'Hanna’s Journey': As Deep as a Zionist TV Infomercial

The superficiality of Julia von Heinz’s exploration of the way young Germans and Israelis deal with the conflicts of the past prevents her film from achieving emotional heft.

Hanna’s Journey Directed by Julia von Heinz; written by Julia von Heinz, John Quester; with Karoline Schuch, Doron Amit, Leah Koenig, Suzanne von Borsody

If it were not a 100-minute-long feature, and were its heroine not a non-Jew, German director Julia von Heinz’s “Hanna’s Journey” might have been one of those Zionist TV infomercials in which Jews from around the world describe their experiences coming to Israel. The movie is about as deep as this kind of clip, and about as blunt in its agenda. Too bad, because “Hanna’s Journey” touches on issues that might have made it a significant film if only Heinz and her co-writer, John Quester, had been willing to explore them in depth.

We’ve seen many movies about members of second- and third-generations grappling with the memory of the Holocaust; there have been fewer films about how the children and grandchildren of Germans who lived during World War II deal with their country’s past. “Hanna’s Journey” joins this latter group and touches some aspects of the phenomenon in question. But it does so in such a shallow way that the result does not build up into a work of conceptual or emotional substance. The movie takes a somewhat ironic view of the way German youths today regard Germany’s past, but even this irony is so cautious that it fails to add any heft to Heinz’s film.

Social activism is a helpful item to have on your résumé, and even more so when the résumé belongs to an ambitious young German and the activism involves Jews. And so Hanna (Karoline Schuch), who is trying to land a job with a prestigious company, decides to spend some months in Israel. All she has to do is ask her activist mother (Suzanne von Borsody) to pull some strings, and off she goes. If cool-minded Hanna thought she would spend a while vacationing in the Holy Land, her mother, who runs a peace organization, has other plans: she makes sure that Hanna’s stay in Israel includes working with disabled children and meeting a Holocaust survivor to hear her story. Hanna arrives in Israel not too thrilled about the lists of tasks ahead of her, and the movie touches on – or rather, again, only flutters above – the sense of guilt instilled in German youths from the time they are children, a guilt that Hanna has had quite enough of.

However, her visit to Israel changes all that. One of the movie’s wiser choices was to make the Holocaust survivor Hanna meets not a pitiful figure but rather an impressive academic, Gertrude (Leah 
Koenig), and in having 
Gertrude refrain from inundating Hanna with stories of the war – on the contrary, even. She ends up directing Hanna to her own past, when – in a less-than-believable plot twist – Gertrude takes one look at Hanna and spots the resemblance to her mother, whom she had once met in Israel. This chance occurrence leads Hanna to discover the secrets of her own family from the Nazi era, secrets that have been kept from her thus far and which she would prefer not to know. In this sense, “Hanna’s Journey” is similar to “Sarah’s Key,” the book and movie about an American journalist who likewise makes discoveries about what her French husband’s family did during the war. The fact that Heinz’s heroine is a young German woman should have made this part of the story sharper, but it is presented in such a superficial way that its dramatic and emotional power dissolves.

And there is, of course, a guy: Itay (Doron Amit), Hanna’s intended mentor at the institution for disabled children where she is sent to volunteer. They are immediately drawn to each other, but as is usually the case in movies where the man and woman represent opposite sides of some conflict – in this case, the German-Israeli one – their attraction is accompanied by mutual sarcasm, which tells us that they are meant for each other and that it is only a matter of time before they fall into each other’s arms. Here Heinz uses the conventions of romantic comedy, but they seem rather mechanical and contrived.

Hanna and Itay, and the actors playing them, don’t have the chemistry needed to provide romantic fervor, and the ensuing romance is boring. That, too, is a fumbled opportunity, because if the love affair had been depicted in greater depth, it might have brought into relief the ambivalence of Israel’s contemporary attitude toward Germany. Itay taunts Hanna about the ease with which she handles her country’s past, and she taunts him about his masculine Israeli directness and lack of European manners. But the taunting is too easy, even childish; it does not make us like the characters, identify with them or wish to see them end up together.

The sense of a missed opportunity is constant while watching “Hanna’s Journey.” The movie contains the materials for a drama about the similar and different ways in which young Israelis and young Germans today struggle to come to terms with the past, but these materials have been flattened into a picture that is written and directed with neither inspiration nor depth. “Hanna’s Journey” approaches the private and historical dilemmas it raises with even less sophisticated thought than its heroine. If this is her journey, it leads to a bizarre ending that wants to say something meaningful, even ironic, about the bonds forming between German and Israeli youths today, but its intentions collapse into the film’s overall superficiality.