It had never occurred to me the degree to which I had overidentified Germany with Berlin until I watched the magnificent German film Jew-Boy Levi (Viehjud levi), which is (gorgeously) set in the rolling hills of the Black Forest in the mid-1930s. Formerly a documentarian, Didi Danquart, along with co-scenarist Martina Döcker, has adapted Thomas Strittmatter’s play about the cancerous madness taking over Germany’s mindset, in even so remote a place as the farm village where Benjamin Levi, cattle trader, is making his annual working visit. An unassuming young Jewish man whose sole company on the road is Jankel, his pet rabbit, Benjamin is used to feeling welcome in the village. This year will be different, however. There has been a sea-change in Germany and, as filmmaker Danquart forcefully shows, this shift to the right brings to the surface anti-Semitic feelings that in fact were burrowing and lying in wait. Danquart’s film took a major prize at Berlin and another at Jerusalem; at the latter festival it was honored in the category “Jewish Experience.” No wonder.
Benjamin Levi, this year, has not come only on business; he is also hoping to work up the courage to ask farmer Andreas Horger for his daughter Lisbeth’s hand in marriage. Benjamin loves Lisbeth, and the loneliness of his itinerant life aches for her companionship. Catholic, Horger and his wife, Kresenz, have never been less than hospitable to Benjamin; indeed, they have always looked forward to his visits and, first off, chide him for not coming sooner. Benjamin is widely respected in the village for continuing the work that his grandfather and father had done in succession. But tensions are high in the village right now, and both Andreas and Kresenz treat Benjamin differently in turn. At one point, flashing anger at Benjamin, Andreas discharges the epithet “killer of Christ,” to which, having heard that one a thousand times, Benjamin mutters, “Killer of Christ, yeah, yeah.” Prior to going out with Benjamin, Lisbeth asks about the lipstick she can’t find. “I threw it away,” Kresenz informs her daughter. “Why?” Lisbeth asks incredulously. Her mother’s response: “We are Catholic.” Now it’s Lisbeth’s turn to mutter: “I don’t understand.”
The disruption in the village isn’t the result of Benjamin’s visit. On the contrary, at first he seems to mesh right in, as he is accustomed to do. The disruption is the result of the visit of a couple from Berlin, both committed Nazis; one is the railway engineer who has been sent, accompanied by workers, to attend to the repair of worn train tracks and a collapsed tunnel, and the other is his mistress. They bring with them things that are totally strange to the villagers: a radio that picks up Berlin; a large ceremonial Nazi banner brandishing a swastika. When we see the latter at a public event, nothing could seem more incongruous. The farmland, the hills and trees: What does a swastika have to do with this place, or this place with a swastika? Indeed, anti-Hitler jokes are easily bandied about here, and an older man is smacked hard across the face for telling one, foolishly, to the engineer, who mutters, “He hasn’t felt the wind of change yet.” Hitler is no longer the would-be political figure; he is Der Führer.
It is necessary here to mention two things about Hitler and the times. Germany was in the throes of a severe economic depression that had been going on longer than our own—virtually since the end of World War I. It was his promise to turn things around that helped bring Hitler to the chancellorship in 1933. (The Wiemar Republic was democratic.) To help consolidate his power and declare himself dictator with minimal complaint, Hitler blamed Jews for the disastrous economic situation in Germany; he unified Germany with this appeal to Jew-hatred. Thus he turned Germany against one of their own minority groups for the sake of his position and power, but he could scarcely have succeeded to the extent that he did were he not tapping into a pre-existing bigotry—in this case, of course, an ancient bigotry. One might say, then, that Germany found its fulfillment in Hitler in the strangest and ugliest way. We all know what lay ahead. In the film, the engineer takes “Jew-Boy” aside when Benjamin complains that the wheels of his truck had been slashed in order to mutter at him, “You are nothing.” The engineer, who also performs magic tricks in public (like pulling a rabbit out of a hat), then makes an ominous gesture to underscore the “nothing” that he considers Benjamin to be: he turns over a palm and blows, as if scattering ashes to the wind. From the vantage of our historical knowledge, the message is clear: we Nazis will make you Jews disappear. When, defeated, Benjamin returns to his truck, he finds Jankel, murdered, in a bloody bag hanging from it. The world is tragically upside-down and inside-out; the magician who makes rabbits appear has now made a cherished one disappear. This is yet another way to say to Benjamin Levi, “You are nothing.”
In a dramatically intricate and highly complex scene in the restaurant where Lisbeth works as a waitress, and where the community normally gathers after the day’s work, one by one, those who haven’t yet fully turned against Benjamin do so—except for Lisbeth. After singing a song of hate for Jews, two of the Nazi workers twist Benjamin’s ears, ordering him to sing, too. Lisbeth demands that her father do something. Reluctantly, very mildly, Andreas orders the men to leave Benjamin alone. When they taunt him by saying he must also be a Jew to speak up for one in this way, Andreas turns on Benjamin. He is not alone in pointing the finger at Benjamin and declaring him the source of the social disharmony—a modern age’s pestilence—with which the village has become infected. Even Paul, Benjamin’s rival for Lisbeth’s affection, the one of the villagers most aggressively opposed to the Nazis, whom the Nazis have savagely beaten (for planting cow dung in the hat that the engineer had hoped to pull a rabbit out of), ultimately sides with the Nazis and the others against Benjamin. In no other film that I can recall is the dynamic of scapegoating, the social process of hate, been so clearly, calmly exposed; we are permitted to see characters who are very far from being monsters fall in line with monsters, one after another, and we watch in grief and horror. Finally, Lisbeth brandishes a gun, holding it on the Nazis, and commands Benjamin to go. She means to protect him; but she is also separating herself from him forever. In the film’s mesmerizing final shot, a long shot, the rear light of the motorcycle on which “Jew-Boy” Levi leaves, alone, in the deep darkness of night recedes and recedes. The scene is silent: the opposite of the daylight scene of Benjamin’s arrival, where he joyously sings in anticipation of his Lisbeth and philosophizes to his devoted audience, Jankel. The world lay all before him. Now he is disappearing into the silent dark, becoming a “nothing” before our very eyes: the most haunting intimation of the Holocaust in all of cinema.
Bruno Cathomas is a fine Benjamin Levi, and Caroline Ebner is superb as Lisbeth Horger. Lisbeth’s mother is played wonderfully well by Eva Mattës, more than twenty years after playing Marie in Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1976).
Danquart has made a very fine and totally unsentimental film—and one quite unlike any other I’ve seen.
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