entertainingly skewed, iconoclastic dramedy about a kookily mismatched, attractive twosome trying to fix each other’s broken parts, the film mostly works. But as a comment on how a generation twice removed from the experience of an unprecedented genocide should memorialize it, and how the grandchildren of its victims and of its perpetrators can relate to each other and to their family histories, it is at best a tiny fragment of a much larger, ongoing project. “The Bloom of Yesterday” is divided against itself, but that’s a truthful reflection of how things are, and perhaps being able to crack the odd gallows-humor joke about those divisions is its own kind of progress.