Review: Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

This “based on a true story” movie takes place in 1946, in a displaced persons camp, where those who survived the Nazi death camps are being held until they can get themselves to America. But they need money to do that. Enter David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu), a man with a plan. His family had a linen shop before the war, and he recruits a group of salesmen to sell high-end linens to the gullible Germans surrounding them. But while the biz goes well, he’s also being interrogated by an American Army Investigator (Antje Traue) who suspects that he collaborated with the Nazis. The film is by turns funny and sad and sweet and horrifying. And well worth seeing.

As David tells his story to his interrogator, we flash back to the concentration camp where he told jokes to pass the time. The camp’s commander makes him compete with another jokester, and the loser gets sent to “the showers.” As the winner he’s informed he gets to teach unfunny Hitler how to tell a joke, because he’s got a meeting Mussolini coming up. “But Oberfürher, I’m a Jew.” “Yes, but the Führer doesn’t know that.” “I thought the Führer knew everything.” “That’s a good one!” Meanwhile the rest of the salesmen (Mark Ivanir, Tim Seyfi, Anatole Taubman) deal with their lives and demons as they plan their escape from Germany. And in a much needed pep talk David reminds them, “Just remember that Hitler is dead, and we are still alive.”

Bye Bye Germany is a most unusual Holocaust dramedy. On the surface the men are gleefully conning their tormentors. But underneath is the deep sorrow of shattered souls and tenuous comradery. Moritz Bleibtreu’s beautiful multilayered performance takes center stage, but all the men have their own memories they’re trying to outrun. I liked this movie a lot. And I’d recommend it to foreign film lovers, people who like very human stories, and yes, it does have a sort of arty feel. But don’t let that keep you away.

[For Mainstream Chick’s take on Bye Bye Germany, check out this edition of the Cinema Clash podcast]

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