The Maccabiah Games were first staged in the early nineteen-thirties to complement the Olympic Games, as a series of unified events that Jewish athletes could compete in at a time in Europe when anti-Semitism was on the rise and deciding official policies in nations such as Germany, just when the Nazis were taking power. The horrors of the Second World War were responsible for the Games being abandoned, but they were revived years later, and as well as the Israeli contest held every four years, there is the European equivalent, held two years in between. In 2015, for the first time those Games were to be held in Berlin...
Understandably, Berlin has a lot of history with the anti-Semitic treatment of Jews as the city where the Nazis ruled from and where the Final Solution was orchestrated that saw millions of Jews sent to death camps. You would think this was a well-worn example of twentieth century history, taught in schools around the globe, but director Catherine Lurie-Alt's documentary illustrated there were always new perspectives and accounts to be related in what, after all, was a vast subject. Thus she followed a team of around a dozen bikers on a journey to bring the Maccabiah torch to Berlin in time for the 2015 occasion, in the Olympic tradition ironically instigated by the Nazis.
These bikers were following a tradition themselves, for back in 1935 there was a cross-nation motorcycling excursion as part of the celebrations, at a time when both the Jews were being threatened, yet it was also very easy to traverse borders and move between countries relatively simply, especially if you were only passing through. On the eightieth anniversary, on the other hand, for various reasons it was growing more difficult to move between nations, largely because of the growing refugee and migrant crisis where survivors of wars in the Middle East were seeking shelter by travelling north, mixing with the migrants who had sickened of a life of poverty in Africa and West Asia and were hoping to start again in what they believed was the better off continent of Europe.
The irony of this situation, crisis in fact, was not lost on these intrepid bikers from 2015, whose relatives had endeavoured to escape their own dire circumstances back in the thirties and forties when not only did the Nazis persecute the Jews with a goal for their extinction, but they had assistance from lands they had cowed and dominated who were keen to curry favour with them and sent their own Jewish populations to their deaths in the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Inevitably, the bikers make detours to the death camps, or what was left of them, and those members who in their seventies remembered what the Holocaust was like opened up about their experiences as children, losing relations and friends and witnessing atrocities no child should have to see.
These were the most moving scenes, with one 78-year-old finally settling his accounts to his son and relating the nightmare he had suffered through as a little boy, admitting he should not have believed these memories should have died with him since he didn't want those images in the younger generation, yet realising how vital it was they were never forgotten to prevent them happening again. Although there was a televisual flavour to Back to Berlin (there was a TV edit that was shorter) it dealt in a cinematic subject, ending on a note of hope you found yourself hoping was justified in an increasingly fractured world of the twenty-first century. If there was a sense of pouring old wine into new bottles when it came to its approach, that old wine was well worth preserving to remind us of precisely how dreadful things can get should unchecked evil be allowed to run rampant. Narrated by Jason Isaacs, with music by Michael Stevens.
[BACK TO BERLIN is released in UK cinemas on 23rd November.]