Antisemitism may have been temporarily discredited in post-Holocaust Germany, but in Leo Khasin’s dark and cutting comedy, The Un-Word, it continues to seethe and spread like a deadly virus that no vaccination, however potent, can eradicate.
Due to be screened online by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from June 3-13, it unfolds in a high school in contemporary Berlin as the distraught parents of a 15-year-old Jewish student try to make sense of their son’s brush with antisemitic bullying.
The aggressor is not an ethnic German, as might have been the case decades ago, but a Palestinian student named Karim (Oskar Redfern), whose family was displaced by Israel’s armed struggle with the Palestinians.
Having learned that their son, Max (Samuel Benito), was victimized by Karim and several of his friends, Simon and Valerie Berlinger (Thomas Sarbacher and Ursina Lardi), an upper-middle-class Jewish couple, lodge a complaint with the authorities at his supposedly racist-free school.
They arrange a meeting with Max’s teacher, Ritter (Anna Bruggemann), the principal, Stege (David Striesow), and the superintendent, Nussen-Winkelmann (Iris Berben), all of whom are deeply uncomfortable by the specter of antisemitism in a German school.
Their discussion yields ambiguity and flashbacks from the classroom. Max, whose grandmother was a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, certainly has reason to be upset. During one of Ritter’s lessons, Karim dismisses Anne Frank’s diary as a hoax and claims that Jews murder children. Yet Max may not be the only victim. His father concedes that he launched a “preemptive strike” against Karim.
Attempting to calm the turbulent waters, Stege argues that Karim’s outburst could well be related to his bitterness as an aggrieved Palestinian. Looking for a pragmatic solution to a serious problem, Stege suggests that an interfaith dialog program should be established and that guided tours to the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp might be helpful.
Ritter, a bleeding heart liberal and a peacenik who professes to love Jews, strikes a conciliatory note when she voices support for Holocaust remembrance days and the inclusion of the Holocaust in the curriculum.
In the next few scenes, more vital facts surface. Max’s Iranian Muslim friend, Reza (Victor Kadam), admits he is hard-pressed to believe that the Holocaust really happened, and claims that Jews are arrogant. During a soccer game on school grounds, Karim shouts an antisemitic epithet at Max.
Simon and Valerie do not understand why Karim has turned against Max. As Valerie — a Christian convert to Judaism — naively protests, “We’re not Israelis.”
Simon, meanwhile, is enraged to learn that his wife compiled a list of Jewish students in the school that she handed over to Stege. He contends that the list may be useful in protecting Jews. Nussen-Winkelmann wants to report the entire incident to the police, but Stege thinks it will damage the school’s image.
As the conversation grows increasingly heated, Ritter discloses information that reflects badly on Karim, while Reza’s mother, Majan (Neda Rahmanian), reports that his nose was broken in an altercation.
In what turns out to be a key scene in this bracing movie, Majan launches into a revealing monologue. Claiming she is not antisemitic in the least, she praises the positive qualities of Jews. More to the point, she observes that the word “Jew” has degenerated into an “un-word” in Germany, and that Germans are generally uneasy about discussing this super-sensitive issue.
Discouraged by the tenor of his conversation with Ritter and her colleagues, Simon ponders the possibility of sending Max to a Jewish school. Max, in turn, claims that Jews can’t lead a “normal” life in Germany.
Simon tries to smooth things over by talking to Karim’s father. And in a supremely ironic twist, Karim learns first-hand what some elderly Germans think of Arabs in their midst. As an old woman in a nursing home says, “The Arabs are today’s Jews.”
It’s a revelatory and stinging message for Palestinians and Jews alike.