Catherine Luhrie’s documentary Back to Berlin enters its subject matter almost right away, reflecting the energy of the 75 minutes film that doesn’t have a single second to spare.
The introduction opens on the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish multi-sport event similar to the Olympic Games that dates back to the 1930s, a decade in which, to promote the event, a group of bikers rode from countries to countries to inform other Jews about it.
80 years later, another group of Jewish bikers decide to go on a similar journey to reach the 2015 Maccabiah Games in Berlin: on the way, they will cross nine different countries and visit cities and landmarks tied to personal family stories related to the Holocaust.
Because it follows people around Europe and throughout time, the film is always in movement and favors on-location shots and archive pictures over on-camera interviews shot on a plain background.
This makes the testimonies feel more real and poignant, especially as they are told not to the audience but to the bikers themselves: indeed, it is each biker that tells the others of their own personal family stories, transforming their journey into a bigger picture assembled from individual pieces of the past.
In Samokov, Bulgaria, while visiting an abandoned synagogue that represents the last remnant of the Jewish community in the city, one of the bikers named Gili Shem Tov explains to the others how one of Bulgaria’s pacts with Nazi Germany to deport Jews was broken by a Bishop who stood against the German soldiers, saving thousands of Jewish people included Shem Tov’s grand-father and great aunt.
In Turnu, Hungary, it is a man named Alexander Rosenkranz who tells his daughter about his own mother who survived a mass killing because a German officer was struck by her beauty.
All the stories are passed from person to person, generation to generation, painting the horrifying picture of the Holocaust but, most importantly, a picture of survival and hope.
When the bikers decide to take a detour and go to Auschwitz, Poland, where each story ultimately converges, two survivors themselves start to reveal their life story to their son or grandson in what are probably the most touching sequences of the documentary.
While Back to Berlin focuses first and foremost on the past, current-day politics still tie into it with a few short sequences touching on today’s antisemitism and Europe’s refugee crisis – when the bikers encounter Syrian refugees at the border between Hungary and Serbia, the mass migration of Jews escaping persecution during the 1930s and 1940s inevitably come to mind.
Never falling into a sensationalized account of the Holocaust, Catherine Luhrie instead focuses on the legacy of the survivors and on the Jewish community reconnecting with their families through the stories they start to share; the film that ensues is incredibly beautiful and humane, encompassing the larger history with the very personal ones.