El amigo alemán (My German Friend) – review
As The Go-Between‘s famous opening line goes, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In the case of El amigo alemán (My German Friend) and its central protagonists, their past is literally a foreign country – namely, Germany – and as the film makes plain, it’s difficult to know how they could have done anything differently.
Spanning some 30 years, the film is primarily concerned with the weight of history, both personal and political. Sulamit (Celeste Cid) and Friedrich (Max Riemelt) grow up on opposite sites of the same Buenos Aires suburban road, the latter’s family always referred to by the former’s as ‘the Germans’. Yet Sulamit’s Jewish family are German too, just of a different sort: the sort who fled persecution before the war, while Friedrich’s family, specifically his father, escaped justice after it.
Both Sulamit and Friedrich spend the next 30 years attempting to make sense of their respective pasts: moving backwards and forwards between Argentina and Germany, trying to discover their respective homes, and whether there’s room for each other within them. For Friedrich, this involves atoning, literally, for the sins of his father by becoming ever-more radicalised, fighting for any cause that will have him. For Sulamit, it seems to revolve around rediscovering the country her family worked hard to leave behind, and waiting for Friedrich to get done fighting wars.
El amigo alemán is, superficially at least, a love story – and an unashamed, sweeping epic of one at that. Consciously following the well-trodden path of every ‘separated lovers’ tale from Shakespeare through to your sitcom of choice, there seems little doubt that one way or another, Sulamit and Friedrich will eventually find their way back to each other. Indeed, much of the film’s charm comes from watching how they do so, even when all seems lost; and to the film’s credit, there are several occasions where it genuinely does seem hopeless. Often brutally so. Aided by frankly remarkable, decades-spanning performances from Cid and Riemelt, both among their country’s best-known young actors (Cid is Argentine, Riemelt German), the characters feel consistently lived-in; their individual journeys feel all the more realistic, despite the often insane circumstances which in lesser hands could have led to caricature. Their enforced separation feels earned, and never just for the sake of prolonging a plot point.
Crucially, though, the romance serves as a conduit into discussing the wholesale emigration of both European Jews and Nazis to the continent, and how those two communities had to live alongside each other, one effectively having been exiled by the other. Never mind their attempts to assimilate into Latin American culture; in the end, Friedrich and Sulamit are both German and Argentine, even when they’d rather not be. The fact that this area of history isn’t quite so well-known, or at the very least as famous as Argentina and Germany’s individual 20th Century conflicts, is exactly why setting an exploration of the German/Argentine ‘special relationship’ within the framework of an old-fashioned romance works as well as it does. It’s testament to director Jeanine Meerapfel’s skill that the film remains wholly accessible to all, light of heart even when tackling subject matter as complex as this.
El amigo alemán is one of those rare films that genuinely has something for everyone. If you’re fascinated by historical epics there’s plenty for you here, exploring an area of world history not spoken about nearly enough. Similarly, the long-winding romance between Sulamit and Friedrich is up there with the best of them. It’s not often that you can say a film genuinely has it all, and manages to be heartbreaking, heartwarming and intelligent in equal measure. El amigo alemán is such a film, and should be treasured for the rarity it is.
El amigo alemán (My German Friend) is currently awaiting a UK release date. It needs one so if you’re a distributor pick it up, please.