Jewish cemetery in Germany comes to life in Heaven

An old cemetery, as anyone knows who’s wandered through one, is a repository of history.

A burial ground offers a glimpse into the past, if you’re open to interpreting the signs and reading between the lines. Yes, there’s tragedy in those taken too young, and it’s natural to feel a twinge (even for those you never knew). But we’re more apt to meditate on the customs, rituals and loves of our predecessors than their deaths.

A scene from “In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery”

The one exception might be a Jewish cemetery in Germany. The Holocaust overshadows the lives and contributions of German Jews, and it is still difficult for us to look back across the canyon of suffering and see a vital, vibrant community.

So it’s a relief and a pleasure to report that German director Britta Wauer’s richly fascinating “In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery” is anything but a wrenching dirge. On the contrary, it’s an uplifting study in evolution, regeneration, respect and curious chance.

The 90-minute documentary — in English, German and Russian with English subtitles — screens twice in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The vast graveyard on the eastern side of Berlin was dedicated in 1880 and, in the 130 years since then, some 115,000 people have been laid to rest there. A map is essential for locating a particular grave, and it’s easy to get lost amid the endless tombstones, mausoleums and trees.

The film’s central theme of a cemetery as a hub of life — in a country where the Jews were all but wiped out, no less — is expressed in an early sequence of a modern-day ceremony saluting casualties and veterans of World War I. The commemoration of sacrifice is especially moving when one recalls all the patriotic German Jews who refused to believe the worst until it was too late.

Providing an unusual and unexpected perspective is an elderly Jewish man who essentially grew up in the graveyard. His father was a workman there, so it was the lad’s playground. But he also watched his dad and learned, and the construction skills he picked up eventually got him a job that allowed him to evade deportation and death.

Another perspective comes from a

30-something, non-Jewish couple that lives in an apartment on the grounds. It’s a wonderfully safe place to raise their child, they attest, and the neighborhood, not surprisingly, is very quiet at night.

The film is a portrait of a place rather than a compendium of its permanent residents. And though it’s a graveyard, it’s a place that is alive, its role ever-changing.

For example, Russian Jews currently living in Berlin have brought their own way of honoring the dead to Weissensee. They lay flowers on graves, which an aged rabbi tells us is not a traditional Jewish act.

The film also introduces us to the non-Jewish city employees who are restoring the elaborate wrought iron and ceramic decorations on some of the tombs. The fact that Weissensee is important to a new generation of Germans offers a measure of reassurance.

Of course, not many Jewish graves were dug in Weissensee from 1939 through 1945. As the film unfolds, we gradually realize that the filmmaker is using Weissensee as a lens through which we obliquely view German history.

In addition to being a film of both gravitas and wry observation, the documentary is impeccably produced. It is equally edifying, amusing and touching — and for such a seemingly morose topic, it is bursting with life.

“In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery” screens at 11 a.m. July 24 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and at 4:40 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley.

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.