Back in Berlin is extraordinary.
Although on a superficial level, this documentary film tells the simple story of a British-Israeli Jew, Bobby Lax, who sets out on a journey to find out more about his father, Edgar – the sole surviving member of his family, all of whom were murdered during the Holocaust – it explores far more complex, difficult and almost taboo issues.
I was fortunate enough to meet Bobby himself, its creator and director, a few days ago, and chat with him about his film.
Bobby had long harbored a wish to make a film about his father’s story, but like most of us, life got in the way. It wasn’t until 2016, when he had a three-month break from his work as a TV director and producer in Israel, that he decided to take the plunge.
At the time, Bobby had very little to go on. He knew that his father’s family had perished in the Holocaust, but apart from that, he knew almost nothing. He’d never even seen a photograph of his grandparents, Jacob and Amalia.
Bobby’s father, Edgar, never spoke of his childhood in Berlin or his evacuation on January 4, 1939, on a Kindertransport to Holland, after which time he never saw his parents again. It wasn’t until Bobby reached his thirties that he learned from his father, on one of the rare occasions when he opened up, that his grandparents had perished in Auschwitz.
In spite of their 50 years together, Edgar also shared very little of his past with his wife, Evelyn. “He was always looking to the future,” she said.
Sadly, Bobby’s father passed away in 2013, leaving him, his brother Daryl, and his mother, with so many unanswered questions.
Bobby’s childhood was unremarkable. He and his brother were brought up in a traditional Jewish home in North West London. Both attended Haberdashers’ Boys’ School, “Habs,” a private school in the leafy suburb of Elstree.
It was to his childhood home that Bobby returned to embark on the film that would change the course of his life.
HE STARTED by paying his respects to his late father by visiting his grave, along with his brother. During that visit, Bobby learned of a suitcase that his father had carried with him when he left Germany in 1939. According to his brother, the suitcase had remained in his father’s possession until his death, although he never spoke of it.
Back at the house, his mother confirmed that there was indeed a suitcase, but she had no idea where it was.
The suitcase's contents
Together, they managed to find the battered, old case in the attic above the garage. It contained a treasure trove of photographs from his childhood in Berlin, old newspapers, diaries and letters that passed between him and his parents until they both met their deaths in Auschwitz. As most of the correspondence was in German, Bobby called on his old school friend, Manuel Harlan, for help translating it all.
As if this weren’t fascinating enough, the film then takes an extraordinary turn as Manuel’s own story starts to unfold and intertwine with Bobby’s.
Manuel was born in Germany and moved to Britain at age six with his parents. He was keen to shun his German roots, refusing even to speak German. Britain soon became his home.
Although understandably, Bobby’s father had shunned anything German (driving trips across Europe would be extended so as not to drive on German soil, often adding hundreds of miles to the journey), Manuel and Bobby met at Habs and became firm friends.
A difficult man, likely as a result of his experiences growing up, Bobby’s father liked very few of Bobby’s friends. He did, however, take a shine to Manuel, causing Bobby to muse whether he even knew of his friend’s German ancestry.
During his search for answers, Bobby decided that a trip to Berlin was in order. Not wanting to go alone, he asked Manuel to accompany him – and he readily agreed.
Coupled with a desire to help his friend, Manuel also had some unanswered questions regarding his own family’s past.
Although the name Harlan was infamous in Germany, owing to his great uncle’s role as a Nazi filmmaker, Manuel had no idea about the strength of feeling that his name conjured up in post-war Germany. After all, he lived most of his life in Britain where his family name was meaningless; indeed most people quizzed him about his first name, Manuel, assuming he was Spanish.
In the film, the pair are seen chatting with Stanley Kubrick’s widow, Christiane Kubrick, Manuel’s aunt and Veit’s niece. It’s only when she speaks of the “huge” relief of being able to change her name upon getting married, that viewers (and Manuel) fully begin to appreciate the effect of the Harlan name.
