Both Harald Grosskopf and Philippe Mora were born in Germany, Harald the son of a soldier who was a member of the Nazi Party, while Philippe is the son of a Jewish artistic family. They both met in Berlin in 2009, and Philippe immediately decided to make a documentary about this encounter, and their reflections on their incredibly disparate upbringing. Highly-regarded international filmmaker Mora uses a great deal of research, archival footage, interviews, split screen observations of contemporary Berlin, and rare photographs to weave a portrait of two people impacted by the Hitler years. The men find a way to explore and repudiate the past, whilst finding artistic expression in their own lives to deal with.
GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL: Of all the Australian filmmakers who emerged in what’s called the Australian Feature Film Revival of the 1970s, director Philippe Mora (Mad Dog Morgan, The Howling III) has turned out to be the most reliably idiosyncratic. Born in France in 1949 but raised in Melbourne, he grew up in an artistic family and came of age in Swinging London and that makes for an unmistakable and often powerful artistic DNA.
The premise is simple but the themes are complex.
In cold print, German Sons, Mora’s latest release, sounds forbidding. It is a memoir and an essay film. It is about the burdens of history and the way that can corrupt family bonds, and it is about the legacy of Nazism. It’s also a travelogue where the prized destinations include what were once concentration camps. Mora, a Jew of German-French heritage, lets his camera take in the grey concrete and the barbed wire, admitting on camera that any talk in the face of such an eerie silence seems superfluous.
Still, this is not quite another real-life testimonial on the terrors of the Shoah (though it is that of course.) Told in a digressive way and delivered in a steady pace that remains compelling, Mora, always ambitious, wants to say something about how the sins of the fathers, once visited on the sons, can be forgiven, though never forgotten.
Mora has his own 'past’ with the Nazis. In 1973, he released Swastika, a remarkable compilation film consisting entirely of archival footage, including colour home movies of Hitler shot by Eva Braun. The film, using only the words of the Nazi propaganda machine, aimed to describe how the German people were seduced by the Third Reich – its sinister aims hidden by glamour and a promise of prosperity for all.
Mora says that when it screened in Cannes fights broke out. Then it wasn’t shown in Germany. Its distributor feared trouble. Mora corrects here the assumption that the film was 'anti-German"¦ it wasn’t, it was anti-Nazi."
German Sons begins with Mora’s visit to Germany in 2009, where he screened Swastika for the first time. On this trip, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was introduced to Harald Grosskopf, a musician, whose father, Gerhard, had joined the Nazi party as a teenager. They became fast friends. Both thoughtful and artistic men, the pair skyped and emailed ferociously in the following year or so, sharing stories, and out of these conversations the idea of German Sons emerged.
The premise is simple but the themes are complex. Mora and Grosskopf have a mutual fascination – and horror – for the way that the generation of Germans who fought and survived World War II managed to bury the experience; in effect 'hiding’ it from their children. 'Nazism is still a hot topic," Mora says, 'Half the country has amnesia [about it]."
Mora’s father, a Communist who escaped Germany in the '30s and became a hero of the French resistance, waited almost to the end of his life to describe the trauma of being a Jew in Germany in the '30s to his son. Grosskopf remembers asking his father about his role in the war: 'It was like walking against a wall." He did inherit a fat, heavily bound volume of war memorabilia but in a sense the smiling young man in the black and white snaps was a mystery; the old man he knew had no explanations for the madness of Nazism, and showed no remorse.
There’s no wider narrative here beyond the experience of the protagonists, no academic contextualising to buttress Mora’s thesis; his approach is anecdotal, personal, intimate and candid, and ends persuasive and moving.
A lot of screen time is dedicated to the director and Grosskopf searching through family documents and photographs, like archeologists trying to piece together an elusive and ethereal history. The effect is poignant and ironic; looking at old school photos, taken in the early 1960s, Grosskopf remembers how his teachers – many his father’s generation – still proudly wore their Nazi badges. He says that growing up he never had the chance to meet Jews: 'There weren’t many left"¦ if I had he probably wouldn’t have said that he was a Jew."
There’s little Mora knew about his German side. As Grosskopf talks about his guilt and agony, Mora tracks down the fate of his father’s family. With Grosskopf he visits the distinguished Homboldt University in Berlin. He father had once been a student there until the Nazis had him removed in 1933 because he did not have his Aryan papers.
Mora calls his production company Really Homemade Films, which nicely sums up the style of this piece. Typically for Mora, it’s a wonderful blend of documentary convention and the eccentric; throughout Mora emphasises the personal nature of the project (and the style) by having himself shot and framed seated in front of what looks like his own home editing desk. While images play on the computer screen, he’ll deliver a commentary or offer some smart anecdote about when, where, and how this particular footage was intended to fit into the film we are watching. At times the movie is simply a talking heads piece; at other moments Mora fills the screen with multiple split-screen images, often in ironic counter-point, and then there are some truly splendid expressionistic bits of associative editing that play as pure poetry. Like the opening beat, which seems to say so much about Mora and Grosskopf, who they are, and where they are from, and the personal history that connects them.
The pair are seen in the centre of Berlin, surrounded by monuments; two baby boomers, rugged up against the cold, standing side by side, their body language in an easy and relaxed kinship, their quizzical faces turned upward looking at some unseen spectacle. Then, there is a sudden cut to archival black-and-white footage of war planes flying in a formation that spells out a gigantic swastika in the sky"¦