BYE BYE GERMANY – movie review

BYE BYE GERMANY (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Film Movement
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sam Garbarski
Screenwriter:  Michel Bergmann, Sam Garbarski, based on Michel Bergmann’s “Die Teilacher” and “Machloikes
Cast:  Moritz Bleibtreu, Antje Traue, Tim Seyfi, Mark Ivanir, Anatole Taubman, Hans Low, Pal Macsai, Vaclav Jakoubek
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/7/18
Opens: April 27, 2018
Bye Bye Germany poster
Here are some of the words that turn up in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany.”  Schlemiel, L’Chaim, Tsuris, Shiksa, Schmuck, Tuchis, Meshuga, Mazel.  Do you know what these words mean?  Each is the basis for a little gag in a movie that is loaded with jokes.  If you are not familiar with any of these Yiddish and Hebrew terms, no matter.  You will understand them in context.  Jokey though the film may be, it has serious intentions.  The humor is often dark and ironic, the greatest irony being that 4,000 Jews including the principal character in “Bye Bye Germany” remained in Germany after the war, while most, after a stay in a Displaced Persons camp, took off for America and Palestine (later Israel).

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu), who holds his own throughout the movie as its anchor and hero, is one Jew camps survivor who in 1946 chooses to make a good living selling linens to Germans in Frankfurt.  He is questioned by Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue), who seems suspicious of any Jew who survived internment, and in this case she wants to find out whether Bermann should be punished as a collaborator with the Nazis.  Remember that some Jews were able to live longer than expected in horrific concentration camps like Auschwitz by playing musical numbers to make the condemned think they are going to the shower room and not the gas chambers.  Others, called kapos, were the Jewish police assigned by the Nazis to keep order, and some of them did so with the same brutality as the German officers on duty.  They are considered the lowest form of humanity among the prisoners.  Another way to survive was to entertain the SS, which is the way that Bermann, always ready with a quip to get the commandant (Christian Kmiotek)  in stitches, is valued by the Obersturmbanführer, “even though a Jew.”  This film is Bermann’s story to the special agent, who is skeptical of his claims.  And we in the audience are treated to his backstory, some of which involve embellishments, and some punctuating the way that Bermann, who raises a group of fellow survivors, manages to con some of the non-Jews of Frankfurt into buying his linens.

The story is adapted from the first two books by the German-Swiss novelist Michel Bergmann’s Teilacher trilogy, about a group of Jewish traveling salesmen.

Like the three-legged dog that appears now and then, hobbling along as though scarcely knowing that he is handicapped, Bermann makes the best of his precarious situation together with his partner Holzmann (Mark Ivanir).  In one scam David, who is the son of people who sold linens in a high-end store in Frankfurt until it was burned down, uses the old trick of pretending that a dead soldier had given an order and that his widow would naturally want to accept the linens and pay.  This is not only a way of raising money but also getting revenge on the Germans.  However the most significant vengeance is taken when one salesman, Krautberg (Vaclav Jakoubek), discovers that a man who sells newspapers is the very person who burned down a synagogue, killing Krautberg’s parents. Similarly special agent Sara gets her revenge by interrogating Nazis, a woman who had survived by escaping to American when escape was still a possibility.

Filmed in Luxembourg and Germany by cinematographer Virginia Saint-Martin, “Bye Bye Germany unfolds in a stunningrecreation of 1946 featuring cars with the split front windows that were the best that technology could offer at the same. Given Moritz Bleibtreu’s convincing, humorous, and poignant performance, a man whose roles in works like Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run,” a super-fast paced movie about a woman who has to raise a large sum of money within 20 minutes), is pitch perfect.

In German with English subtitles.

Unrated.  101 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical –B+
Overall – B+

HUMOR ME – movie review


Shout! Studios
Director: Sam Hoffman
Screenwriter: Sam Hoffman
Cast: Jemaine Clement, Elliott Gould, Ingrid Michaelson, Annie Potts, Priscilla Lopez, Bebe Neuwirth
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/8/17
Opens: January 12, 2018

Zimmerman goes to the doctor with a carrot in one ear, a stalk of celery in the other, and a string bean in his nose. He asks the doctor why he doesn’t feel so good. The doctor replies, “You’re not eating properly.”

What do you think of that gag? Pretty lame? Indeed. It’s the kind of humor you might find by Sam Hoffman, known in some circles for his book series and play “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” Hoffman’s “Humor Me” consists of a few other lame jokes, and perhaps the whole point of the movie is to warn us sophisticated film audiences to remember where we came from—say, from the 1950s when such quickies passed for comedy and when anything vulgar was called risqué as listeners, especially women, blushed.

The folks in Hoffman’s first movie, people whose ethnic-religious roots are not announced overtly but are simply members of a New Jersey retirement community, are no more steroetypically Jewish than the characters in Woody Allen’s comedies and Neil Simon’s plays. But based on the way they carry themselves, the way they talk, we can recognize the wit and wisdom as Jewish.

