German documentary extracts Jewish identity from Eastern European city

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With patience and subtlety, “This Year in Czernowitz” links the profound disruption of the Holocaust to modern waves of immigration, dislocation and multicultural cross-pollination.

This German documentary is composed mostly of interviews with a handful of emigres who are either survivors or the children of survivors. Their memories of the city of Czernowitz — or the stories their parents told them, in the cases of those born elsewhere — are as precious as childhood mementos.

I’m not talking about colorful anecdotes but the kind of experience that shapes identity. The cellist Eduard Weissman (a resident of Berlin) and the writer and professor Norman Manea (New York) are especially moving in explaining their town’s lingering influence. “This Year in Czernowitz” screens Tuesday, Jan. 11, at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre as part of the Goethe-Institut’s annual “Berlin & Beyond” series of new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Those moviegoers versed in Eastern European geography and history will be at an advantage because director Volker Koepp doesn’t provide narration or onscreen text. Nonetheless, you will glean that Czernowitz was part of Austria, Romania, the USSR and Ukraine in the last century.

Koepp’s previous documentary, “Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckermann,” told the story of the last two Jews born in Czernowitz. But not until we’re well into the film do we learn that 100,000 of the city’s Jews — or fully two-thirds — were killed by the Nazis. Those who survived the war then found themselves in the clutches of the Soviets.

But the director’s indirect style pays off. Ever so gracefully, “This Year” evokes a Jewish Eastern European world that no longer exists, thanks to the Nazis, Stalin and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

And in so doing, this rewarding film leaves the realm of oral history and becomes a reverent homage to the martyred.

Although “This Year” visits several cemeteries and death is a recurring motif, the tone is respectful rather than downbeat. Numerous musical interludes, from Weissman’s rehearsal with the Berlin orchestra to an octogenarian’s splendid a cappella rendition of a vintage song, add to the film’s dignified air.

Eventually the Czernowitz of the mind gives way to the actual place, where we meet a woman named Tanja Kloubert who’s studying to be an interpreter. Eager and confident, she is nonetheless apprehensive that her career will take her away from her hometown.

Kloubert insists that Czernowitz will always remain part of her, a sentiment that reverberates with the longing expressed earlier by the Jews displaced decades earlier.

Unaffected and spontaneous, she offsets the self-important intonations of Harvey Keitel. The actor, whose family also hails from Czernowitz, grabs some serious screen time at Brighton Beach and in the Eastern European town.

The title, of course, is a play on “Next year in Jerusalem,” the ancient Passover incantation uttered for centuries to hasten a Jewish homeland. Czernowitz is hardly the Promised Land, but it was once a pretty fair place for Jews.

“This Year in Czernowitz” screens at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 11, at the Castro Theatre, Castro and Market streets, S.F. Information: (415) 263-8760 or www.goethe.de/ins/us/saf/enindex.htm.

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.