Some Germans repairing world by confronting the past on film

The Holocaust and the Third Reich may be distant history to Germany's youth, but the baby-boomer generation continues to wrestle with the terrible legacy of its fathers.

"Das Gleiche Wollen und Das Gleiche Nicht Wollen," which portrays middle-aged Germans preserving the record of Jews in Berlin, receives a rare screening in San Francisco on Thursday, May 2.

The illuminating, challenging 1990 nonfiction film by German filmmakers Ingo Kratisch and Jutta Sartory is about Germans who act in the spirit of what can best be called tikkun olam, "repairing the world."

They restore a Jewish cemetery and salute important Jewish prewar architects. Indeed, the film suggests that any effective attempt to rebuild and heal Germany must include both Jewish history and full recognition of German crimes against Jews.

The film, whose title is translated either as "Wanting the Same Thing and Not Wanting the Same Thing" or "Wanting To Be the Same and Wanting To Be Different," is closer to an essay than a documentary.

The lack of a narrator or even any identification of the film's interviewees will frustrate those expecting an accessible, linear treatment. The film's fragmentary, oblique structure invites viewers to reach their own associations and conclusions.

"Das Gleiche Wollen" opens by evoking Prometheus, who was punished by Zeus because of his love for human beings. From there, the film quickly moves into its theme of building and rebuilding by introducing us to an architect, a writer, an artist and a social scientist.

The architect, Myra Warhaftig, studied in Israel under the great German Jewish architects who immigrated to Palestine in 1933. She returns to Germany to track down the various surviving buildings they designed in the years before the Reich.

Indeed, one of the film's most powerful scenes consists of Warhaftig's public lecture recounting the lack of government support for her proposed exhibition linking German architecture with buildings in Palestine.

Discussing her work, writer Jeanette Lander explains why she constructs her notebooks as squares of text surrounded by white space: She uses the Talmud as a model, with room for the commentary on the same page.

The filmmakers, who aren't Jewish, also get into the act, on camera. They join a team of volunteers raising and cleaning tombstones in the cemetery at Addas Yisroel, the Orthodox synagogue founded in Berlin in 1869. A watchman maintained the cemetery until his retirement in the mid-1980s, and the sacred place was then quickly overtaken by ruin, vandalism and decay.

The film — like the restored cemetery — makes it clear that the balance between Nazi crimes and contemporary amends is uncertain. A rabbi asserts at the cemetery rededication ceremony, "The Jewish community has been restored its original rights." But we remember the comment of a volunteer carefully positioning a heavy tombstone "in case the evil wind comes again."

As another haunting reminder of Germany's horrifying past and the difficulty of its citizens accepting it even today, a conceptual artist stands in a public square, clad in an overcoat and sunglasses and holding a large sign claiming, "I didn't know anything."

The film's title and concerns may suggest the ambivalence all people feel about their history. Although we may have no desire to relive the past, we don't dare forget it. In Germany perhaps more than anywhere else, this is critical.

Filmmakers Kratisch and Sartory are currently completing a residency at the Art Institute of Chicago's film school, where they publicly screened a few of their 13 films. The filmmakers will attend the San Francisco showing of "Wanting the Same Thing," which marks their only other U.S. appearance.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.