Film links S.F. rapper to German vaudeville team

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It takes a certain musical audacity to connect century-old German vaudeville and right-now West Coast rap, but Jens Huckeriede isn’t afraid to try.

In his tune-filled documentary, “Return of the Tudelband,” the German filmmaker brings assimilated San Francisco rapper Dan Wolf face-to-face with his lost Jewish heritage — in Hamburg.

The travelogue offers an intriguing counterpoint to the documentaries of recent years that followed a twenty- or thirtysomething American Jew to Poland and Eastern Europe in search of the houses, streets and vanished culture described in detail by grandparents who’d escaped the Holocaust.

The twist here is that Wolf knew almost nothing about his family history, especially the remarkable show-biz careers of his great-grandfather and great-great-uncles, and would never have thought to embark on this journey until the filmmaker knocked on his door one day.

“Return of the Tudelband” is an admirable attempt to narrow the eternal gulf between generations, and to create a bridge between Gen-X American Jews and their German peers. Some of the musical performances are terrific, but the film is hampered by a bland central character and a meandering narrative.

The documentary has its U.S. premiere at 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 12, at the Castro Theatre as part of the Goethe-Institut’s annual “Berlin & Beyond” festival of new films. Huckeriede will be present, and the screening will be followed by a performance of Felonious, Dan Wolf’s hip-hop band.

Leopold and Ludwig Wolf were hugely popular Hamburg singers and comedians who performed and recorded as Gebruder Wolf (the Wolf Brothers) from 1895 until the Nazis came to power. In the course of researching a proposed film about the performers — who are now forgotten although their ditty, “The Boy With the Tudelband” (or hoop), remains a staple of Hamburg soccer matches and beer halls — Huckeriede discovered Dan Wolf in San Francisco.

It turned out, perhaps not coincidentally, that Wolf was a musician, writer and performer himself. So the film employs a parallel structure in which Wolf and various Hamburg musicians reinterpret the brothers’ songs while the Californian is introduced to the port city, its Jewish past and the legacy of the Gebruder Wolf.

Dan Wolf is an earnest, well-meaning young man, but his discoveries and insights are neither fresh nor profound. “I’m a living example that whatever was tried to achieve here, it just didn’t work,” he says at one point, reflecting both how comfortable he feels in Hamburg and how distant the Holocaust seems.

“Return of the Tudelband” also features Wolf and his Felonious band mates rapping onstage and on the streets of Hamburg. While the Americans and their German counterparts don’t leave much of an impression with either their words or rhythms, they confirm that fashion and attitude are as crucial as talent to wannabe musical rebels. Or don’t you remember Elvis?

As for the Gebruder Wolf, theirs is a not-unfamiliar German-Jewish saga of stardom to exile. The Wolf brothers’ long-running cabaret show was built on songs, outlandish costumes (from white chef outfits to shtetl garb) and shtick.

By the time the Nazis relegated them to performing only for Jewish audiences, Leopold was long dead of a heart attack (and had been replaced onstage by his son) and Ludwig was getting on in years. Their sons — one of whom was Dan Wolf’s grandfather — eventually escaped to Shanghai and, after the war, migrated to California.

“Return of the Tudelband” deserves applause for reviving the legacy of the Gebruder Wolf. That’s admittedly a left-handed compliment, since Huckeriede clearly aspires to present revelatory history and compelling music. He’s made a nice film, but hardly an indispensable one.

“Return of the Tudelband” screens 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 12, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., as part of “Berlin & Beyond.” Dan Wolf performs his one-man play, “Stateless,” Jan. 20 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia, S.F. Information and tickets: (415) 263-8760 or www.goethe.de/sanfrancisco.

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.