The View from our House: A Comment
Erika is young and fun-loving. She has a boyfriend, a brother and reptiles as pets. She lives in a big, suburban family house in a nice area. She likes to watch the world. She takes photos. Pictures of her show a young girl with a contagious smile and a cheeky demeanour. None of this is particularly special except for the fact that Erika is German, Jewish and living in Berlin in the early 1930s. The film essay The View from our House (2013) traces Erika’s story. This is a story about how home can stop being home and a carefree life can transform into one dominated by worry and fear. However, it is also about the wider contest between life and memory.
Living in Nazi Germany
We know a great deal about the Third Reich, the Second World War, the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews in Germany in particular. This is perhaps the most researched chapter in history. Yet do we really understand what exclusion means and how it feels? Does not the amount of research on this subject in itself suggest that, while our knowledge grows, we still fall short of understanding?
Erika is taken out of school on grounds of race and banned from studying owing to a shortage of ‘non-Aryan’ places. She struggles to find a professional placement. Her boyfriend, Hans, leaves her. In her last letter to him, she comments, ‘I don’t understand the race question’ and writes that she still wants to believe that ‘love is always stronger than the law’.
The streets are renamed, the house is sold; her father leaves for Britain. Eventually Erika leaves for Britain as well. There, she makes a career as a photographer, taking, among other things, portraits of famous German politicians. She died in the early 2000s, leaving only scant material evidence of her life before the war: photographs, a few letters, some official documentation and her orally conveyed isolated memory of screams coming ‘from a concentration camp’ near her childhood home.
Beyond the Portrait
The View from our House is a highly intimate portrait. But it is both more and less than a conventional biography. For one thing, the gaps in the evidence and the distance in time are addressed directly: A faithful and exhaustive reconstruction is impossible; understanding requires a leap of imagination; we can only assume, speak in the conditional tense, try to put ourselves in Erika’s place and world. But if we can observe closely the environment that was once hers, we still need to acknowledge that contemporary Berlin is inevitably different. For another, therefore, the film offers a much wider reflection on the legacies of the Third Reich in Germany – loss and displacement, of course, but also what remains in the material fabric of the city. People go, the seasons change but the names, the numbers, the buildings and the trees are still there. This is a film about life, its cycle, its disruption and its traces.
The film thus offers a sensory journey through space and time. The emphasis is on sounds, emotions and repetition. Trees bloom and falter, birds sing, it snows and rains, people walk down the same streets again and again. These phenomena and their rhythms are arguably much closer to the way we experience reality on a daily basis, than the chronological account with key turning points established retrospectively and favoured by historians. The sounds and sights are familiar. Indeed, how can we tell if this is Berlin 1937 or Berlin 2007? It is worth noting that the film is devoid of historical dates. There are only references to Erika’s age and changes to her personal circumstances. The caesura are private even if their causes are political; and while her world is shaken the birds keep singing, the trees blooming, the people walking, cycling, laughing and loving.
Capturing the Past
Many contemporary historians would agree that life in the Third Reich was characterised by an uncanny mixture of novelty and familiarity. People like Erika walked down the same streets and buildings and saw the same trees and rivers before and after 1933, 1938, 1939, 1941. What was different? Perhaps a large house had become a frightening prison. Perhaps it was no longer possible to walk up close to it. Perhaps the sound of the trains mixed with the screams of the detainees. Perhaps fear became the dominant feeling. Maybe. Maybe not. It is impossible to be certain about the exact details. But what matters, and what this film successfully captures and conveys, is the unquestionable mixture of mundaneness and brutality – the quotidian character of the danger.
The closing scenes show the unnamed tombstones of victims of the bombings in the area of Tempelhof, where Erika lived and where many German factories employed slave labourers. Today, they are overgrown with grass and flowers. Who were these victims? Germans, Jews, foreigners? These identities were a matter of life or death under Nazism. But the bombs were indiscriminate and now, with equal indifference, nature is taking over.
The View from our House is much more than the portrait of a young Jewish woman in Berlin under Nazism. It is a reflection on violence, subjectivity, memory and the passage of time. It achieves this not solely by telling Erika’s story, but by setting it against the backdrop of long semi-static and highly aesthetic shots of the urban landscape in which she lived. This gives the viewer a context, past and present. But it also gives us time to think. This is why the film is not a narrative but an impression – a view, not a picture.
This piece is a reworked version of the comment previously published here.