Rob Edelman: Germans...And Jews...And Brigitte Helm | WAMC

Rob Edelman: Germans...And Jews...And Brigitte Helm

Jun 27, 2016

Given the reality of the Holocaust-- and this truth is forcefully examined in SON OF SAUL, the 2015 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner-- one might wonder why there presently is a rapidly-growing Jewish population in Berlin. Granted, over seven decades have passed since the end of World War II but, still, by settling in Berlin, are Jews somehow ignoring that country’s less than stellar history?

This is but one of numerous issues that are explored in GERMANS & JEWS, a new documentary that works best as a dialogue between, well, Germans and Jews. In this dialogue, despite their general nature, the two core questions are: How do Jews really feel about Germans? And how do Germans really feel about Jews?

Others cover a range of topics, and how they might link the present and the past. Some center on Jews, and they only begin with: How do older Jews who survived the war view contemporary Germany? After the war, should those surviving Jews have accepted reparations from Germany? What about those Jews who re-settled in Germany after the war? Did they ever deal directly or subtly with any sort of anti-Semitism? And regarding Germans, the questions include: How do those who were born after the war feel about their country’s history? Was it ever explained to them as they were coming of age? If so, how did they respond? Did they ever wonder: How were my parents or grandparents involved in the war? Were they Nazis? Were they fascists? Were they guilty of committing heinous crimes? Taking this a bit further, is a German who died in the war a perpetrator or a victim?

GERMANS & JEWS is not a flawless film. For instance, the manner in which writers and filmmakers have dealt with the Holocaust and its aftermath mostly is missing. The impact of the broadcast in Germany of HOLOCAUST, the 1979 American-made TV miniseries, is acknowledged, but so much could have been added. Additionally, the interviewees mostly are educators and artists. It might have helped if blue collar types were queried. Also, what of any virulent anti-Semitism that exists in present-day Germany? Are there neo-Nazis who model themselves after Adolph Hitler? If so, what might they have to say?

Still, GERMANS & JEWS poses questions that are well-worth considering. And the bottom line here is the significance of acknowledging and understanding one’s past.

On a different yet not completely unrelated note, an intriguing albeit little-known German film from 1934 has just come to home entertainment. It is titled GOLD, and it is a science fiction tale that was made just as Hitler was coming to power. What is special about GOLD is the presence of its female star. She is Brigitte Helm, who is best-recalled for her iconic presence in METROPOLIS, Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi masterpiece. And in GOLD, she exudes a distinct star quality.

For sure, plenty of foreign-born actors came to Hollywood after starting their careers in their home countries. This list begins with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, and Hedy Lamarr. But what of Brigitte Helm? What was her plight? What was her fate? A bit of research tells us that Brigitte Helm was the first choice to star in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 classic, THE BLUE ANGEL, but Dietrich ended up being cast. James Whale wanted her to star in 1935’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but she demurred because she did not want to go Hollywood.

Reportedly, Helm earned the ire of the Nazis for marrying her second husband, who is described as “an industrialist of Jewish background.” So in 1935, she retired from the screen and the pair moved to Switzerland. They had four children and from then on she lived in obscurity, forever refusing to discuss her career. Brigitte Helm passed away in 1996, at the age of 90, but she lives on in METROPOLIS-- and in GOLD.

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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