How Young Israel Dealt With the Controversy of German-language Films

In the 1950s and 60s, many argued that allowing German to be heard for purposes of entertainment was harmful to the memory of the Holocaust

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Israeli soldiers outside the Sderot cinema in Tel Aviv, 1955.
Israeli soldiers outside the Sderot cinema in Tel Aviv, 1955.Credit: Government Press Office
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

German director Lars Karume’s latest film “The Silent Revolution” is now showing in Israel. It tells the true story of a group of high-school students in a small city in East Germany, who in 1956 expressed their identification with the revolt against the Soviet Union in Hungary at that time and were accused of anti-revolutionary activity.


Not long ago another movie by a German director, Christian Petzold’s “Transit,” appeared in our theaters. Its story is about a German refugee who, after fleeing to France after the Nazi invasion, assumes the identity of a dead author whose papers he possesses in order to emigrate.

The past rules German cinema – and German cinema has a fraught past in our local context as well. German-language films that were made either in Germany or Austria started being screened in Israel in the mid-1950s.

Pedestrian in Zion squar, Jeruslaem, 1950.Credit: Fritz Cohen / Government Press Office

They were not realistic treatments of the Germany existing at that time – for example, like Wolfgang Staudte’s “Murderers Among Us,” which already in 1946 had dealt with the post-war integration of Nazis into German society, or “The Lost One” from 1951, the excellent but only film directed by Jewish actor Peter Lorre.

In the latter, Lorre played a doctor who engaged in medical experiments during the war, murdered his wife who had betrayed him, and gave some of his research data to the Allies out of avarice. The total failure of "The Lost One" prevented Lorre from ever directing again and he returned to Hollywood. The time has come for the Israeli audience to be exposed to this Expressionist film noir that – echoing its title – has been considered "lost” for many years.

Anyway, instead of movies like those, in Israel the German-language films that were screened in the 1950s and '60s were the comedies, the musicals and the period melodramas that Germany and Austria produced during those years.

Of course, showing such films in the Israel of that era was controversial. Many argued that allowing German to be heard for purposes of entertainment was harmful to the memory of the Holocaust and the survivors, of whom there were many among us. But that’s precisely the kicker: Many residents of Israel at the time were German-speaking immigrants from Germany itself or other countries, who were fond of the popular German and Austrian films that reminded them of a world that had disappeared. For example, my parents – who immigrated from Germany to Palestine in 1935 and did not read German any more but switched over to English – still enjoyed watching those films, as did I; watching them connected me to my parents’ memories.

The greatest hit of all was the 1955 film “Sissi,” the first in a trilogy in which the young Romy Schneider portrayed Princess Elizabeth, who married the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. The film had a very long run here. It was an international success and new versions of the trilogy continued to be reissued regularly.

A poster of 'Sissi', 1955.

To deal with the controversy German-language films provoked here, Israel's censorship board decided to approve for screening only those that had been carefully scrutinized to ensure that none of the actors in them had a Nazi past – that is, they had not been members of the party or served in the army, or had not even been in Germany during the war, or were too young to be incriminated. Of course, such sweeping scrutiny is not possible but to some extent the policy reassured those opposed to the screening of movies produced in Germany or Austria.

The most famous instance in the context of the censorship back then, in fact, concerned one of the James Bond films. In 1964, here as in the rest of the world, “Goldfinger” – the third film in the series and possibly the best of them – came to local theaters. In it German actor Gert Fröbe played the villainous title role, but after it had enjoyed several weeks of successful screenings, it emerged that Fröbe had been a member of the Nazi Party. "Goldfinger" was banished from local theaters, but brought back a short while later, when it was learned that Fröbe had helped save a Jewish family in Vienna from the Nazis.

