Winterreise comes with a very high concept. US-American classical disk jockey Martin Goldsmith wrote a book of interviews with his father, George (né Günther Goldschmidt), a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor. Now that Martin wants to film their discussions, his father has died. So who can they get to play his part? Only Bruno Ganz, that’s who.
And boy what a story does George/Günther have to relate. A talented flautist, he was co-opted into the Jüdische Kulturbund, a group of hundreds of Jewish musicians who organised concerts, music hall and variety turns. This group was organised by the Gestapo, who saw the existence of a Jewish cultural organisation as a useful PR exercise, and carried on going until 1941.
Günther had the opportunity to flee Germany earlier, but he’d met his future wife in the Kulturband and they wanted to stay together. But progressively things got worse. On Kristallnacht, Günther happened to be on a train, from which he witnessed the burning of Hanover’s synagogue. He was on his way to visiting his wife’s parents, and was lucky. On the same day, his father was arrested and deported to a Concentration Camp.
I use the word “lucky” as it keeps coming up in Günther’s answers to the increasingly infuriated questions from his son. When asked to recount the horrific situation in which he found himself, his default position is to explain that other people had it worse. After all, he survived. It’s a noble point of view, but sometimes ends up downplaying the terror.
Martin’s reaction is, if anything, much worse. George is reluctant to discuss traumatizing experiences from his life – this is the first time ever that he’s come close. His son’s reaction is to become stroppy and petulant. If this were merely because he wants the world to hear the truth of the Holocaust, you’d understand. But you get the feeling that there’s a second reason – Martin feels he has a right to know. And publicly berating an ageing Holocaust survivor is not a good look.
Martin cannot understand why his father stayed in Arizona ten years after his wife died, even though he hated the place. Similarly he demands to know why George didn’t seek a musical career in the States, and preferring to take several other jobs, which he also hated. It might be worth saying that only Martin speaks of this hatred, George remains placid throughout.
Look, Martin, if your father wants to tell you why he made certain life decisions then that’s fine, but otherwise it is none of your fucking business, especially if you’re planning to put his answers into a book. The film contains a number of moments where, having heard his father’s incredible stories, Martin tries to make it all about himself. This just feels uncomfortable and distracts from the greater story.
Throughout all of this, Bruno Ganz is phenomenal as the taciturn man who has finally agreed to reveal part of his history, but is clearly uncomfortable about doing so. He doesn’t want to be forced to justify himself. Put into an impossible situation, he reacted as best he could. And what happened is now in the past and – as far as George is concerned – it’s probably better left there.
It’s strange watching this film the day after seeing Making Montgomery Clift as there are some clear parallels. Both tell a truly interesting story, mediated through a relative of the person who actually experienced it. In both cases, the film is a little too much about the relative and not enough about the astounding story. Martin may not step out from behind the camera, but his presence dominates the film.
There is also a slight incongruity in knowing that its an actor reading out George’s words. Yes, we know (or at least we hope) that this is what he actually said, but Ganz gives such a nuanced performance that it’s hard to tell whether the reticence to come centre stage belongs to George Goldsmith or the way in which Bruno Ganz has chosen to represent him.
Nonetheless this is a fascinating story which should be heard. As with Making Montgomery Clift, the way in which the story is told is not optimal, but this film is slightly less intrusive. Even though Martin is a little too keen on performing his own personal drama onstage, George/Bruno is a winning enough personality for this not to get too much in our way.