Shadows Over the Future, A film by Wolfgang Bergmann. 1985. 92 mins, 16mm.
Last Exit: Berlin, A film by Marilyn Gaunt. 1988. 28 mins. video.
Shadows Over the Future takes as its central premise that Germany must bear final responsibility for the Arab-Israeli conflict, for the refugees and ultimately for the creation of the state of Israel itself. “The burden of history must be assumed,” states the narrator at the opening of this beautifully-shot and carefully constructed work. Indeed, “constructed” is a word that can be applied to Shadows Over the Future much more accurately than to the average documentary. The filmmaker selects as protagonists two German citizens — a woman, formerly Israeli, and a man, formerly Palestinian. The film records their return to their original homes.
In modern Jerusalem, the woman confronts her doctor-father with whom she fundamentally disagrees about Israeli policies, its history and, one suspects, her lifestyle and choice of friends. In a Gaza refugee camp, the man visits his family, whom he has obviously not seen for many years. The cousins, brothers, uncles and aunts gather round to hear the stories of his success in Germany and are somewhat (but not totally) discomfited when he brings the Israeli woman to tea.
These scenes are rather staged, framed like still photos to draw the viewer into long, seemingly unedited discussions of past and future, of responsibility and irresponsibility, of charge and countercharge between generations about where to lay the blame for the present. The best moments are those in which the political issues are sharpened by expressions of human bitterness and disappointment. The woman has written a thesis critical of Israel. Can you not see the injustice, she cries out. The closeup of the father’s set face says more than his words, “You don't understand anything.” The Palestinian sits with his mother in a garden. They have been placed by the camera so that golden fields stretch behind them, giving the scene a timeless quality found in many modern Palestinian painters’ attempts to recapture an idealized rural past. Their discussion is not of politics, but of family ties broken and frayed. “Why don’ you come home and get married?” asks the mother. “No,” he replies. “No, I can’t come home.” ”Well, at least get married,” she persists. “No,” he says, “No!”
In the end, the viewer is left with a dispiriting sense of uneasiness. The filmmaker gives no indication that the shadows over the future will soon be dispelled.
Marilyn Gaunt is a noted British documentary filmmaker; her directing credits include Women Under Siege. Her latest film, Last Exit: Berlin, is concerned with the more than 10,000 Palestinian refugees in West Berlin, a city now known as the refugee capital of Europe. It was transmitted over ITV channels in Britain last August as one of two films in Yorkshire Television’s prestigious monthly series, First Tuesday. The pairing of Last Exit with Children of the Nazis, Anne Weber’s film about the ways in which the present generation of Germans tries to come to terms with their parents’ role in the terrible events of the Holocaust, caused consternation and criticism in the Jewish community when it was shown. First Tuesday, they argued, was trying to draw (unjustly) a parallel between the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews and the Jews’ treatment of the Palestinians. Yet many of the Germans interviewed in Last Exit made this point themselves, though from a different stance. Says one young woman, “I am hiding [Palestinian] people because if they are sent back to their own country they will be killed — if the Germans had been more courageous during the Third Reich and hidden their friends and neighbors, then more people would have been saved.” The deputy bishop of Berlin's Lutheran church declares that Germany bears a responsibility for the refugees.
From the ominous opening shot of a train’s headlights moving into the camera, Gaunt’s film cuts back and forth between actuality of Palestinians scrabbling to find shelter and asylum in Berlin and news footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacres — the sort that prompted thousands of refugees to leave Lebanon. This somber mood is varied by forthright interviews with two families; a man and wife and their children, a widow who has lost her home, husband and several children. “What can I do?” she asks. “Where can I go?”
Gaunt could have stressed certain aspects of the Palestinian dilemma more strongly. For example, that Palestinians are even more desperate than the thousands of other refugees pouring into Germany these days because they have few rights under the Geneva Convention. Most are not citizens of an internationally recognized state and cannot claim political asylum, a point that could have been made more clearly. The German government has recently taken steps to prevent the deportation of families with children, but all other Palestinians remain at risk. Their only hope is a daily Kafkaesque visit to the offices of various philanthropic and religious agencies, who struggle to find legal loopholes to enable these exiles to stay. The work of religious agencies is well-documented, as is the concern of individual German citizens.
In different ways, both films deal with those made homeless and stateless by a continuing conflict in which they are the innocent victims. The fact that Germany has become the focus for their troubles is an ironic commentary on the indifference and brutality of the cycles of human history.