“If I didn’t embellish life with lies, it would be unbearable.”
In the opening shot of Bye Bye Germany, we watch a three-legged dog happily trotting through a street that turns out to be in a post-war displaced persons camp in Frankfort. While that dog has next to nothing to do with the plot of this light-hearted (yet not quite comic) tale, it makes for an interesting way to understand the characters we meet.
This camp is filled with Jews who have survived the Holocaust. They are awaiting their chance to move on to America or Palestine. But that takes money. David Bermann enlists some others in the camp to take part in a “business opportunity” that will make them all money. He will smuggle in some French linens which they will sell at inflated prices (but convince people they are getting a great deal.) This minor fleecing of the Germans near the camp gives them a small sense of revenge for what Germans did to them. It also gives them a chance to earn the money they will need to have a new life.
However, Bermann may have some skeletons in his closet. He is summoned to the American Army HQ to be asked if he were a German collaborator during the war. Documents show he received special privileges, had some sort of special mission, and even fake travel papers provided by the Germans. As the young American woman officer interrogates him over time, he tells a story of being tasked by the concentration camp commander to teach Hitler how to tell a joke. This story becomes more bizarre each time they meet. Is it the truth or is Bermann just the kind of guy who can tell a tale and make you believe it?
Everyone in this film has their own little story that comes from their experiences during the war. At times they meet someone who harmed them in the camps. Or it may be as simple as a song on the radio that triggers memories. The stories they share may have a poignant humor or show just a touch of the deep pain that each man has suffered.
They also must deal with survivor’s guilt—why they survived while others—some very good people—did not. They each struggle with demons from their past, loss of loved ones, and wondering if they may have done something wrong to save themselves at another’s expense.
They have an uneasy time coming to grips with all that has happened. On the one hand, they can say with just a sense of triumph, “Hitler’s dead, and we’re still alive.” But then at the grave of friend who had a tragic death, as they begin to pray, one says, “How can one pray to a God who makes so many mistakes?” They continue to go between times of joy and yet new suffering.
In a way, they are each like that three-legged dog—they have lost something of great value, but they are intent on moving forward in search of life and happiness. The dog—and these characters—serve to remind us that the trials in our lives are often overcome through continuing to move forward.
Photos courtesy of Film Movement