The road to ‘Cafe Nagler’

Israeli filmmaker Mor Kaplansky embarks on a journey to reveal the story behind the legendary cafe owned by her family during the 1920s in Berlin.

ISRAELI DIRECTOR Mor Kaplansky seen here with her grandmother Naomi Kaplansky in the documentary ‘Cafe Nagler’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAELI DIRECTOR Mor Kaplansky seen here with her grandmother Naomi Kaplansky in the documentary ‘Cafe Nagler’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It started out being a film about a cafe and turned into a film about memory and how important family myths are to us,” said Mor Kaplansky, the co-director (with her husband, Yariv Barel) of Cafe Nagler, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and which is showing at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Herzliya cinematheques and other venues throughout the country.
Kaplansky grew up hearing stories from her grandmother, acclaimed documentary director/producer Naomi Kaplansky, about Cafe Nagler, a Berlin cafe owned by Mor’s great-grandparents. Feeling that her grandmother was subtly asking her to find out more, Kaplansky headed off to Berlin to make a movie about the cafe. In the end, the film tells a very different but no less compelling story than the one she set out to report.
While this isn’t a story about the Holocaust – her family closed the cafe in 1925 and emigrated to Palestine – there are bittersweet undertones. Kaplansky was raised on tales of a grand and important place, where writers and artists met, which was at the center of Berlin nightlife. But as she did research in Berlin, she discovered that Cafe Nagler was a nice but not historically important neighborhood cafe. No historian to whom she spoke knew of it.
The spot where it was located was bombed during World War II and is now a park. She searched in vain for anyone who remembered the place, and the one man she met who shared his memories of Cafe Nagler turned out to be either confused or a fraud – he was born the year it closed.
Still, Kaplansky persisted, although there were moments when she became discouraged.
“Our history is made up of stories,” she said. “We rely on family stories... as a means to define who we are... The bare facts that can be found and not found are not that important. What we need more than anything is that good story that helps us define who we are.”
Showing the film in Berlin was particularly emotional for Kaplansky and her grandmother, and often surprising.
“The audience had a much stronger reaction than we could have hoped,” said Kaplansky. “There are many moments in the film that we find cute but that they [German audiences] found hilarious.”
Asked to give an example, she mentioned the moment when she, in a voiceover, says, “My grandmother was asking me in her polite, yekke way to go make a film about the cafe.”
Recalling the audience laughter at that moment, she said, “I guess they were laughing at our perspective on the German character. It was nice to have someone laughing with you and finding it funny.”
As she researched the story of the cafe, she found other stories.
Many Germans went out of their way to help her, among them a couple whose apartment she mistakenly believed had belonged to her family (the building where their actual apartment had been, like the site of the cafe, was destroyed by Allied bombs).
“I’m obviously Jewish and it was healing for them, to join their histories with mine,” she said. “At some point, each and every one of [her interviewees] started talking about the Holocaust... even though the film is about a happy period for German woman ended up apologizing to me for her grandfather being a Nazi.”
Another surprise for Kaplansky was meeting a group of young Germans who were reviving the culture and nightlife of the 1920s.
“They have this obsession with the 1920s in Berlin... It’s a growing fashion. They are mostly from my generation and they have all these family secrets that they have been burdened with, I think that is at the root of their attraction to this period. The 1920s is the last period you could have still been proud of being German.”
Some worry that this fad might contain the roots of the same extremism that developed into Nazism, but Kaplansky insisted, “These are liberal people and they love the arts... There is nothing right-wing about it.”
The film will be shown all over the world, including at the Munich Documentary Festival, on ARTE television in France and Germany, as well as in Canada, Sweden and Switzerland.
Making Cafe Nagler – which was funded by Keshet Broadcasting, the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund and the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation’s Cinema Project – was a big part of Kaplansky’s world for the past few years, but she didn’t put her life on hold. As she worked on the film, she married Barel, who was the cinematographer and co-producer as well as her co-director, and had a baby daughter, Noga. Noga makes a cameo appearance in the film’s final scene, when Kaplansky screens the film for her family, including and especially her grandmother.
Her grandmother’s presence and involvement is the thread that weaves together the disparate aspects of the film. The most moving part of Cafe Nagler is the intense bond between these two women.
Her next project will also involve her grandmother, a combination fiction film and documentary about how her grandmother’s father joined the British army during World War II and was held in a prisoner- of-war camp in Germany.
Asked what family myths her own children may investigate if they follow her footsteps into documentary filmmaking, Kaplansky said, “It would probably be my grandmother and her life story. Such a unique woman, who was a nurse as a young woman and started a television career from nothing in her forties. She kept working well into her eighties and still has a creative and vital mind.”