From banal to high quality

As the number of German-speakers in Israel dwindled, so did the number of popular German and Austrian films brought into the country, until the phenomenon disappeared entirely. In Germany itself, in reaction to the mostly banal popular movies that were produced there in the post-war decades, a new generation of filmmakers arose, called “the New German Cinema.” They included Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff, Edgar Reitz, Margarethe von Trotta, Wim Wenders – and most important of all – Rainer Werner Fassbinder. When works by these directors started appearing in Israel, German cinema ceased to be a source of entertainment solely for German-speakers, and took its place among the high-quality cinema enjoyed by local film buffs during that period.

The real blockbuster was Fassbinder’s 1978 “The Marriage of Maria Braun.” Though he had been directing films back in the mid-1960s, this was the first of Fassbinder's works to be screened commercially in Israel. It depicted the story of a war widow trying to survive in Germany immediately after World War II, and in the years of economic prosperity that followed. The film attacked head-on the way Germany had rebuilt itself with the help of the United States, and portrayed a reality in which materialism was the mother of all aspirations and left no room for feelings. Fassbinder declared back then that his aim was to create a series of films that would portray the history of Germany during the entire 20th century. The project came to an abrupt end with Fassbinder’s death in 1982 at the age of 37 from a drug overdose. A terrible blow to the history of cinema.

Fassbinder’s final works brought the way the past was treated in German cinema to its highest peak, to date. It was irony that ruled in his melodramas – not the romanticization and obvious nostalgia informing the German movies that are now coming here and are dealing with Germany’s Nazi or communist past, or sometimes both. In “The Silent Revolution,” set in East Germany during the communist era, the Nazi past is present as an element of the plot.

>> A radical movie about the Holocaust, set in present-day France

Israeli soldiers outside the Sderot cinema in Tel Aviv, 1955.Credit: Government Press Office

What is the source of the romanticization and nostalgia? Certainly not a longing for the Nazi period or the communist regime. It is a longing that is especially evident in mainstream films like “The Silent Revolution,” for simpler days, when it was possible to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, and between the brave and the cowardly. In those days, there were heroes.

Even if more sophisticated directors than Lars Kraume, who directed this new effort (and also the disgraceful 2015 film “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” about the district attorney in the German state of Hessen who aims to capture Adolf Eichmann) are aware of the ambivalence of the attitude with regard to the past, most of them nonetheless lean in the nostalgic direction. Even in 2016, when French actor Vincent Perez directed his English-speaking version of Hans Fallada’s novel “Alone in Berlin,” with non-German actors in the leading roles – that tendency was obvious in the film.

The most interesting director active in Germany today, at least among those whose films – which are few in number – have come to theaters in Israel, is Christian Petzold. In his 2012 film “Barbara,” which tells the story of a woman doctor in a rural hospital in East Germany in the 1980s, there were indeed signs of the same tendency, but his next film, “Phoenix,” from 2014, was different: That film – about a woman Holocaust survivor whose face had been mangled and reconstructed, and arrives in Berlin to find her husband, who had turned her in to the Gestapo – transformed the past into a film noir in harsh colors that share elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” (In my opinion, “Phoenix” is the best film about Germany’s past since Fassbinder’s work.)

>> 'BlacKkKlansman' is less angry than Spike Lee’s previous films

Petzold’s 2018 film “Transit,” which flickered across our screens all too quickly, took a daring creative step by combining a story set during the war with portrayal of Germany today, so as to endow the past with a sense of memory as hallucination.

The poster of Wolfgang Staudte’s 'Murderers Among Us.'

And there are also the pasts of other countries and peoples. Take, for example, the 2018 Polish film “Cold War” directed by Pawe Pawlikowski, now at local theaters. It tells the story of an impossible love affair that takes place in Poland and elsewhere, between the late 1940s and the 1960s. This too is a film of longing, but this longing is wrapped in bitterness and melancholy, accompanied by a lack of acceptance.

It seems to me that apart from Petzold’s works, German cinema of today, in its dealings with the country's past, has not yet succeeded in looking back from the point of view of the prevailing cinematic mindset.

A scene of the German movie “The Silent Revolution.”Credit: Julia Terjung

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