The Film That Solves the Mystery of the Family Café in Berlin

The legendary Nagler Cafe was apparently a cultural hub in the 1920s. Trouble is, nobody seems to remember it.

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Nagler cafe
The Nagler Cafe as envisaged in the film.
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Throughout the years, several ghosts from the past would join every festive meal of the Kaplansky family. The special dishes would be removed from the cupboard. The letter N etched on each and every dish flooded the room with the family’s glorious past, and reminded all the family members of the famous Nagler Café, which was run by Klara Rosa and Ignatz Nadler in 1920s Berlin. The family legends about the large, elegant, bustling Bohemian café were required listening all family members.

The Naglers’ granddaughter, Naomi Kaplansky, told her children and grandchildren the stories she had heard about the Berlin café on Moritzplatz which hosted the celebrities of 1920s Berlin, from Albert Einstein to Franz Kafka to Bertolt Brecht. She explained that it was a magnet for writers, poets, actors and directors, showed them pictures of the culinary-cultural institution, and explained that her grandparents sold the café in 1925 in order to immigrate to Palestine, following their two sons who came here with a Zionist youth group. Thanks to its halo of glory and its bohemian atmosphere, Café Nagler became the high point of family legends.

A few years ago, while she was studying for a doctorate in cinema, Kaplansky’s granddaughter Mor asked her grandmother why she had never made a film about Café Nagler. Naomi Kaplansky, a producer and documentary filmmaker who has been with Israeli television since its inception and helped create several of the flagships of documentary film at TV headquarters in Romema, Jerusalem, including “Pillars of Fire,” was surprised at the question.

In her generation, personal documentaries were far less common. “I didn’t want to brag, and told Mor that I had no intention of making such a film,” she recalls. But when her granddaughter asked whether Naomi minded if she made that film, she consented immediately.

That consent sent Mor on a geographical, historical and genealogical journey, whose result, the documentary film “Café Nagler” – produced by Liran Atzmor with the support of Keshet TV and the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund – is now being shown in cinematheques all over the country and on Thursday will be screened at the Berlin Film Festival.

At the start of the film it seems to follow the usual format of peeling the layers of history from a very dusty family story. But then, when things begin to get complicated, the film takes a surprising turn and Kaplansky reveals that the Holy Grail that she is seeking is not really a grail (cup), and apparently is not so holy either.

The moment she realizes that the facts are very far from her family legend, and recognizes that historical truth has no intention of cooperating with her, she adapts herself to the situation and abandons the serious documentation for a “mockumentary” (mock documentary) work. The result is a film that is both original and surprising, plays with the connection between legend and history, and thanks to the warm relationship between grandmother and granddaughter, manages to be touching as well.

The first part of the film, directed by Kaplansky with her partner Yariv Barel, is devoted to a long chain of disappointments. The director goes in search for evidence and material about the large and magnificent Café Nagler, but every thread she finds quickly unravels. An expert on the historic cafes of Berlin takes her on a tour of the city, bombards her with details and stories, but in the end admits that he has never heard of Café Nagler; a historian she meets explains that this cafe was apparently a charming neighborhood café, but not much more; and a feverish search of the newspapers of the time uncovers no more than a small and extremely marginal item.

The image of Café Nagler becomes increasingly shakier, but the director makes sure to hide the failures from her grandmother, who is waiting in Israel, closely following the progress of the film meant to commemorate the family legend that is so dear to her heart.

Shattering the family myth

Hope of salvation comes momentarily when a sweet and smiling old man is found, who tells the director that in his childhood he used to go with his parents to Café Nagler and spent days on end there. Grandmother Naomi is summoned from Israel. A moving encounter between the two is recorded by the camera. They exchange fragmentary memories of the café – she draws them from pictures and stories, he from very distant memories; they sing songs from the period together, and enjoy a shared memory of the woman who ran the café.

Mor felt that the Holy Chalice had been found, that she could finally breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief, that Café Nagler would enjoy glorious documentation after all. But then the reliability of the witness comes into question.

The film's director, Mor Kaplansky with her grandmother Noami.Credit: David Bachar

Another director would probably have given up at this point and admitted to herself that without material there was no point in insisting on the film any longer, but Kaplansky was determined not to disappoint her grandmother and not to shatter the family myth that had survived for almost 100 years. The solution was found in the guise of a cultural phenomenon that she says is spreading nowadays in Germany: “There’s a crazy revival of the 1920s there, loads of people with an obsession for the period, who dress in the style of the time, stage burlesque performances, adopt names from the period.

“They’re living in La La Land, but I became very close to them. I felt that we were similar – that I also have a nostalgic concept of our family history in the 1920s and that like them, I was searching for this period, yearning for it, for that optimistic, magnificent and larger-than-life past.”

Kaplansky joined the 1920s-style parties that they organized and was swept up in the creative spirit that hovered around those people. In the end she decided to ask them to come to her assistance, to revive Café Nagler for her, and to tell a personal story from their family history in front of the camera and include Café Nagler in it.

“The encounter aroused my creativity, and one of them told me something that really spoke to me: She explained that the 1920s are in effect the last period in which they, as Germans, can take pride.”

And so the film succeeded in bringing back to life, even if only for a few moments, the legendary Café Nagler, or at least its image as reflected in the stories of the Nagler descendants. With great charm it extricates the film from the blind alley it had reached due to the absence of evidence and historical documents about the café.

But it turns out that this original solution was unable to calm the anxiety that the director felt throughout work on the film. “What made me nervous, aside from how to solve the problem of an absence of material for the film, was how Naomi would react,” she says. “She’s sharp, on the ball, no bullshit, and I was afraid she would say to me, ‘What’s this nonsense?’ After all, she has dealt all her life with facts, documents, historical truth – she created ‘Pillar of Fire,’ the series ‘The Khazars’ – she delved into serious material and remained faithful to the facts. I felt that to come to her with this mischievous thing was mortal danger.”

Her grandmother hastens to interrupt. “Remove the words ‘faithful to the facts,’ because people tell stories, invent, imagine all the time,” she says. “The Bible, for example, is a collection of stories. A collection of stories construct what we call history, and even the most serious documentary series is based on stories. As far as I’m concerned, this principle enabled me to accept the film. I find it beautiful.”