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Back to Berlin

Reviewed by Joe Horsey.

Director Catherine Lurie
Length 79 mins
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article In the early 1930s, groups of Jewish motorcyclists toured Europe and North America to spread word about the first Maccabiah Games, and to find Jewish athletes to compete. In 2015, for the first time, the Games were held in Germany in the stadium that hosted the notorious Berlin Olympics of 1936. Catherine Lurie’s Back to Berlin follows a group of eleven Jewish bikers, in 2015, riding from Israel to Berlin in honour of the original Maccabi Riders. Carrying the Maccabiah torch, their journey will cover almost 3,000 miles in twenty-four days, across nine countries, finally arriving at the opening of the Games.

Each rider has their own close personal connection to the project. Two are descendants of the original riders, several are relatives of Holocaust survivors, and two are actually survivors themselves. As much as the journey is a symbolic tribute and a feat of endurance in itself, it is also an opportunity for the group to visit the sites which carry such ominous importance, and to feel a deeper empathy for those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Israeli surgeon, Yaron Munz, whose grandfather was tortured in a Bucharest prison, explains, “I don’t want to feel what they feel. I want to understand what they feel.” The unifying sentiment of the journey gives each member a platform to confront these issues in their own way, and share stories, both harrowing and heroic. Yoram Maron, a survivor travelling alongside his son Danny, finally feels able to tell of his escape for the first time.

This is really the thematic purpose of Back to Berlin - to celebrate optimism and inspiration in the face of horrific circumstances, while respecting the gravity of those circumstances. Producer/director Lurie impressively negotiates the balance of juxtaposing the heroic with the harrowing. The visit to Auschwitz ends with an emotional group hug and with two members burying a shell from a Tel Aviv beach beneath the barbed wire fence. The film, and the journey itself, are filled with these small but significant acts of defiance.

The sensibilities of the group do not, however, go unchallenged. Some of the themes explored in Back to Berlin emerge as troubling reminders of the persistent presence of anti-semitism and racism in Europe today. The Israeli flags which adorn each bike cause police escorts to be provided in Greece, Poland and Hungary. And at Serbia’s border with Hungary, the group speaks to Syrian refugees whose journey across Europe puts theirs into perspective. As reiterated by Jason Isaacs’ concise but effective narration, “the plight of refugees is not confined to the annals of history.”

In both direct interviews and unobtrusive observation, Lurie sensitively captures the enthusiasm and charm of the group, while respecting the seriousness of what they have to say and the difficulty of having such discussions. There is some perhaps unavoidable repetition with shots of the convoy in transit, which often form more of a visual accompaniment to the narration than anything else. However, these sequences are punctuated with stunning aerial shots of Greek or Romanian countryside, with a miniature line of motorcycles drifting across the frame. The recurrence of this pattern then heightens the effect of a memorable aerial shot later in the film, where the group rides a road parallel to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

The visits to these locations, of course, lead to moving sequences of contemplation and distress. Unexpectedly, though, the film’s most compelling moments occur during the rest stops, in lay-bys and carparks. As fellow bikers exchange pleasantries, the ritual of jovial small talk forms a disarming backdrop for the testimony of remembered details and painful accounts. These are the moments that have stayed with me since watching Back to Berlin, and it is to Lurie’s credit that she was able to record such exchanges without the camera’s presence ever feeling invasive.

As the film progresses, the journey, the torch, and the Maccabiah Games become secondary to the film’s emotional centre. It is through the unity of this cast of characters, and their stories of courage, that the film’s strength emerges. Documentaries which discuss the Holocaust are never easy viewing, and necessarily so, but Back to Berlin resonates with a message of hope, positivity and defiance.

This review was published on November 23, 2018.

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