As Manuel soon discovered, his great uncle Veit Harlan wasn’t just any Nazi filmmaker. By 1937, Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels had appointed him as one of his leading propaganda directors, with his notorious, antisemitic film, Jud Süß (1940), made for propaganda purposes in Germany and Austria.
Although Manuel and Bobby knew of the film, neither realized how bad it was, nor the impact it had on the Nazi war machine. In 1949, Harlan was charged with crimes against humanity for his role as director of Jud Süß. Although he was acquitted, the film was proven to have contributed hugely to spreading antisemitic sentiment in Germany, which enabled the Holocaust.
When the two friends met in Berlin – Bobby to discover more about his father’s lost family; and Manuel, primarily to support his old friend – the two decided that they wanted to watch the film. But they needed to make a special appointment with the film archives in Germany.
While they waited for permission, Bobby pursued his own agenda with the aid of his friend. As the two sat in a roadside cafe, Bobby tapped the name of his father’s address in Berlin into his phone, to order an Uber to take them there. Only then did he make an extraordinary discovery.
Upon entering the details, Zimmerstr. 48 b, Bobby turns to his friend in utter astonishment, “It says Edgar Lax.”
It soon became apparent that the name of his father appeared on a website charting the construction of the new Axel Springer publishing company headquarters on that same spot. Unbeknown to Bobby, the company’s chief reporter Hans Wilhelm Saure had discovered that his father Edgar had given evidence to the Imperial War Museum, London in 2008, leading to his name appearing on the website.
It was only when Bobby contacted Saure, to find out more, that he learned about arrangements that were underway for a Stolpersteine (a small brass plaque to commemorate victims of the Holocaust) to be laid at the opening ceremony of the new building.
Had Bobby not embarked on his trip to Berlin, he and his family would never have known of this. He made contact with the project organizers and implored them to let him know when the ceremony would take place.
MEANWHILE, THE two received permission to watch the film.
It was, as expected, horrific. Manuel describes it as, “just the most disgusting” thing he’s ever seen. “I’m gobsmacked,” he continues.
At this point, something seems to snap in Bobby, who, seemingly overcome by the emotion of it all, loses perspective. He challenges his old friend, who wasn’t even born when the film was made. “This was a member of your family who made this,” he says to Manuel, who in total disbelief replies, “Yeah, but a great-uncle who died before I was born,” before adding, “God… I feel like his representative.”
Although Bobby dismisses this idea saying, “You’re not his representative, and you never have been,” he finds it impossible to shake it. “I want him to express the pain that I’m feeling and take ownership of his great-uncle’s actions.”
We know the two are heading for disaster when Bobby takes Manuel to Veit Harlan’s old house, where he asks him to say something to his great uncle, at which point his friend refuses and storms off.
The two go their separate ways – Bobby back to Tel Aviv, Manuel to London – and didn’t speak for a while.
Bobby lamented to me that he feared he’d ruined their friendship for good. I could see the distress on his face as he recalled the silence.
Fortunately, the two managed to patch things up ahead of the Stolpersteine ceremony, which took place in Germany in February 2020. Watched by his good friend, Manuel, and family, Bobby placed stones into the earth, which he had taken from his father’s grave, before the plaques were laid for his father Edgar and grandparents, Jacob and Amalia.
Only then was Bobby ready to lay his demons to rest and complete the film about his lost family, which he had long dreamed of making.
When I remarked to Bobby how extraordinary it was that everything had fallen into place, he simply replied: “The film was scripted by my dad.”
Back in Berlin will be broadcast on HOT 8 on April 17 at 3 p.m. and is available on HOT VOD. Screenings will also take place at Kibbutz Alumim on April 17 at 8:30 p.m.; and at the Savyon Cultural Center on April 18 at 7:30 p.m. Both screenings will be followed by a question and answer session with Bobby.
The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Israel where she works at The Jerusalem Post.