Opening 6 Apr 2017
Adapted from the first two novels of Michel Bergmann’s Teilacher trilogy, Es war einmal in Deutschland is a dark comedy about the time immediately following the end of World War II. It tells the tale of a group of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who wish to leave Germany and move to the United States to start a new life. The one thing holding them back is a lack of funds, so David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) puts together a scheme where they will work as traveling salesmen, using any means at their disposal to sell their wares to the unwitting Germans around them. Meanwhile, David also has to contend with the Americans investigating his behavior during the war. Was he a collaborator? Or was he merely doing what he could to survive?
An interesting examination of the re-assimilation of European Jews following the war, Es war einmal in Deutschland largely suffers from tonal issues. At times poignant, these moments are often quickly dismissed in favor of lightweight humor and an unconvincing romantic subplot between David and the woman investigating his past. Bleibtreu steals the show throughout and his character is actually rather interesting, so it seems particularly unfortunate that the screenplay could not have been written by a more adept hand. The weakness of the screenplay is evident throughout, and extends to the ensemble characters of which there are too many to get to know properly or care about.
Also, those who are not well versed in Yiddish may at times find themselves at a loss as the characters use it quite often. It is possible that for German audiences this wouldn’t be an issue, but with English subtitles it was sometimes difficult to understand. In fact, this focus on the German audience weakens the film not just in its overuse of Yiddishisms, but also in the effectiveness of the humor as at several important moments the jokes were completely untranslatable. So while Es war einmal in Deutschland is a generally enjoyable film, primarily due to Bleibtreu’s charismatic performance, its script failures prevent it from truly being great. (Rose Finlay)