Bye Bye Germany (Sam Garbarski, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
First, a few words about German actor Moritz Bleibtreu. Ever since I first saw him in Tom Tykwer’s 1998 Run Lola Run (in which he played Lola’s boyfriend, Manni), he has impressed with his seemingly effortless charm, whether in films like Fatih Akin’s In July, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex or Bill Condon’s mostly spiritless The Fifth Estate, to name but some. That poise and charisma are on full display in Bye Bye Germany, a movie that pulls off the near-impossible hat trick of combining light comedy, romance and the Holocaust in a way that offers a fresh perspective on this well-worn (but always vital) topic. Indeed, Bleibtreu’s presence is one of the reasons it works. The other is the extremely smart script.
Directed by Sam Garbarski (Irina Palm) and written by Michel Bergmann (adapted from his Die Teilacher trilogy of novels), Bye Bye Germany starts off looking like a bleak exploration of the Holocaust, with a one-legged dog (a sharp, recurring metaphor) hobbling out of a concentration camp, at night, but then quickly morphs into something far more unusual. It’s 1946, and the war is over. Germany’s surviving Jews have not yet left, but are gathered, instead, in “displaced-person” camps (which look a lot like Nazi death camps, from the outside). Bleibtreu’s David Bermann, cracking wise, even if the sole survivor of a family of Jewish linen merchants, gathers a team of like-minded tough men to sell sheets and towels to the local German population. His hope is to earn enough to be able to go to America with a nice startup fund. L’Chaim, he tells his recruits: Hitler is dead, but we’re still alive.
With great energy and gusto, the men go to work, occasionally sharing stories of their horrific experiences in various camps. A determined, clever bunch, they run cons on the Germans to make quick bucks (though the product they hawk is genuine). “We’re the Jewish revenge,” says one. Meanwhile, Bermann, in a surprise twist, disappears on some afternoons, forced to testify to the American occupying forces about his alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Improbable as his tale seems, spinning it to a very skeptical Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue, Despite the Falling Snow) – a German-born interpreter for the U.S. army, also Jewish – what unfolds in his narrative is so improbable it can’t not be true, despite Bermann’s by this point well-established pattern of witty embellishment. It’s so crazy it must have happened.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is the way it explores the sheer psychotic madness of the Final Solution, and how little the rest of the world did to stop it, as well as the oppressive guilt of the survivors. Those who perpetrated the genocide and/or acquiesced to it were mostly just ordinary folks – the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt famously described – willing or passive participants in the system of the day. There is nothing extraordinary in humanity’s propensity to slide into violence. There is. however, always something exceptional in good dramatic treatments of difficult subjects, particularly when they offer innovative new takes on them. Though a little too pat in some of its resolutions, Bye Bye Germany is bracingly original, and a powerful new addition to the canon of Holocaust movies.
[In German, with English subtitles.]