You may have set aside those clichés about the German sense of humor after the wondrous “Toni Erdmann,” but get ready to dust them off for Sam Garbarski’s sincere but stilted “Bye Bye Germany.” This Holocaust-survivor dramedy accesses an untrafficked corner of post-war history: that of those Jewish people who, having survived the camps, elected to stay in broken, battle-scarred Germany. Yet, the comedy and drama cancel each other out rather than collide in the energetic, provocative way that typifies the best of this tricky category; the result is curiously unmoving.
An end title tells us that 4,000 such people did exist, and strangely adds, “None of them could ever tell their children why they did it.” “Bye Bye Germany,” based mostly on co-screenwriter Michel Bergmann’s debut novel “The Traveling Salesmen,” inspired by his own family history, attempts to account for the phenomenon, but the reasoning proffered is hardly revelatory. Those who stayed, represented here by Moritz Bleibtreu’s David Bermann, did so partly out of defiance, partly out of opportunism, and partly out of attachment to a country that they and their murdered families had called home, sometimes for generations. Those who left, often for the promise of a new life in America, did so for equally understandable reasons, noble and ignoble. This is a fine, evenhanded conclusion — perhaps the only comclusion — for this modestly engaging story to come to, but should memorializing the Holocaust really be this cosy? There’s a storybook complacency to Garbarski’s filmmaking (indeed the literal translation of the German title is “Once Upon a Time in Germany”) that gives us the impression that all this is snow-globe history, put away behind glass on a shelf somewhere.
David (Bleibtreu), with a neatly trimmed mustache, cuts a fastidious figure as he smokes a cigarette through a holder amid the wreckage of 1946 Frankfurt — devastation that’s just a little too picturesquely dressed for the camera. David is in a camp for displaced persons, many of whom are fellow Jews, a small gang of whom he silkily recruits to his genially shady new business venture. This involves selling linens (his family business before the war) at inflated prices, but since the victims of the scam are Germans, there’s no real sense that David and company are doing anything wrong. In fact, the horror stories they all carry around — and we hear several of these — not only explain their roguish exploits, they wholly justify them.
But David has a secret: He’s being interrogated regularly by comely American Army investigator Sara Simon (Antje Traue) on suspicion of having been a collaborator. The unlikely story of his time in the camp, during which his facility with jokes made him a pet of the commandant, who then recommended him as a kind of joke-trainer for the famously humorless Hitler, forms the other strand of the film, largely related in flashback.
The Jew Who Taught Hitler How to Tell a Joke is, however, a much more compelling, if also far less tasteful story than the one we get. Here, the knottier themes of survivor’s guilt, retributive justice, and the hazy line between collaboration and doing anything to survive are very much presented, but none of them takes a particularly surprising or insightful tack.
Bleibtreu is solid as ever, as are the rest of the ensemble, especially a soulful Václav Jakoubek as tragic figure Krautberg. But decent performances and good intentions can’t compensate for a sense of airlessness, reinforced by the kind of ersatz period detailing that makes this costume drama feel so very costume-y. The locations are too considered in their artful disarray, the hats unscuffed, the cars unspattered by mud; there’s one point at which some rain on Sara’s green wool coat causes a shiver of dismay: but it looks so new! And while it’s hard to judge the effect in spoken German, certainly in written subtitles it seems like very often the dialogue makes detours just to incorporate some Yiddish color — shiksa, meshuggah, dybbuk. “Bye Bye Germany,” is well-intentioned and sporadically amusing, but as an accretion of these manufactured details, feels like a painstakingly constructed, neat diorama of a moment in history that surely should be ragged and vital with rage and grief and the messiness of life.