An old cemetery, as anyone knows who’s wandered through one perusing and touching the stones, 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.
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 documentary, 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 vast graveyard on the eastern side of Berlin was dedicated in 1880 and, in the ensuing 125 years, has laid to rest 115,000 people. A map is essential for locating a 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 Jews who — citing their German identity and allegiance as a bulwark against Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric — 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 here, so this 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 through which he evaded deportation and annihilation.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the 30-something, non-Jewish couple with an infant who reside in an apartment on the grounds. It’s a wonderfully safe place to raise a child, they attest, and the neighborhood, unsurprisingly, is exceedingly quiet at night.
Indeed, In Heaven Underground is a portrait of a place rather than a compendium of its permanent residents. And the place is alive, and its role ever-changing.
For example, the Russian Jews now living in Berlin and availing themselves of Weissensee have different mores for burying and honoring their dead. They lay flowers on graves, which an aged, modest sage of a rabbi tells us is not a traditional Jewish act.
In another twist, the filmmaker introduces us to the non-Jewish, city-employed restorers of the elaborate wrought iron and ceramic decorations that adorn the more elaborate tombs. The fact that Weissensee is important to this generation of Germans offers a measure of reassurance and hope for our species.
Needless to say, 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.
Ultimately, In Heaven Underground is a film of both gravitas and wry observation, informed by the weight of history as well as curious twists of fate. Made with impeccable production values, the documentary is equally edifying, amusing, and touching.
Above all, it is a film infused with and dedicated to life. That in itself is a kind of miracle.