Expansive Grounds

Expansive Grounds


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

What comes to mind when you think of the Second World War? For filmmaker Gerburg Rhode-Dahl it's sun, sea and sand. Whilst people died in concentration camps just a few miles away, she, unknowing, laughed and played on Polish beaches, the happiest days of her childhood. Later she struggled to reconcile these joyful memories with the realisation that her father worked for the Nazis, and with the full horror of what the Nazis did. In making this film about Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, she undertook a very personal journey.

The memorial in question, which opened in 2005, is visually striking. It consists of 2,711 dark concrete slabs set deliberately off-kilter in an expansive field intended to give an impression both of the enormity of the Holocaust and of the isolation of the Jews. Opinions about it are mixed, though they seem to grow more positive over the course of the film, which watches it being built, the grinding processes of manufacture and construction calling to mind the industrial processes that carried Jews to the concentration camps. Some see it as boastful, an arrogant declaration of the noble size of Germany's guilt. The architect himself expresses his concern that it could easily be seen as one of the world's greatest skateboarding challenges. But other people feel genuinely moved whilst walking among the slabs, and still others, lying atop them in the warm summer sun, describe a sense of isolation mingled with connectedness that helps them to contemplate their relationship with their national past.

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This focal point allows the film to move around exploring different reactions to the legacy of the Holocaust itself. It's particularly interesting in giving a voice to a generation of people who were children when it happened, and who consequently found themselves torn between instinctive loyalty to their parents and horror at what those parents had done or allowed to happen. Among these people there is a species of resentment we don't see among the film's younger participants, who nevertheless seem genuinely moved (interestingly, there has been very little vandalism of the monument since it opened). Individuals contest the validity of collective guilt and say that yes, people should feel horror at what happened, but it shouldn't be forced. Others recall the anti-Semitism that was around at the time and question the ease with which that mood developed.

Perhaps the saddest thing in this film is the certainty some participants express that it could never happen again, when, of course, genocide continues to occur all around the world. Perhaps the Berlin edifice is more a monument to an ideal of civilisation than anything else. Rohde-Dahl's touching film is, in turn, a testament to the value of that ideal, and to the relationship between the self and history.

Reviewed on: 06 Feb 2010
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A documentary exploring present day feelings about the Holocaust in the context of Berlin's monument to murdered Jews.
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Director: Gerburg Rohde-Dahl

Starring: Uta Gille, Lea Rosh, Peter Eisenman, Bernd Hillermeier

Year: 2008

Runtime: 66 minutes

Country: Germany


Glasgow 2010

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