Currently films about Jews and
cultural items about Jews are very popular in Germany. Whether this is
due to guilt, a nostalgic longing for the "old days" before WWII, or due to the modern generation being able to look dispassionately at the period of history that their grandparents lived through is a matter for speculation. But you will find that most German made films about the Holocaust tend to treat it as an aberration from the behavior of the majority of normal "good" Germans, like the Nazis were a few bad apples that spoiled the bunch.
German writer-director Didi Danquart's first feature film, Viehjud Levi (Jew Boy Levi), takes a slightly different track, but retains a similar denial when you examine the characters symbolically. The 1935 Black Forest setting is beautiful, and the small village is very picturesque. Nazism has not infected this part of Germany yet. Life seems normal.
Jewish cattle dealer Benjamin Levi (Bruno Cathomas) goes about his business on a motorbike and with a rustic trailer, and is well liked in the town. He barters fairly, has a sense of humor, and joins the villagers in the town beer hall to socialize. Yet Levi is the only Jew in the village and is lonely, often talking to his prized pet rabbit and singing Yiddish songs to him. He longs for the farmer's daughter, Lisbeth (Caroline Ebner).
Lisbeth seems torn between the responsible Levi and the out of work Paul (Bernd Michael Lade), though in Depression riddled Germany this was common. Libeth's parents are not pleased at the thought of her hooking up with the lazy Paul, yet they aren’t thrilled that their Catholic raised daughter likes Levi either but are less vocal in the beginning.
Things change radically when a Nazi engineer (Ulrich Noethen) arrives in the village with his secretary/girlfriend (Martina Gedicki), and suddenly latent anti-Semitic attitudes explode, cutting Levi off from his once friendly neighbors and exposing him to ruthless vandalism and bodily danger. His fate is left ambiguous, but the direction is clear and the full fury of the Holocaust is just a few years away.
Based on a play by Thomas Strittmater, Director Didi Danquart creates an idyllic period piece with gathering clouds in this 1999 film. Character development takes a back seat to archetype and allegory. It's up to the audience to interpret the symbolic characters. The most obvious symbol is the Nazi engineer, who doubles as a magician, staging a show in the Black Forest complete with Nazi flags that is designed to win over the village. Many Germans from those dark days relate how they didn't realize what was happening, and weren't in control—just as a magician can play his illusions in plain view.
The good Germans who really didn't participate in the horrors are best represented by Lisbeth, who is torn by her love for Levi but realizes the practicality of her situation. The other two main women represent other aspects of good Germans, as they do not participate in direct threats and hazing, although Lisbeth's mother does forbid her daughter to see Levi again.
Paul represents the ambivalent German, who doesn't know which way the wind will blow. So, on one hand, he initially sabotages the Nazi engineer with a little cow manure, only to be beaten into submission. When he realizes that the Nazis are in power and sees a chance to rid himself of his rival for Lisbeth, he seizes the opportunity.
Most of the town represents the masses of Germans who easily switch loyalties to the Nazi engineer when they believe that his re-opening of the railroad tunnel will better their economic lives. They may be a little surprised at the extent of the attacks on their one time Jewish neighbor, but the underlying suspicions and hard times cloud their initial good will and humor. There are some charming scenes, some beautiful scenery, and a nice extended close-up of Levi’s emotive face after the most personal Nazi brutality.
Jew Boy Levi treads much the same thematic ground as many other recent German films about the Holocaust, but treats the subject as a parable that will play much better to its native audience. Jewish audiences will find parts of it moving, but it does little to further more understanding about this horrible period. The film may provoke discussion, but any film about the Holocaust will do that. Don't expect substantial depth with Jew Boy Levi, but it satisfies as a palatable Apple strudel.