Malou. In the Country of My Parents
Cross-cultural examination

by Shawn S. Magee

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 63-64
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

Jeanine Meerapfel is an outsider. As a woman in a patriarchal age, as a foreigner in a xenophobic country, as a direct descendant of a race nearly eradicated a generation ago by genocide, she stands apart from the mainstream of German society. Her concerns, however, are not recrimination or revenge, but careful examination of the past. Meerapfel, the daughter of German Jews who had fled Nazi Germany and subsequently settled in Argentina, has chosen film as her medium of redress.

Since 1964 when she came to Germany as a film student and studies at Ulm with Alexander Kluge, Meerapfel has been involved with film in a variety of capacities, including directing shorts, screenwriting, and criticism. Her first feature, MALOU (1980) and her documentary IM LAND MEINER ELTERN (IN THE COUNTRY OF MY PARENTS) (1981) provide her most penetrating insights into several controversies swirling through Germany today.

In the initial sequence of MALOU, the fear, "like mother, like daughter," haunts Hannah (Grischa Huber) as she sifts through a suitcase full of old photographs, knick-knacks, and mementos which tell the story of her mother's life. Hannah is both attracted to and aghast at the life her mother, Malou (Ingrid Caven) had led, a life which included a short-lived career in Strasbourg as a nightclub entertainer, conversion to Judaism, marriage to a prosperous German Jewish businessman (Ivan Desny), flight to Argentina only one step ahead of the Gestapo, and then drink, decay, and death in Buenos Aires.

Malou, a simple French woman from the countryside, took her identity purely as a function of the man she loved. She willingly subordinated everything, including her homeland, her religion, and her mother tongue, to her husband Paul's needs and desires. She lived her life through, rather than with him. When Paul left her for another woman, Malou became first frantic and then morose; her sense of self-worth was subsumed by her self-obliterating sense of devotion.

Living in present day Berlin, Hannah is still haunted by her mother's legacy. As a child growing up in Buenos Aires, she had observed, with increasingly limpid eyes, her mother's slow disintegration, the growing number of empty booze bottles, the steady procession of "uncles." Perhaps as an act of rebellion, Hannah opted for a conventionally successful marriage to a promising German architect, Martin (Helmut Griem). Years after her mother's death, and after more than a decade with Martin, Hannah is still disturbed by the dichotomy within her. She lives in mortal fear of traversing the fine line between marital commitment and subservience.

Hannah feels ambivalent about her relationship with Martin. She enjoys the love and security provided by her marriage, yet she also resents Martin's attempts (due to an overly zealous and typically Teutonic love of order and propriety) to rein her in. Meerapfel adroitly characterizes this conflict in a scene which begins with several shots of Hannah and Martin making love late in the afternoon. The atmosphere is warm and tender. Afterwards Martin whispers ruefully that they should get dressed for they are expected soon at a cocktail party given by Martin's boss. Hannah playfully refuses to let him go; initially Martin acquiesces, protesting only halfheartedly. Later he begins to insist. At the same time, Hannah escalates her silliness, thwarting his attempts to get dressed, clutching at his crotch as he tries to put on his pants. He is clearly irritated, but Hannah is equally adamant. Tension builds to a standoff. Finally Martin explodes, voicing his distaste for such childish behavior. They finish dressing in silence.

As Merrapfel's casting and costume decisions demonstrate, Hannah and Martin represent certain tenets of their respective cultures. Martin is the paragon of Aryan good looks — tall, blond, clean-shaven. He wears conservative clothing — coordinated corduroy suits, small plaids and checks, buttoned-down shirts. Yet he holds his square jaw with an air that is often impatiently taut, sometimes tinged with arrogance. We sense reserve, even aloofness, in his demeanor, characteristics often ascribed by outsiders to the German people as a whole. Martin is a representative, as well as a product of his culture.

Hannah, in keeping with her Jewish heritage, has dark, curly — sometimes unruly — hair and deep, sensuous eyes. That the eyes are situated above a very noticeable set of dark circles not only lends to exoticism to her appearance, but also indicate her current foundering. Her clothes-flowing, large-print skirts, pastel tank tops, and lace-up-the-leg sandals — reflect the open and relaxed Latin American culture of her childhood.

In addition to physical characteristics, Meerapfel also relies heavily on language to depict cultural conflict in MALOU. Genealogically, Hannah has many contradictions. She is half-French and half-German, daughter of a devout Catholic but raised in the Jewish tradition. Having spent her childhood in Spanish-speaking Buenos Aires, she now lives in German-speaking Berlin. Although the predominant language of the film is German, there are several passages where the only language being spoken is French or Spanish, or occasionally Hebrew or Yiddish. (In the original German version, these passages are not subtitled. For viewers who are not conversant in these languages, the action is sufficient to maintain continuity.) Thus technique aurally underscores the myriad of cultural influences swirling around Hannah. The fact that she teaches Spanish for Germans and German for foreigners in an adult education program means that she is constantly straddling two languages, two cultures. She can rarely lapse comfortably into her mother tongue, except in the company of her few Argentine friends. Although she speaks, reasonably fluent German, she falters occasionally. Then she is quickly corrected by Martin, who points out condescendingly that a certain pronoun governs the dative case rather than the accusative.

