In Heaven, Underground unfolds with a streak of whimsical creative touches that confirm writer-director Britta Wauer’s genuine intrigue with Berlin’s Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, a lynchpin in WWII Jewish history. Many who were directly affected by that history are still alive, and it’s their on-camera testimony—as well as that of several cemetery employees, past and present—that ultimately gives the documentary some thematic sway. Heddy Honigmann’s great Forever covered similar ground, deeply considering what death means to the living and the relationships many endeavor to continue beyond its veil. In Heaven, Underground touches on some of those same nerves, and there’s no doubt Wauer cares about the feelings and questions evoked by Weissensee (essentially, a functioning, healthy forest located in the middle of a thriving city, in which more than 100,000 departed lay six feet under while their tombstones similarly wither and fall apart), but the film fails to probe these matters with sufficient depth, or to ask enough of the right questions.
Wauer has a strong eye for natural poetry (striking compositions of vegetation-engulfed tombstones abound), implicit meaning (time-lapse sequences of the tombstones through days, nights, and seasons are exquisitely understated), and irony (the cemetery borders a brewery, bringing to mind the great Sunday mass/Moe’s Tavern gag from The Simpsons Movie), and for a time, her film would seem to be a great inquiry into life, death, and the meaning of all things. Fluttering with something profound, the film includes some achingly intimate testimonies of Jewish perseverance (and the impact of survivor’s guilt), while the stuff with Rabbi William Wolff is pure gold. Pockets of insight dot the proceedings without much in the way of a cumulative effect, and it’s regretful when the film essentially turns into little more than a good-mannered advertisement for the cemetery. There’s far more to Weissensee, past or present, than any one film could ever hope to contain, but this pleasant, ultimately rushed visit isn’t nearly enough to do it an even rudimentary justice. Some films deserve to run more than 90 minutes. In Heaven, Underground is one of them.