Farewell, Herr Schwarz is a messy but undeniably affecting chronicle of what one young Jewish woman found by following the branches of her family tree back to its severed trunk. Endowed with a clear-eyed curiosity that had been too painful for the two generations before her, director Yael Reuveny looks into the past from a distance of 65 years.
Her grandmother, Michla Schwarz, assumed that brother Feiv’ke had been killed at the Treblinka concentration camp in occupied Poland, but in the immediate wake of the Holocaust, she learned that he had survived. A reunion between the siblings was arranged for the following morning amid the ruins of postwar Lodz, but Feiv’ke never showed. There’d been a terrible fire during the night, and Michla, who had already endured so much, decided that her brother was dead—again. Desperate for a new life in a place unsoiled by history, she emigrated to the embryonic state of Israel and began a family of her own.
At times feeling like a nonfictional Ida,Reuveny’s film unfolds with the amorphousness of memory, her family’s story told in a way so personal that it feels more like a private genealogy project than a doc fit for the public. It isn’t long before Reuveny learns that Feiv’ke didn’t die until 1987, raising his own family just steps from the camp where he had once been a prisoner. The film increasingly reflects the understandable confusion of its maker with each bombshell revelation (and there are more than a few doozies), until it becomes impossible to ignore how much of her running time is devoted to shots of the young director, a smart and generous onscreen tour guide, dolefully consumed by inner thoughts.
Nevertheless, the impact of her story palpably shines a light on the value of our collective history, Jewish or otherwise. Many films have revisited the ruins of the Final Solution and traced lineages back to the Holocaust. But as you watch Reuveny bond with Feiv’ke’s German grandson, marveling at his passion for Israel and doing her best to make sense of his SpongeBob SquarePants paraphernalia, even the most petrified hallows of their history begin to thaw. By the time Farewell, Herr Schwarz wends its way back from the past, it’s clear that it never left.
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