Back to the Fatherland: Never Again, by Dayne Linford
It’s so straightforward, it’s disarming. A group of people sit around a table somewhere in Israel, some Jewish Israelis, others Germans or Austrians, all too young to remember the history they’re trying to reckon with and yet forced to reckon with it all the same. The director of this documentary, Kat Rohrer, a tall, Austrian woman with curly dark brown hair and a wide, open face, puts it out blunty, asking if it’s possible, and how it could be possible, to put that history behind them, to honor it and lay it to rest. Her co-director, blonde, sharp-featured Israeli Gil Levanon, looks over the group, a nervous smile on her face. And they all launch into it, from the German who asks if it’s possible to just forget it, seeming to be completely fine with that erasure, to the Israelis who cannot escape their own political situation with the Palestinian refugees, even in a conversation about the Holocaust that helped propagate the creation of the state whose very uncertain existence looms over all their heads. It’s a polite, civil discussion but the moral weight of the conversation is unmistakable and that narrative of victim and perpetrator upended, as one Israeli states, “There were two lessons Israel could learn from the Holocaust. One was to never let this happen again, and the other was to never let this happen again to us. Israel has chosen to never let this happen again to us.”
Rohrer and Levanon here give us a documentary about the interstitial nature of modern existence, reflecting on the political crossroads facing the entire world by zeroing in on just a few young Israelis who’ve chosen to move back to the land that so violently ejected, while attempting to eliminate, their forebears. One is Levanon herself, upon whom we open the film as she informs her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, of her plans, to be met with his categorical denial. The others are Dan, an artist living in Vienna, the city his grandmother fled many years ago, and Guy, engaged to Katharina Maschek, an Austrian woman, plagued with doubts about his hopes for continuing to live in Vienna and with the absence of his grandfather, who was forced out as well. Their hopes, fears, sorrow, histories and aspirations become the canvas on which the film plays out, with continuous commentary from the filmmakers, discussing with each other these same concerns, and others of their split nationalities. The beating heart of the piece, however, is the deep and powerful relationships between each of these subjects and the grandparent who survived their new homes half a century previous. Each grandparent, Lea for Dan and Uri for Guy, comes to visit them in their new homes, forcing painful remembrance and, perhaps, reconciliation.
The younger generation, moving through their new homes, occupy monuments and historical spaces and find themselves ill-equipped for when their grandparents arrive and occupy memories. Guy is visibly shook as Uri, generally so full of life and vigor, becomes deeply disturbed by the memory of the harassment of a Gestapo officer on the tram that nearly cost him his life, each dwelling on a past and potential reality, though only one is able to work through it in any meaningful fashion. Dan, looking for the grave of Lea’s mother, finally finds it, literally encased in vines, not just forgotten but obscured. Though Lea is honored with a plaque for the home she lost in Vienna, the actual memory of her mother’s living vitality was nearly lost to her and to her descendants by the simple nature of not being able to be there.
Perhaps the best element of the film is the way that this pervasive sense of loss is extended, surprisingly, into the Israeli occupation and conflict with the Palestinians. Though not a film about that protracted conflict, a narrative about homelands, futures, memories, and losses can’t help but reflect back on it, and Levanon and Rohrer do not shy away from it, nor do their subjects, who offer bald and competing commentary. Dan mentions the Israeli state as apartheid, leveraging it as part of his reasons for leaving, while Guy, in a kind of bitter apprehension, which he refers to elsewhere as a “Holocaust state of mind,” informs his fiance that Israel won’t disappear without taking the entire world with it, including Austria, to which her only possible reaction is a kind of frozen, conciliatory smile. Israelis, meeting with Germans and Autrians both in Israel and Vienna, can’t help but bring up the occupation, always reflecting back on it, and Guy clearly states that the migrant crisis makes existence in Austria, for him, a no-win situation, opining that between a far right government that hates immigrants and a far left one that’s comprised of immigrants (a bit of a historical stretch), both would have no place or even liking for him. These conversations all begin to feel a lot like variations on a theme of identity politics, which moves towards exposing both the weaknesses of this kind of thinking as well as its necessity–for everyone involved, the question of their identity, layered across ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and political persuasions, has a palpable weight, carrying as it does, in very recent and somewhat distant history, the potential for death and violence. To be a Jew is to be in exile, except in Israel, but to be Israeli is to be an oppressor, except in Europe, where one is in exile. To be European is to face that same dichotomy, a historical legacy of violence and oppression, an alienation from your background because of its nature, and yet to be where everyone else wants to be, and to walk through the world with astounding advantages. Though their specter is omnipresent, at no point do we hear the perspective of any Palestinians or any refugees fleeing the violence in the Middle East, exposing a serious lack in the attempt to make this a complete interrogation of these ideas of homeland and exile. Every scene makes reference to our era’s current scapegoat population but missing their own voices renders their existence into a kind of metaphor for the Israelis and Austrians we’re following. I’ll own that this is a tough bind, as it would entail a great deal of additional work and footage, not to mention extensive restructuring but the alternative, rendering this already marginalized population voiceless and allowing only a cursory examination of the contemporary equivalent of our subjects, is morally dubious at best.
Ultimately, however, this is a deeply affecting film, and its willingness to delve into subjects that by nature have no objective answers, paired with astounding suffering, is truly to be admired. Though there’s some territory left unexplored that would have been particularly fruitful, what is explored is done so thoroughly and with powerful sympathy. I can’t say this is a hopeful film, but it’s an acutely human one, and it honors all of its subjects in the way the best documentaries do, helping to further the vital work of reckoning with the recent past and owning up to our place in it.