Documentary ‘Germans and Jews’ to screen in Aspen |

Documentary ‘Germans and Jews’ to screen in Aspen

Fritz Stern, who fled Nazi Germany for the U.S. in 1938, in the documentary "Germans and Jews."
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Germans and Jews,’ presented by Aspen Film

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Saturday, Feb. 4, 5:30 p.m.

How much: $50

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More info: The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Janina Quint and producer Tal Recanati. Tickets to a post-screening reception are $100.

Berlin has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe and Germany is now home to more than 200,000 Jews. These extraordinary facts inspired filmmaker Janina Quint to examine the complicated relationship between Germans and Jews in the country today.

The result is her debut film, “Germans and Jews,” a thoughtful and nuanced look at the decades since World War II and the Holocaust as generations reckoned with the country’s past.

The documentary, which Aspen Film will screen Saturday at Paepcke Auditorium, is structured like a conversation. It offers perspectives of Germans and Jews, young and old, descendants of Nazis and Holocaust survivors and Jewish newcomers to Germany, along with scholars, psychiatrists, educators and museum curators. Some of them are still working out their feelings, which makes for a uniquely nuanced film — not only about contemporary Germany but about human nature, shame and reconciliation.

The centerpiece of the film is a dinner party, which gathers a diverse group of Germans from Quint and producer Tal Recanti’s generation (both were born in 1963) to talk out their feelings and the shameful legacy of anti-Semitism in the country.

“The dinner confirmed that it’s a highly complex and very sensitive subject,” Quint, who moved to the U.S. in 1983, said in a recent phone interview. “And we were trying to reflect that in the film.”

Quint began researching the documentary after learning about the booming Jewish population in Berlin. Growing up there in the 1970s, she said, she never would have thought Jews from around the world would move to Berlin. At the end of the Holocaust, she noted, such a phenomenon would have been unthinkable.

The process was a slow and steady one, which the film tracks from the 1950s, when most Germans did not discuss their Nazi past, to the trial of Adolf Eichman and the student protest movement of the 1960s, which forced many Germans to confront the atrocities of the Holocaust. The big shift for West Germany, however, came from a film: the U.S.-produced documentary series “Holocaust,” broadcast in 1979, drew 20 million German viewers.

“I turned to my parents and said, ‘What? Did this happen? Is this fiction?’” one woman recalls of the broadcast in “Germans and Jews.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 began the process of confronting the past in East Germany. As a united whole, the country undertook an aggressive self-examination, depicted in “Germans and Jews” with a sociological look at memorials, museum exhibitions, educational initiatives and a national embrace of Jewish culture exemplified in the installation of a massive Menorah standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

“It’s probably the only society that builds memorials to its own shame and atrocity,” Quint said. “It was a struggle, in German society, from silence in the ’50s to breaking that silence in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and it was a slow progression. Each passing generation added to it.”

The film doesn’t touch on the recent resurgence of far-right nationalists in Germany or the rise of the Alternative for Deutschland party, which has put Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chances for re-election in danger this coming September. But the seeds of this unexpected movement and the backlash against Merkel for welcoming Syrian refugees, Quint pointed out, are depicted in the film.

“For Merkel to let the Syrians into Germany has absolutely everything to do with German history,” she said.

But “Germans and Jews” does underscore the fragility of Western Democracy and the vigilance necessary to beat back anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

“Germany produced, for the first time in modern history, successful democratic institutions and extraordinary political leadership,” Fritz Stern, who fled Nazi Germany for the U.S. in 1938, says in the film. “The present burden is to make clear to the younger generation: ‘Listen, that achievement has to be defended.’”