- Moritz Bleibtreu (left) and friends make some sales calls.
So did you hear the one about the Jewish guy who was hired to teach Hitler how to tell a joke, to impress Mussolini? No? Sounds ridiculous. That’s what the U.S. Army officer interviewing displaced persons in Germany at the end of World War II thinks, when she hears that line from an anxious man named David Bermann, in Bye Bye Germany. It could only be a sick joke. Totally unbelievable.
It all eventually makes perfect sense, sort of. Director Sam Garbarski’s half-comic, half-pathetic, mostly true story — written by the director with Michel Bergmann, from Bergmann’s novel, “The Traveling Salesman” — walks a delicate line between atrocity and mirth in showing how hustler-trickster-survivor Bermann (played by Moritz Bleibtreu) attempts to finally get the hell out of his home country. Intelligence officer Sarah Simon (Antje Traue) doesn’t believe Bermann’s story for a minute — she’s heard every lie in the book. How could a Jew get along so well with the Nazis that he was a guest at Hitler’s mountaintop villa? Did he really do a standup comic routine at a concentration camp Christmas party? And yet there’s something irresistible about Bermann.
The black market is operating at full throttle in the American Zone as Bermann’s case is being investigated. While he’s waiting, he enlists a sales force of other Jewish survivors — including their mascot, Motek the three-legged dog — to go out in the German hinterlands and sell overpriced fine linens to ex-Nazi housewives. Their sales tactics are hilarious. Anything to get in the door, revealing shades of Tin Men or Glengarry Glen Ross. With just a few minor adjustments, it’s easy to picture Bermann’s checkered career as a TV sitcom. And yet the jokes and sales pitches are actually a survival mechanism. They’re what saved Bermann and his crew as they tried to stay alive in the Third Reich. Bad memories are all around, yet there’s humor despite everything.
German movie star Bleibtreu has played a variety of types in such movies as Run Lola Run and Munich. His Bermann is unique, a compulsive shpritzer of laugh lines coping with tremendous loss by cracking up everyone he meets. Director Garbarski handles the material with just the right touch of deflected desperation. Even the flashbacks play tricks — each different SS officer in Bermann’s string of anecdotes is played by the same actor, Christian Kmiotek. When it finally comes time, we don’t even begrudge the story’s feel-good ending. Bermann earns it.