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Why a German Holocaust comedy was a hit in Japan

German Holocaust films are usually stale, says filmmaker Chris Kraus, who is now releasing his comedy, “Die Blumen von gestern.” The movie is inspired by his family history – and struck a nerve in Japan.Die Blumen von gestern film by Chris Kraus (Edith Held/Four Minutes Filmproduktion)

A look back at the Nazi past

Young student Zazie (Adèle Haenel) is doing an internship with Totila Blumen. Despite various hurdles, the German researcher is supposed to organize a conference on Auschwitz – and he also runs into a lot of trouble at first with his new sidekick.

Chris Kraus (picture alliance/dpa/Kyodo)

Success in Japan

“Die Blumen von gestern” celebrated a dual world premiere: in Germany, at the international film festival in the small Upper Franconian town of Hof, and at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The movie garnered enthusiastic praise in the Japanese metropolis, with Kraus taking home two awards.

Die Blumen von gestern by Chris Kraus (Filmfest Hof)

The Holocaust as a comedy

“Die Blumen von gestern” deliberately employs comic relief – a rare medium when addressing the Holocaust in German film. Totila, who tends to blow his top at times, butts head with his boss – shown here with a facial mask following a heated conflict (played by Jan Josef Liefers).Die Blumen von gestern film by Chris Kraus (Edith Held/Four Minutes Filmproduktion)

Masterful grotesqueness

With “Die Blumen von gestern,” Chris Kraus successfully manages to tackle an extremely complex historical subject, and a particularly difficult one in Germany, in an entertaining way. Hannah Herzsprung is just one of the top-class actors in the film. She plays Totila Blumen’s wife.

“Die Blumen von gestern” (Yesterday’s flowers) is a comical film about a Holocaust scholar whose own relatives had been prominent perpetrators during the Third Reich. He gets upset when a conference about Auschwitz is turned into a media event – until he meets a French student whose grandmother was murdered in a concentration camp.

The film opens Thursday in German cinemas. Director Chris Kraus told DW about the film’s reception in Japan – and why the Holocaust could happen again.

DW: The film “Die Blumen von gestern” recently premiered at the international film festivals in Hof, Germany, and Tokyo, Japan. It is now being released in German cinemas. Historically speaking, Japan and Germany have some things in common, though Japan doesn’t deal with its past as openly as Germany does. What were the reactions to the film at the festival in Tokyo?

Chris Kraus (DW/J. Kürten)                                               Chris Kraus is a filmmaker, author and opera director

Chris Kraus: We were very glad that the film was shown because Tokyo is an A-list festival. But of course you can think, what does a film about the Holocaust have to do with Japan? A lot, actually. But I didn’t learn exactly how much until I was there.

Journalists and audience members asked me why I made the film in the way that I did. During fascism, the history of Germany and Japan had a lot to do with each other: They formed an axis together.

Nearly every conversation I had with the Japanese began with: “You Germans do a great job at working through your history.” The film was hyped in Japan and we won the audience choice award, the festival’s first-place prize, and found a distributor right away. That has to do with the fact that they are longing for some way of dealing with the past. You could sense how the pus bubble in the culture is growing and there has to be a needle somewhere to puncture it.

You made a film about dealing with the Holocaust that also contains elements of comedy, which is unusual. What made you decide to do that? In Germany, a lot is done to work through the Holocaust. Still, what are we lacking in dealing with the issue? 

A role model for this project was always the book by historian and sociologist Harald Welzer, “Opa war kein Nazi” (Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi). I think he is very clever and original. Welzer proposed and backed up the thesis that there is a divide in Germany. On the one hand, there is the official culture of remembrance, which is very schematic, and which everyone can identify with because of the personal exoneration it offers. On the other hand, each individual person deals differently with the deeds of their ancestors. I found that fascinating.

Why is that?

When I read that book, I dealt with my own family history at the same time. When I researched my grandfather and his brothers, I found out about the Kraus family – which includes around 100 people – and what kind of struggles, conflicts and terrible discussions they’d had. That was tough. The family had agreed on a particular way of dealing with the past, which was passed on as a canned stance. I wanted to expand on the communication in my family with the film.

I chose the form of an almost-comedy because that was my experience with my own family. I spent years researching in the archives in Germany, Latvia and Poland. The descendants, no matter what side they’d been on, were very relaxed. The Germans, including me, were a bit uptight, but the Jews weren’t at all. I found that interesting and fascinating. Then I heard a true story about a romance between a Jew and a German and that was the catalyst for the film.

There are already many films about National Socialism, the Holocaust, and World War II – even some that make use of comedy like Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be,” and Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful.” Did they inspire you?

There are many approaches and flows of thought that come together and then you just make something out of them. I very much admired Roberto Benigni and never viewed his film as a true comedy. There was too much pain in it, although it was told in a comical way.

I always wondered why an Italian was telling that story. Sure, they also contributed to fascism. But why aren’t we Germans telling that story? Why isn’t that possible? Why can’t we just try something new? Many films are made about the Holocaust, but they almost always follow in trodden footsteps.

What do you mean?

For example, I wanted to show the very ambivalent figure of the Holocaust survivor (portrayed in the film by Sigrid Marquardt), who is not very nice. I was always a bit upset: Why shouldn’t it be possible to show people as victims who are not very nice. It’s not characteristic of crimes that only nice people are murdered.

Still from Die Blumen von Gestern by Chris KrausSpoiler alert: Holocaust researcher Totilas (Lars Eidinger) and his French intern Zazie (Adèle Haenel) get together at the end

Why do we in Germany always deal with the Holocaust in the same way? Does it have to do with our proximity to the matter, or our feelings of guilt?

I don’t have an answer to that. When this film was created – it was published a few years ago as a book – the widespread right-wing movement we have now didn’t exist yet. But it was clear that something like that could happen again: on the one hand, because the topic was beaten to death and on the other hand because it can’t even be comprehended, let alone overcome.

I think that’s very visible. The populist right-wing movement wouldn’t work if people started thinking about where they came from. The danger that something like the Holocaust repeats itself is always there.

How do you approach the matter personally?

I was raised differently. When I was young, it wasn’t totally impossible for something like the Holocaust to happen again. It still distresses me when I think about it. But then I notice that it has something to do with the fact that what happened has not been penetrated.

That can only happen when you go back to yourself and don’t just say that the Nazis were bad people that were different from us and don’t have anything to do with us. That’s not true; they do have something to do with us, and the same thing can happen to us, too.

It’s always a shock when you experience that in your own family. I wonder constantly how I would have responded in the same situation? It’s very humbling to think about that. I have no idea what would have happened.

  • Author Jochen Kürten (kbm)
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