Like the plays of Neil Simon—think of “Broadway Bound” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs”—this one starts off with comic touches including quick looks at the way the jokes would look if they were acted out on TV. But the final segment gets into the more serious plane of a father-son situation, including attempts by both Nate (Jemaine Clement) and his aging father Bob (Elliott Gould) to connect. Nate’s wife Nirit (Maria Dizzia) has walked out on him and allegedly into the life of a French billionaire, taking their cute son with her. His writing talent blocked, Nate moves into a guest room in his dad’s home and tries to connect with him on a serious level, but Bob’s answer to his son’s conflicts has always been to crack a joke, to take nothing seriously. We are meant to think that Nate’s sad-sack appearance results from the lack of a strong father’s guidance.

Still, the heart of the movie is fun, however mild the humor and however moderate the father-son conflict. Nate, whose father has community member Willie (Ellis C. Carpenter) give him a job folding towels in the community gym, thinking that would inspire some discipline in the young man. But Nate ultimately gets his groove back when he directs a segment of “The Mikado” featuring the elderly women residents, and is hit upon by one woman, Helen (Le Clanche du Rand), letting him know that her door is always open and that in her day she had many famous lovers.

There are no belly-laughs, but who can find fault with a father’s trying to make up for a too-casual upbringing of his son, and his son’s appealing to a group of elderly residents to find some centering in his largely sad life?

I think that Zimmerman, who is the imaginary character of Bob’s jokes, is a stand-in for Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, but “Humor Me” is hardly “Portnoy’s Complaint,” nor does it pretend to be. And that’s fine.

So what’s the difference between an Orthodox Jewish wedding, a Conservative Jewish wedding, and a Reform Jewish wedding? In an Orthodox wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant. In a Conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant. In a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant. Where does that gag fit in? It doesn’t, but even in its modesty, it’s better than any of the quips in “Humor Me.” Still, it’s worth seeing just to root for Nate to find himself, and root we do.

Unrated. 93 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B-
Technical – C+
Overall – B-

THE LAST LAUGH – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Ferne Pearlstein
Written by: Ferne Pearlstein, Robert Edwards, inspired by Kent Kirshenbaum’s “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.”
Cast: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Renee Firestone, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, Larry Charles, Abraham Foxman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/13/17
Opens: April 12, 2017
The Last Laugh Movie Poster
An 87-year-old Jewish woman living in Miami Beach wins the 200 million dollar lottery.  She’s asked what she would do with the money.  “I would build a statue of Adolf Hitler!”  “Adolf Hitler!” replies the journalist?  “Sure,” she replies holding up her bare arm.  “Where do you think I got the number?”

Do you think this joke is a) unfunny and inappropriate, b) funny but inappropriate, c) funny and appropriate?  Your answer to this question could determine your response to a number of other gags on Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary, “The Last Laugh.” While most of us would probably think it’s OK to have fun with the Spanish Inquisition because of the number of centuries that have passed, others will hesitate to want to hear about an event so recent and so devastating as the Nazi Holocaust.

An array of current comedians, mostly Jewish, tackle the subject, some with object lessons in their stand-up acts, others facing the camera and answering queries about their attitudes.  The one person who is not a comedian and who is used here to act as a judge is Renee Firestone, a California-dwelling 89-year-old survivor who spends her time actively speaking to audiences such as the one in high school shown here in which the students looked riveted (you can tell because not one tried to text).  She does not hate the Nazis because, she says, hate kills and what’s more, though that six million Jews were killed over a twelve-year period 1933-1945, in just four months a million Tutsis were massacred by Hutus in Rwanda.  Never again?

There is a consensus that if you’re a Jewish comedian, you have the right to break through taboos and tell gags about the death of six million just as you’d have to be a black man to use the “n” word (we hear enough of that today, mostly from young, African-American males).  Even Lenny Bruce was dug up in the array of archival films, spouting just about every pejorative in the business, using offensive words against Jews, blacks, Irish and Hispanics, and arrested for his troubles—something that would not likely happen today in America, where bigots are not only tolerated but can even be elected president.

Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner and others stand firm for free speech, Ms. Silverman once shocking even me in a stand-up show by riffing on Jesus’ crucifixion.  Even Abraham Foxman who heads the Anti-Defamation League, gives humor about Jewish tragedies a wide berth.  The biggest caveat, one expressed by several participants, is that when comedians send up victims, actually though satirizing the oppressors rather than the down-and-out, people will go away taking them literally rather than ironically.

Half the jokes fell flat in my view seeming not to be worth the trouble to relate them, and to a Muslim, jokes about the prophet would likely lead to the throwing of a bomb in the buildings housing the jokers.  Otherwise, I doubt that free speech allowed to Jewish comics leads to anti-Semitic outbursts.  Haters of Jews need no comedians to provoke their sickness. What should be permanently out of bounds?  Some agree that child molestation can never be a laughing matter. Many believe that 9/11 should be off limits for humor.  What do you think?

Unrated.  89 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?