Life & Culture

Back to Berlin to confront the dark secrets of the past

A fascinating new documentary traces two friends travelling to Germany to face up to very different tales from their families’ past, as its director explains


Sometimes interviewees can sound glib when they use words like “cathartic”, “therapeutic”, and “life-changing”.

However, when Bobby Lax uses them to describe the experience of making his documentary Back in Berlin, which is screening as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival in November, they carry real weight: the evidence is there on screen.

He had no idea where filming would take him when, having time on his hands following the collapse of a feature film project, he started exploring the mystery of his late father Edgar’s life.

It was a leap in the dark. Edgar had treated the past as a closed chapter. All Lax knew was that his German grandparents were murdered in a camp (he was 30 when he learned it was Auschwitz) and that his father arrived here on the Kindertransport.

Even if he had been more curious at the time, he felt unable to talk to Edgar. Although their relationship improved in later years, “I felt as a kid that he didn’t get me, I didn’t get him,” explains Lax.

“I felt like I was a permanent source of disappointment to him, and never understood why.”
He is speaking over Zoom from his home in Tel Aviv, having recently, he jokes, celebrated his 30th “Aliyah-versary”. Israel is a long way from Kenton, where he grew up, and, “it’s not an easy country to live in,” he admits.

Even so, he has carved out a successful career in quality children’s programming, mostly, and has never regretted emigrating.

Israelis frequently ask why he left England. He believes that, subconsciously, his father’s biography was a large part of the reason. Another factor was the antisemitism that he endured as a youth in London, in the 70s, when the National Front were “becoming quite prominent.

“I remember very vividly when the windows were smashed in our shul. I remember that being a really alarming event. And then walking to shul with my dad on Shabbat morning and having eggs thrown at us, and ha’pennies. And getting off the school bus and going past a pub which was known as a National Front stronghold.

“I think all of that together caused me to come to the conclusion that Israel was probably the place where I saw myself in the future.”

Back in Berlin brought Lax back to England with his cameraman but with no concrete plan. They would go wherever events took them.

The first day of filming took place at Bushey Old Jewish Cemetery, where Lax met his brother, Daryl, at Edgar’s graveside, to discuss “growing up in a home where we knew so little about what our father’s story was”.

Surprising him, Daryl tearfully asked if he knew about the suitcase where their father had effectively stored his life.

“He actually said to me that he used to find it difficult to go to sleep at night in the knowledge that the suitcase was in the attic above our heads. I’d never seen this suitcase, and nor had he, but I’d also never heard about it. I was totally unaware of its existence.”

Lax spent the next day rummaging for it at their mother’s house. What he discovered was “absolutely astonishing”. For the first time, he saw pictures of his grandparents, making them “much more tangible”.

His father had filed everything fastidiously. There were diaries, in which the language transitioned from German to English, and correspondence between Edgar and his parents that ended a couple of weeks before they were transported to Auschwitz.

While the suitcase alone would have made an interesting story, Lax did not want to do just another second-generation documentary. He needed something different.

Luck struck again when he made a “harmless appeal” to Manuel, a German-born friend he has known since their school days at Haberdashers’, to translate the letters.

He had recently read in the Guardian about the wife of Veit Harlan, the director of the notorious, grossly antisemitic Nazi propaganda film Jud Suss, Manuel revealed that Harlan, who died before he was born and about whom he knew very little, was his great-uncle.

Lax was shocked, but it gave him an idea: they both had elements in their families’ stories that they wanted to know more about, so why not go on a trip to Berlin together and see what it would throw up? Manuel enthusiastically agreed.

In the film, before leaving, they visit Manuel’s aunt, Christiane Kubrick, the widow of the film director Stanley Kubrick, at her estate in St Albans. She describes how having the name Harlan put a stain on the family in Germany, and talks of her relief when she moved abroad, took Kubrick’s name, and left everything German behind her.

“This was a revelation to me,” says Lax. “We, as Jews, as Israelis, are so very preoccupied with our response to the Holocaust, I had never considered what it’s like for a German ...

How you deal with that legacy is just something I’d never thought about.”
His father and other refugees from Germany were temporarily detained as “enemy aliens” at Prees Heath Camp in Shropshire at the start of the Second World War, so he experienced both sides, I suggest. This period is not covered in Back to Berlin, but Lax says his father documented it “very, very graphically”, in his diaries.

“Ultimately, my dad came out of the whole experience as a very patriotic Englishman,” he says. “He clearly felt indebted to the British government for having saved him.”
Lax was raised to hate Germans, but it never became an issue between him and Manuel.

Being in Berlin, however, caused suppressed emotions to surface, and the city becomes a crucible in which their relationship is tested to breaking point.
In the film, the director’s first response to being in the city is visceral: images of Nazi banners flicker, almost subliminally, across buildings, as he drives past in a taxi. Arriving in Germany, “I was absolutely full of fear and anxiety,” he says. “I don’t think anything could have really prepared me adequately for how I would feel.

“And I don’t think it’s by chance that I chose to experience that via the camera lens. I’m not sure that I would have been able to do it had I not been making this film.”
The friends visit sites relevant to Lax’s father, including where his home was when, as a 15-year-old, he stood on a balcony and watched a synagogue being razed on Kristallnacht.

They discover that Stolpersteine are going to be laid for Edgar and his parents.
For Manuel, they visit film archives and learn more about Veit Harlan and Jud Suss, which they eventually get to watch together.

Gradually, the documentary becomes a kind of psychodrama as Lax begins to frame Manuel, who is gracious and sympathetic throughout, as the enemy. Manuel’s look of betrayal and hurt, in a scene shot outside Veit Harlan’s former house, makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing.

“There is a metamorphosis [that happens],” agrees Lax. “We set out as two British public-school kids with a friendship that has no connection to our Jewish/German identities, and in the course of this voyage that we embark on together, I become the Jew and he becomes the German, in my perspective. It becomes far more symbolic than either of us had realised that it would.”

He admits that his behaviour was “irrational”.

“I’m certainly not being a good friend there towards Manuel, who has made this enormous voyage, to a great extent, for me. I increasingly start to pour out my anger on him, I think because I am confronting my trauma for the first time, and sort of using him as the vehicle on which to express it.”

People advised him to leave several scenes out because they said they made him look bad, but he refused. He believes most viewers will understand where he is coming from.

“That need to get that anger out of your system, and to be able to do it on camera without being ashamed of how I came over, that’s important. It is a very honest film, and I think part of that honesty stems from me really taking on board that if I’m going to do this film, I need to let it all out and expose the bad sides of what I’m going through as well as the good sides. You can’t really do a personal film if you’re not going to be completely honest.”

Despite a few challenging years, Lax says their friendship is now deeper and stronger than ever. He also has a better understanding of his father, and, to his wife’s surprise, has embraced Germany as “a place that is part of my psyche, that is a part of my identity, and is somewhere I’m entitled to feel at home”.

“So [Back in Berlin] has been extremely significant on a personal level, and it’s been life-changing. I feel it’s revealed to me a lot about myself. And in the deepest possible sense, it’s been very, very therapeutic and cathartic.”

I believe him, and you will too.

Back in Berlin is showing November 15 and 16 in London and Manchester

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