February 6, 2003
The opening scene of "Gebürtig" is as clever and shocking a scene you'll see on screen this year: The cold, mist-covered grounds of a concentration camp. Skeletal Jews in ragged clothes huddle together for warmth. Nearby, SS officers in thick wool coats smoke, laugh and drink. An old Jew slips, collapses. An SS man rushes over, extends his hand, helps him up and offers him his cigarette.
These are actors in the midst of shooting a major Holocaust movie, and in the course of "Gebürtig," set in Vienna during the Waldheim affair of the late 1980s, we will get to know how they and others deal with the reality of what they are paid to fictionalize.
Gebürtig, Austria's entry into the competition for Best Foreign Film in the upcoming Oscar race, is a clever and mostly engaging movie that goes after the big questions: Is the Holocaust best told as documentary or fiction? Are its terrors better left to historians or storytellers? Are its truth found in the courtroom or in poetry? In other words, how do you come to terms with coming to terms with the past?
The movie, based on a 1992 novel by co-writer and co-director Robert Schindel, has a delightfully jaundiced view of the whole Holocaust movie industry. It's a Holocaust movie that could, and should, only be made in the wake of dozens of more serious Holocaust movies. It has, too, a much more serious take on how Austrians themselves have or have not come to grips with their history.
The movie tracks a handful of Austrians as they come to grips with how the Holocaust, or the aftermath of the Holocaust, influences their lives. A Viennese journalist sets out for New York to convince Jewish immigrant Hermann Gebirtig, whose name is spelled differently than the film's title, to return to the town of his birth and give evidence in court against a former concentration camp supervisor. A famous German journalist is forced to finally face the fact that he is the son of a high-ranking SS doctor. Jewish cabaret artist Danny Demant and his circle of theatrical friends -- the mixed-together children of victims and aggressors -- vie for parts in a Hollywood Holocaust movie, even as Demant tries to forget his Jewishness in the arms of a beautiful ER doctor.
"Once the world capital of anti-Semitism, Vienna has become the capital of forgetting," Demant sings in his cabaret.
The stories come together in a very European, untidy conclusion, when Gebirtig does return to testify, only to see the defendant released for lack of evidence. Was Gebirtig's journey a waste of time? The old poet shrugs.
"Vienna is a beautiful city. To die for," he says.
So is much of this movie.
The Academy Award nominations will be televised at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 11 on ABC.