The music in MALOU also reveals the cultural crosscurrents buffeting Hannah. Much of the music (composed by frequent Fassbinder collaborator, Peer Raben) is in the form of a tango-indigenous to Argentina — but here with a unique twist, German lyrics. In fact, Meerapfel herself compares the structure and rhythm of her film to that of a tango:

"During Filming in Madrid we heard an Argentinian singing tangos in a bar. It became clear to me that the sentimentality of the story in the film, this longing for the past, this melancholy mood, were feelings which I had learned or rediscovered in the tango."

Unlike much of the recent work emanating from Germany, MALOU is warm and intimate. The camerawork (by Michael Ballhaus) emphasizes the films essentially narrative tenor, the directors desire to see the characters up close rather than distancing them through a wash of colored filters, a highly stylized mise-en-scene, or a psycho-historical phantasmagoria.

After completing MALOU, Meerapfel made a second film on a similar subject, the problems of Jews living in contemporary Germany. The documentary, entitled IM LAND MEINER ELTERN (IN THE COUNTRY OF MY PARENTS) was commissioned by German television. The film begins with a shot of a peaceful Jewish cemetery in Bavaria as Meerapfel says in the voice-over:

"If Hitler had not existed, I would have been born a German Jew, more German than Jewish, in a small village in southern Germany …"

Instead, she was born in Argentina, coming "back" to Germany nineteen years ago. IN THE COUNTRY OF MY PARENTS presents dialogues with Jews, several of them similarly repatriated and some personal friends of the director, discussing what it means to be a Jew in Berlin in the 1980s. The dialogues were usually filmed on just one take and incorporated into the film with only minor editing. The speeches are amazingly candid and often painfully touching. One sequence depicts a young woman, Eva, recalling memories of her grandmother while wistfully fingering a frayed stack of old letters. The sequence was shot in the same apartment from which Eva's grandmother disappeared forty years ago. We hear not only about a young girl's attachment to her grandmother but also her profound guilt at having survived.

Another woman, Sarah, is a painter who has retreated into her coach-house apartment. Her inner life has become her only life — she feels alienated from the society surrounding her. She does not consider Germany "home" but cannot imagine another "home."

Hazel, filmed in the no-man's land separating East and West Berlin, says Jews may be hiding behind their Jewishness — there are worse lives than what Jews lead in Germany today, such as those that Turkish Gastarbeiters or immigrant workers have. Hazel does not usually think of herself as a Jew and only does so when forced to by others. An older couple originally from Odessa and a shoemaker from Latvia are grateful to have emigrated to Germany, land of the so-called Wirtschaftswunder or "economic miracle. And an affluent young theatre producer admits sheepishly to being "embarrassed" by appearing on camera specifically as a Jew.

Frequently, the emotional intensity of the dialogues is overwhelming. To balance these moments, Meerapfel has included footage from her talks with ten-year old Anna, a bright, U.S.-born Jewish girl raised in Berlin where her father is a professor of history. Anna's openness and her affection for the German people — quite evident from her observation, "They're just like me — except that I'm American!" (which she announces proudly in flawless German) — stands in direct contrast to the adults' tentativeness. Although Anna can read the words on the cenotaph for the six million who perished, she comprehends very little of the horror they represent. Anna's innocence is her dominant characteristic and seems both refreshing and disquieting, as when Meerapfel shows Anna's skipping absentmindedly down a set of railroad tracks which led to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Bergen-Belsen.

Throughout most of the film is the haunting presence of the word Angst, usually translated as "anxiety" but more precisely connoting a latent, somehow intangible fear. Angst stalks the post-Holocaust generation of Jews in Germany. The German people as a whole have never come to terms with their collective guilt. Only now are German schoolchildren being taught about atrocities perpetrated in the name of Aryan supremacy. Only recently has television programming, such as HOLOCAUST and Meerapfel's IN THE COUNTRY OF MY PARENTS, been offered. The German people remain defensive on the subject of anti-Semitism, and many prefer simply to close their eyes and minds to the past.

Jeanine Meerapfel has deliberately chosen a non-confrontational tenor for her film, eschewing the "horror show" mentality so prevalent in other documentaries on the subject. We see none of the archival photographs depicting emaciated, glassy-eyed survivors of Auschwitz, mountains of corpses, ovens. The film was made with German viewers in mind, with the expressed purpose of "… building a bridge, starting a dialogue." Meerapfel discussed her goals during our interview:

"I am concerned primarily with the present and how we all react to what happened in the past. That's why I wasn't interested in depicting all the heinous crimes that were committed. And the film was not intended as a vengeful attempt to arouse feelings of guilt. Guilt leads only to silence. I simply wanted to ask the questions: 'How did this happen?' 'Why did it happen?' 'How is it today?' and 'What can we do about the fact that many people's attitudes have actually changed very little?'"

IN THE LAND OF MY PARENTS was shown twice on German television. It received such a positive response that the station, unequipped to handle the numerous requests for prints, has since sold the film to an independent distributor in order to facilitate public access and demand.