“It’s better to arrive at Auschwitz by bike than by train”
The Holocaust is one of the most difficult things to write about or to make films about. It is the subject which rookie director Catherine Lurie chose for her directorial debut. The result is a moving film which is emotionally difficult to watch mostly for the right reasons.
In the 1930s, Jewish athletes were excluded from mainstream sports events, such as Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. An alternative sporting event known as the Maccabiah Games was held in Tel Aviv. It was an opportunity for Jewish athletes from all over the world to come together and compete in an environment free from persecution.
To spread the word, teams of bikers rode from Tel Aviv to Jewish communities and villages all over the world. In the hostile environment of 1930s Europe, with fascism at its strongest, one can imagine the bravery of the motorcyclists who undertook this journey. Their message was heard and the Maccabiah games were a success with teams representing Jewish communities from many countries participating.
Fast forward 80 years to 2015. The Maccabi sporting movement had become a global phenomenon, and the 14th European Maccabiah Games were taking place in Berlin, at the infamous Olympic Stadium, with thousands of athletes from 38 European countries taking part. A group of eleven motorcyclists brought the Maccabiah flame from Israel to the opening ceremony to light the torch, taking a route similar to some of the 1930s riders. A film crew followed them. The group included two Holocaust survivors, descendants of several of the original 1930s Maccabiah riders, and others, including the son of one of the Holocaust survivors riding alongside his father. They rode several Kwakers, a few ubiquitous Honda tourers, a Harley and a couple of BMWs. More on that later.
One of the main strengths of the film is the historical context that it provides for each setting which the riders visit. We learn that in Bulgaria, Christian priests prevented thousands of Jews being deported to the death camps, whereas in Hungary and Romania the resistance was not strong enough and the local nazis were able to facilitate the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. In Poland there were those who collaborated with the nazis but there was also a brave and active resistance. The heroic and ultimately tragic story of the Warsaw ghetto where Jews resisted the nazis until they made the decision to flatten it with artillery in 1943 sits uneasily alongside the imprisonment of many thousands of Jewish refugees in concentration camps on Cyprus by Clement Attlee’s British Labour government after the war.
The stories are told by the riders themselves, their relatives and narrator Jason Isaacs, perhaps best known for his acting work in the Harry Potter films and in the recent Star Trek Discovery series. His narration is clear and well paced, although the way the film is edited means often there are very long gaps between Isaacs’ segments, followed by equally long periods of monologue. The most moving moments come when the survivors themselves tell their stories, most notably when the group visits at Auschwitz. These scenes are heartbreaking and emotionally difficult to watch and as such among the most important.
Director Catherine Lurie describes Back to Berlin as the world’s “first biker flick meets Holocaust documentary” on her website. At 1 hour 15 minutes long the film, rightly, devotes almost all of its screen time to the history of the Holocaust. Back to Berlin does highlight the most obvious contrast: between the total darkness of the absolute removal of freedom via extreme racist violence and genocide, and the ultimate symbol of freedom which is the motorcycle. This symbol was chosen not only by the heroic Maccabi riders of the 1930s but by their present day descendants and Holocaust survivors to deliver the inextinguishable flame of hope to the Games in Berlin.
Nonetheless, the “biker flick” moniker is a little tenuous. It would have been good to extend the film by 15 minutes or so to give the audience more riding and more insight into the riders’ all important and powerfully symbolic relationship with their machines. Lurie’s respect for this is clear as there are occasional glimpses of this, but they are too rare. When they come, it’s great: we see the group get lost in Romania on the famous bendy mountain road (as a cruiser rider I felt for Joe Gottender who was riding a Harley), the fun on the autobahn from Dresden to Berlin with the group being escorted by a group of German Harley owners providing a guard of honour, and a poignant moment in Auschwitz when octogenarian Holocaust survivor Yoram Maron quips that “it’s better to arrive at Auschwitz by bike than by train”. That phrase contains a lot of healing, and a lot of defiance too: both concepts clearly and powerfully represented by the perfect object that is the motorcycle. The fact that several of the group are riding German built BMWs is significant too: their motorcycles’ origin is part of the healing process.
It’s also a pity that the film does not devote any time to the positivity and hopefulness of the modern Maccabi sporting movement. It’s a great story, which in the 1930s even included motorcycle racing, and it deserves a few minutes of screen time.
The climax of the riders arriving in Berlin and rolling into the Olympic Stadium to light the Maccabiah Torch is cool. The destination has been reached in style: it’s a good feeling. But as any biker will tell you, it’s never really about the destination, much more about the journey. Nowhere is this more true than in Back to Berlin, and the motorcycles and their riders deserve a more prominent dais than they receive, even if it would have taken several minutes more of the viewers’ time. That is by the by; the motorbikes are there, and as such the film does hold an extra element of biker interest above being an emotionally demanding historical documentary.
Modern Europe is at a crossroads, once again at risk of being plunged into darkness. Outside of martyr cities like Guernica and Dresden, it seems that the horrifying lessons of the 1930s and 1940s are being forgotten. As such, the film is educational and timely. Biker or not, if you care about freedom and humanity, you should probably see it. Prepare to weep and to be angry, and do not expect an easy ride.
(7 / 10)
Back to Berlin will be screened in selected cinemas from Friday 23 November 2018.