Farewell, Herr Schwarz can easily be likened to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, another investigation by a filmmaker into her family’s history as a sort of personal catharsis over enduring mysteries. Director Yael Reuveny uses the legacy of the Holocaust as a contextual basis to connect with another branch of her family after her mysterious great uncle, following WWII, parted with her grandmother and settled into what was to become East Germany. But where Polley’s film allowed the malleability of memory to dictate its outré form, the sobering quality that informs both Farewell, Herr Schwarz’s aesthetic and content largely suppresses any spontaneity or much-needed moments of levity.
As psychological exploration, the documentary benefits greatly from Reuveny’s easygoing relationships with her family and various acquaintances; their natural rapport allows the film’s subjects to casually detail complex insights into the Holocaust’s lasting effects, which still very much loom over these individuals. One of these effects that Reuveny potently focuses on is the nature of identity, with the dual struggle and embracing of it represented in Rueveny’s grandmother and great-uncle, and how it’s been passed down to their respective families. While the grandmother settled into the newly formed state of Israel, her brother hid his Judaism while making a living in East Germany, a form of denial inherited by his son and coolly exposed by Rueveny when she interviews him.
While the film’s subjects offer anecdotes of near-poetic intuitiveness, Rueveny presents these with a frustratingly conventional approach to narrative and form that threatens to undermine their impact. As Rueveny is never exactly seen in the role of an investigator and elliptically moves from subject to subject, the film’s sense of discovery is downplayed to such an extent that each interview or meeting Rueveny conducts (most of which are dominated by an oppressively severe tone) acts as merely a formality. Given the episodic structure that focuses on each successive generation, Rueveny eventually shifts the film’s attention to herself, more specifically her cultural acclimation to her new life in Germany. Aside from acknowledging the understandable misgivings her parents have about her new adoptive home, in these final moments Rueveny seemingly abandons her attentiveness to the psychological effects of her family’s history, which makes such missed-opportunity passages like her parents’ (reluctant) visit to Germany little more than an extended home movie. The film’s third act only underlines that, in any exploration into the annals of history, the quality of the tour guide makes a greater difference than one may realize.