Irmi in the driver’s seat as a young mother in France. (Photo/Courtesy Veronica Selver)
Irmi in the driver’s seat as a young mother in France. (Photo/Courtesy Veronica Selver)

‘I choose to live’: ‘Irmi’ tells story of triumph out of tragedy

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Cogent words from an elder who has lived long and well and triumphed over adversity always serve the young. But it has been a while since wise exemplars have been needed as much as they are today.

The documentary “Irmi,” about a German Jewish refugee who survived heartbreak after heartbreak and managed to thrive into her 98th year, offers that kind of reinforcement.

Made by Oakland filmmaker Veronica Selver, “Irmi” is also a daughter’s effort to truly know the mother she loved –- and a tribute to her as a survivor who persisted against all odds.

The 2020 documentary, co-directed by Selver and Susan Fanshel, opens at the Roxie Virtual Theater Nov. 13. It premiered at the Jewish Film Institute’s festival last July and has been available to rent on the Berkeley Art Museum’s site since September.

Irmi with daughter and filmmaker Veronica Selver.
Irmi with daughter and filmmaker Veronica Selver.

Irmi’s personal story is, like many of her generation, inextricable from the turbulent times in which she came to adulthood. Born in 1906 to a comfortable Jewish family in Chemnitz, Germany, she and some (but not all) relatives fled their home in the 1930s, barely ahead of the Third Reich. In the film, based on her own memoir and read in voiceover by German actress Hannah Schygulla, Irmi’s joie de vivre and adaptability are richly documented in both word and image.

But what is most astonishing about this calm, compassionate, deeply appreciative film is that Veronica, her sister Irene and their father comprise Irmi’s second family. Her first husband, son and daughter, with whom she escaped Germany, were all lost when the ship carrying the refugees to Chile hit a German mine in the English Channel and sank. After her rescue by the British Navy, Irmi awakened into a new life without them. Recovering in the home of friends, she had to make a decision. And as those friends — now elders themselves — recount on camera, Irmi ultimately declared: “I choose to live.”

That this vanished family lay quietly in Irmi’s heart for the rest of her reinvented life forms a poignant minor chord in Selver’s telling. Her mother moved from country to country and remarried not once, but twice — the second time to Henry Selver, producing Veronica and her sister. He worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee until his death in 1957. Irmi then shaped a career as a massage therapist and a secretary, building a successful life in New York City, then on Cape Cod in Truro, Massachusetts, anchored emotionally by a vast network of adoring friends and relations. She died in January 2004 at the age of 98.

Charcoal drawing of Irmi doing her daily crossword puzzle by Cappy Coates.
Charcoal drawing of Irmi doing her daily crossword puzzle by Cappy Coates.

Blending archival photos, drawings, home movies and fresh interviews, “Irmi” portrays a woman who drew everyone close with her kindness, resilience and love of life, even in the face of unimaginable loss. Selver provides a model of a human being that we, too, will want to keep in our memories.

Selver and collaborator Fanshel have known each other since high school — meaning that Fanshel knew Irmi personally for over 40 years. The two developed parallel film careers; Selver as a Bay Area filmmaker and editor specializing in social issue documentaries, and Fanshel as an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker and editor. The two previously collaborated on “KPFA On the Air,” a history of the Berkeley radio station, which Selver directed and Fanshel edited.

Though Selver began her film career in New York and Paris, she has long been based in the Bay Area and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Fanshel graduated from UC Berkeley with a master’s degree in fine art and currently lives in New York City.

The film rental on the BAMPFA website includes an interview with both filmmakers and Todd Boekelheide, who composed the film score. It was recorded on Sept. 13.

“Irmi” opens Nov. 13 at the Roxie Virtual Theater. $12. (70 minutes, in English, unrated)

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.