What could two kids – one of them coming from a German Jewish family and the other from a German nazi family – have in common in 1950s Argentina? Would you imagine them living on the same street and hanging out together? Could you see their future as a couple?
Argentina opened its doors to all immigrants – especially those coming from Europe – during the previous century. The biggest waves of immigration from the other side of the Atlantic came during periods of revolution and war – thousands of refugees, regime victims, and later war criminals escaped from Europe where they couldn’t share the same territory peacefully, seeking a new life together, as an expat community, in Argentina. Did those unresolved European issues remained in the new country too?
‘El Amigo Alemán’ (The German Friend), out for general cinema release today, is a brilliant film by Jeanine Meerapfel that explores the poorly-understood social conflicts of immigrants settling in a new country, and provides an interesting alternative perspective on 20th century Argentine history.
The film starts as the love story between a girl, Sulamit, coming from a German Jewish family and a boy, Friedrich, coming from a German nazi family. They are neighbours in Argentina, and both attend the same school, though their parents do not seem to be happy about their blossoming relationship. When Friedrich becomes 18, he discovers the dark past of his father, a former SS general in nazi Germany. The young man cuts all relations with his family and leaves for Germany, full of angry energy, to change the world. Sulamit follows him and they maintain their friendship, though the romantic side of the relationship is challenged. Friedrich then leaves her again, going back to fight against the dictatorship in Argentina and ending up in prison in Patagonia. Sulamit meets another person, Michael, but her love for Friedrich never dies. After first travelling from Germany to visit him in prison she then returns again to Argentina as a 40 year old, when he writes her a letter from a Mapuche village in Patagonia.
‘El Amigo Alemán’ is a co-production of Argentina and Germany. It deals with the sensitive problems of the post-World War II period in a natural way, helped by the fact that it’s based on the director’s own personal experience.
Director and co-producer, Jeanine Meerapfel, was born in Argentina in the 1950s in a German-Jewish family. She was a part of the uneasy build-up of a new society, where the children of immigrants were protagonists and faced difficult situations as they discovered their parents’ backgrounds. When Meerapfel grew up, she chose to go back to the country of her family, to a Germany that was still going through the post-war reconstruction process. Meerapfel saw the massive youth protests in the biggest German cities in 1968, people who were ashamed to be Germans and were turning to the extreme left. Later, this would help her understand what was happening in Argentina during and after the 1976-83 dictatorship.
She began on working on the film that would show the social aspects of her biography in two countries – Argentina and Germany – about three years ago. Some 70% of ‘El Amigo Alemán’ was filmed in Argentina, inspiring Meerapfel’s decision is to release it first here and then in Germany.
Besides showing the hidden history of Argentina in the previous century, Meerapfel says the film deliberately focuses on fundamental human values: hate can be surpassed through love. Meerapfel admits that the film is partially autobiographical and describes it as a form of liberation. Most Argentine actors in the cast agree, and during a screening in September they shared personal stories similar to those depicted on the film. Asked about a violent scene, where Sulamit is accused and beaten by a group of Argentine guys in her school, Meerapfel responds, “such cases were pretty normal in the 1950s, but that has definitely changed now.”
“Everything we do is autobiographic,” Meerapfel continues. The original name of the film was ‘Hijos de…’ (Children of…) as they are the ones who were most traumatised their parents’ past. The actual title of the film is the name by which Sulamit’s mother always refers to Friedrich. At one point, an exasperated Sulamit replies during a phone call from Germany, that “He is not German, he is Argentine!” This emphasises another of the film’s central themes: it’s important to know where we come from and what our roots are, but life goes on, and it moves forward. These children of immigrants torn apart by conflict are now the citizens of a new country and their mission is to build another society, free from hate.