Exhibition review

Out of and in Focus

A Jewish Film History of West Germany / 07/14/2023 - 01/14/2024

Using exemplary films, this exhibition traces the hitherto unwritten Jewish film history of the Federal Republic, opens up new perspectives on the most important medium of the 20th century, and completes a journey from the black-and-white films of the post-war period to the colorful entertainment industry.

"Out of and in focus" sheds light on an aspect of West German film history that is largely unknown. The exhibition deals with Jewish filmmakers who were sometimes on the fringes, sometimes at the center of film production in the Federal Republic. It explores the fragile lives of stars such as Lilli Palmer and Peter Lorre and traces the confrontations with West German society of film producers such as Artur Brauner and film directors such as Imo Moskowicz, Peter Lilienthal and Jeanine Meerapfel.

The exhibition is based on years of research by film scholars Lea Wohl von Haselberg and Johannes Praetorius-Rhein, who also incorporate their work from the research network "German-Jewish Film History".

Out of and in Focus

Being in and out of focus serves as a metaphor for the respective visibility or invisibility of Jewish points of view in German film history. This question of visibility forms the subject of the exhibition’s first room, which serves both as its beginning and end; another focus is the attribution of Jewish identity (imposed from without). In a commissioned film, producer and director Ruth Olshan has recorded a wide range of contemporary filmmakers talking about what it means to ascribe the term “Jewish.”

New Beginnings

In the mid- to late 1940s, Jewish movie producers, among them Artur Brauner, Gyula Trebitsch, and Walter Koppel, presented new films to German audiences. They’d returned to Germany as survivors, and in films such as Arche Nora (1948) and Morituri (1948), made the Shoah the subject of their cinematic work. Their brilliant careers ensured their place in the national narrative of reconstruction and economic miracle.

Headlights and Blinkers

In the early years of the Federal Republic, talk of Jewish filmmakers’ “international experience” acted as a code to conceal their background of flight and exile. At the same time, this euphemistic formulation offered Jewish filmmakers a real opportunity: alleged or real contacts abroad boosted their careers in West Germany, where the film industry hungered for international recognition. Lilli Palmer’s career had flourished in exile, and she became one of the most popular film stars of the 1950s. Peter Lorre, on the other hand, was unable to build on his success in the Weimar Republic, either in Hollywood or in the early Federal Republic. The films Feuerwerk (Fireworks, 1954) and Der Verlorene (The Lost Man, 1951) feature the two actors in their first roles following their return to Germany.

Neither Stage nor Screen—Welcome to Television!

Director Imo Moszkowicz during filming of Torquato Tasso, 1968
Director Imo Moszkowicz during filming of Torquato Tasso, 1968. © Private estate Imo Moszkowicz

When television emerged as a new mass medium, it had an affinity to theater but was in competition with cinema: early TV plays were often static, reminiscent of filmed theater productions. Hence, for theater directors such as Imo Moszkowicz, the path from stage to television studio was not very far. Although they hadn’t come by the established educational routes, newcomers like Karl Fruchtmann and young filmmakers like Peter Lilienthal were also able to gain a foothold here. The horror of the Shoah is palpable in some of these early TV productions, although the great freedom the medium afforded in its earliest days was rarely used by Jewish television directors for explicit or confrontational commemorative projects. The films Striptease (1963) and Mein Freund Harvey (My Friend Harvey, 1959) are film adaptations of plays.

Lost in the Family Constellation of German Film

Film still from "Die Verliebten" (The Lovers), 1987
Film still from "Die Verliebten" (The Lovers), 1987 © Von Vietinghoff Film Production

The Oberhausen Manifesto clearly formulated the break between post-war cinema and New German Film as a generational conflict, the end of “Papa’s cinema.” The positions Jewish actors took in this conflict varied. Artur Brauner appeared as an example of “Papa’s cinema,” but declared himself uncomfortable in the role, while remigrants like Erwin Leiser were accepted as teachers. Filmmakers such as Peter Lilienthal and Jeanine Meerapfel did not feel the generational conflict in the same way and remained to a certain extent marginalized, but found cinematic forms of expression for their positions in auteur films. In the feature film Malatesta (1969), Lilienthal portrayed the Italian anarchist Enrico Malatesta in London exile. Jeanine Meerapfel’s Die Verliebten (Days to Remember, 1987) portrays an encounter between a German with Nazi ancestry and a daughter of so-called “guest workers” who is also in search of her family.

It Was My Pleasure

A separate section of the exhibition broadens the view of popular culture: TV series, quiz shows, hits, and musical programs demonstrate pop culture’s polyphonic, carefree nature. The new visibility of Jews in film and television of the late 1960s and early 1970s was often associated with a promise of light-heartedness: Israeli pop singers such as Esther Ofarim and Daliah Lavi, as well as Towje Kleiner—“Munich’s Woody Allen” of the series Der ganz normale Wahnsinn (Of Ordinary Madness)—played with pop cultural references in different ways. Because the focus was on the entertainers’ levity, erotic charge, humor, and coolness, and because of the power of attraction they held for a German audience, their own personal perspectives were generally overlooked.

Of Masks and Mirrors—Circumstances Surrounding the Memory Boom

[Translate to English:] Aufnahme aus dem Set des Spielfilms "Der Passagier", 1989, Credit: Foto: Oliver Herrmann
[Translate to English:] Aufnahme aus dem Set des Spielfilms "Der Passagier", 1989, Credit: Foto: Oliver Herrmann

When the Holocaust series was broadcast in 1979, it was a turning point in the audiovisual culture of remembrance. This not only marked the beginning of a period in which the mass murder that had taken place was finally recognized; it also meant a coming to terms with history, in which film and photography were to be the main media. Against this background, Jewish filmmakers received new offers for roles and were now publicly perceived, together with their personal biographies and family histories. They reacted in different ways to this new visibility and the function they suddenly had in a West German commemorative culture. In Der Passagier (The Passenger, 1989), Thomas Brasch formulated an ironic, self-reflective commentary on the task assigned to Jewish directors to come to terms with the cinematic past. In 1969, Karl Fruchtmann shot Kaddisch nach einem Lebenden (Kaddisch for the Living) in Israel for German television, but did not make his autobiography or his own story of persecution the subject of his films.

Playlist zur Ausstellung

Lust auf eine Musikalische Zeitreise? Alle, die in der Ausstellung nicht genau hingehört haben oder mit zahlreichen Ohrwürmern zurückgeblieben sind, bekommen jetzt eine zweite Chance: Wir haben zwei Playlists mit Titeln aus der Schau zusammengestellt – hier finden sich neben Liedern aus der Ausstellung auch zahlreiche Film-Soundtracks.

We would like to thank the following for their kind support of the exhibition, catalog and accompanying program:

Hessian Cultural Foundation
Georg and Franziska Speyer'sche University Foundation
Aventis Foundation 
Hannelore Krempa Foundation
Society of Friends and Sponsors of the Jewish Museum e.V.

Event location:
Jewish Museum Frankfurt

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    free
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