Gerbutig (2002)

“There’s no such thing as justice.”

The German film Geburtig is based on a great idea. The film weaves together various story strands that all deal with the aftermath of the genocide conducted in the Nazi concentration camps. There’s Jewish actor, Danny (August Zirner) who’s hired to play a concentration camp inmate, Konrad Sachs (Daniel Olbrychski) whose father was an infamous SS doctor in Auschwitz and Susanne (Ruth Reiser) whose father survived a concentration camp and in his old age has identified an SS officer known as the Skull Cracker for his habit of smashing together the heads of two concentration camp inmates until their skulls cracked. There’s a reliable witness, a composer (Peter Simonischek) who lives in New York, who stubbornly refuses to return to testify against the Skull Cracker in Vienna.

The execution of the film is problematic. It’s just too ambitious and ponderous for its own good, and the story strands meander and lose focus. There’s also a great deal of voice-over narration that offers explanations of the characters’ feelings (always a bad sign). The film offers background into the lives of its characters and it’s hard, at times, to see the relevance. While Danny’s reactions to having to work inside a concentration camp are stunning, for example, the entire strand with Danny’s romance with a doctor, is superfluous, and could be cut from the film with no ill effects as a result. The film’s far more interesting strand concerns Konrad Sachs–a man whose life is contaminated with dreadful childhood memories of his father conducting dissections on live Jews. Sachs, a journalist, is tormented by guilt and visions of horrific experimentation. The film asks how on earth does one deal with that sort of past?

One extremely annoying thing about the film is the quality of its subtitles. Entire, relevant speeches are NOT translated. And then there are some subtitles that flash on the screen for a split second–just long enough for the viewer to have the impression of a white flash of something along the bottom of the screen. This problem with the subtitles is so abysmal that it really detracts from the film and its already unfocused plot. As a lover of foreign film, I’m used to the odd misspelling (and some can be amusing or even quaint), but this was really atrocious. Even the film’s title Geburtig appears throughout the film in two versions (Geburtig and Gebirtig) and the Skull Cracker’s name was alternately spelled Pointer and Pointner. The film has its stunning moments, and certainly raises the question of survivor guilt, but unfortunately the film is weighed down with too much baggage and thoroughly rotten subtitles. Directed by Robert Schindel (based on his novel) and Lukas Stepanik, the film is in German with English subtitles.


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