In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery (Director: Britta Wauer): In 2007, one of the best films I saw at Hot Docs was Forever, directed by Heddy Honigmann. It’s about the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris where so many famous artists and musicians are buried. This famous graveyard is presented as a place that has become a source of inspiration for living artists.
Fast forward to Hot Docs 2011 and one of my favourite films at the festival was about another famous cemetery – the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin. It was created in 1880, covers more than 100 acres, contains 115,000 graves and is still being used for burials today.
It’s a miracle that the cemetery and its records weren’t destroyed during the Nazi era. Oddly enough, it was the Cold War that seemed to have the biggest impact on the cemetery. The Berlin Wall made it almost impossible for the Jewish community to access the cemetery for years. It eventually became overgrown and fell into a state of disrepair.
Today, Weissensee is being restored and is full of life. Britta Wauer’s film captures the beauty, history and importance of this enchanting place. People from around the world search the maze of roads and paths in search of family history and relatives. Others share stories about Weisensee and how it has played a part in their lives. High school students wander the grounds working on art projects while bird experts tag baby hawks in the primeval forest throughout Weissensee.
The production value of Wauer’s film is of the highest quality – a nice change from some of the docs that suffer from poor visuals and sound. The cinematography from Kaspar Köpke captures the beauty and peacefulness of the grounds. Several time-lapse scenes capture the different seasons, just as you’d see in an episode of BBC’s Planet Earth. Still photographs come to life borrowing the same 3D effect that was introduced in The Kid Stays In The Picture. And of course, the soundtrack is exceptional.
If you missed the film at Hot Docs then you’re in luck. Seventh Art Releasing has acquired the North American rights to In Heaven Underground, and plans a theatrical release followed by a DVD release.