Art House: Gerda's Silence

Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:46am

An Auschwitz survivor, Gerda Schrage has lived a remarkable life. But she never told anyone her life story until she was well into her 80s. The reason why she suppressed her past is what makes Gerda's Silence such a profoundly complex and emotionally powerful film.

Born in Berlin in 1920 to Jewish parents who were rounded up and taken away early on, she was harboured and practically adopted by kind German neighbours during Nazism's rise. Eventually, she was found out, arrested and sent to Auschwitz.

As a Jew, she experienced betrayal, sacrifice, inhumanity and kindness from the least likely sources at the most unexpected times.

Yet she kept it all bottled up even after emigrating to the United States, burying her memories for 60 years, even from her husband and son. It was not until Knut Elstermann, the journalist grandson of an old friend, asked about her past that she grudgingly revealed the full extent of her astonishing experience. The revelations became a bestselling book in Germany, which led to award-winning filmmaker Britta Wauer making this 2008 documentary.

Wauer mines Schrage's later life for an even richer emotional palette. The details of her extraordinary survival - escaping the Nazis, having the "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele personally decide her fate at Auschwitz, and starting a new life in America - are only a part of the picture here.

The heartbreaking revelation in the documentary is the after-effect of Elstermann's book. "Even Holocaust survivors are people with private lives," Elstermann says in the film, hinting at the postscript turmoil.

In opening up Schrage's life, certain facts ended up driving a wedge between the retired woman and her conservative son, Steven. The specifics might seem unremarkable, a common human indiscretion and anguish, but at the tangent of tragedy and morality it defined a concentration camp survivor's life for more than half a century. It helps explain Gerda's silence but it also shows she is still a victim of the circumstances of history.

The fact that Elstermann is German and Schrage's staunchly pro-Jewish son thought of all Germans as "the enemy" doesn't help. His bitterness and resentment causes one interview subject to suggest Steven was "more a victim of the Holocaust than his mother".

The gravity is lightened by a sense of optimism that Wauer injects, lifting and framing the storytelling, with idyllic scenes of children in New York playgrounds accompanied by leisurely jazz tunes such as The Good Life.

One comical scene depicts Schrage and Elstermann watching a tacky and borderline offensive German Day parade full of lederhosen and BMWs.

Of course, offensive is a relative term considering the horrors told. But both Elstermann and Wauer understand the sanctity of an old woman's story not only as a piece of significant history but as someone's life.

Their sympathy and decency insists they don't judge a woman who survived desperate and dangerous times, nor a son who was denied the truth about his mother.

Gerda's Silence, July 26, 8pm, Hong Kong Film Archive. Part of the "German Film Forum 2013: Documentary, Life As It Is" programme