Berlinale 2023 review: Delegation (Asaf Saban)

Delegation is a powerful film that evokes strong emotions in its dedicated endeavour to capture the feeling of rediscovering yourself and embracing the past and the lessons it established in even the most modern of circumstances.”

The premise of Delegation (Ha’Mishlahat) is extremely simple – a group of Israeli teenagers go on a mandatory trip to Poland as part of a school program, in which they tour the country, visiting various museums and memorials associated with the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Second World War. However, it would be too limited to view what director Asaf Saban was doing as merely a film about revisiting the Holocaust, since this is only the start of what is a far more complex film than the surface-level premise would suggest.  Certainly not a moment in history that has ever lacked insightful investigations and discussions (and one that most definitely should not ever be forgotten, as harrowing as it may be), Saban explores the past through an engaging and compelling drama that looks at the Holocaust from a slightly different perspective, focusing on the interactions between a group of young students voyaging into the heart of a country different from their own, and being confronted by the harsh facts of the past, which sought to annihilate their people – and while some view this as nothing more than a compulsory vacation, there are a few who find value in the process of revisiting the past, even if it can be profoundly difficult. These are the people that the director is most interested in discussing, since their journey is one that grows increasingly more meaningful the further we venture into their minds, which is the foundation for this compelling drama that captures that elusive sense of curiosity that comes when revisiting the past.

Throughout Delegation, we follow these characters as they make their way through various locations in Poland, each one holding a very significant meaning in terms of their history, usually being sombre reminders of the harrowing nature of the past. There is something profoundly poetic, and almost achingly beautiful, about seeing the younger generation interact with their forefathers, even if only through occupying the same space as them for a brief moment. This is a film that celebrates the Jewish culture without forgetting the history that comes along with it, which should be a frequent principle for any text that looks at a particular set of traditions, since there is usually a long and storied history behind these customs which many view as redundant but are actually quite beautiful when put in context. Delegation is not a film only about mourning the Holocaust (even if the most impactful moments come from this theme), but about Jewish identity as a whole, with the director addressing the lingering spectre of the past, which persists in every frame of this powerful film. The film employs a multi-layered strategy in its efforts to expand on certain concepts, always maintaining a level of authenticity, but still having a profound artistic resonance. The use of recurring motifs of landmark films about Jewish culture and history helps shade in the film’s nuances; scenes from Fiddler on the Roof and Shoah are shown, two wildly different films in tone, but which share the same fervent dedication to culture. This is a film focused on establishing a clear foundation on which it builds a fascinating and meaningful examination of culture, as shown through the perspective of those who have only just started to discover the true depths of their shared history.

Beyond the intimidatingly broad premise of aiming to depict Jewish history as seen through the eyes of the younger generation, Delegation is most effective in its quieter moments, which usually reflect the concept of identity. The characters in this film view this as nothing more than a field trip at first but grow to realize the exact reason their educators made such a concerted effort to bring them to this part of the world, which they have been doing for generations. This is not simply an opportunity to visit important historical landmarks, but rather a chance to ruminate on the past, even when none of them had experienced it first-hand, with the exception of the protagonist’s grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust who has accompanied the group as a living relic of the past, someone who can answer their complex questions and offer insights that can only be contained in human testimony. Over the course of the film, these characters meditate on their identity and origins, which is especially profound in those moments in which there is some degree of clash between the cultures, where they are implored by their chaperones to hide their Hebrew identity as far as possible, contradicting the entire purpose of their journey, which was to re-establish a sense of Jewish pride. Like with anything else we encounter in this film, there is a reason behind these decisions, and as the story progresses, we find certain details that have a cumulative effect by the end, leading to a striking and beautiful conclusion.

Delegation is a film that is intentionally confrontational about several of its themes, and it often makes it clear that the lack of subtlety in certain aspects was deliberate, since there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to hide the actual concepts that the film intends to explore behind a veneer of meandering moments and narrative non-sequiturs. Instead, it gets to the point from the start, employing a vaguely social realist approach to a very simple story, and developing its major thematic material in the process. The shift in tone is gradual but distinct, and we find ourselves becoming more ensconced in the metaphysical journey of the protagonists the more time we spend with them, trying to understand their point of view, which occurs slowly but steadily.  The film centres on the concept of generational trauma, and how those born over half a century since the end of this harrowing moment in human history can still carry the scars of the past, the history embedded in their culture weighing heavily on them. This is something that many don’t realize until they are immersed in surroundings that draw attention to our internal quandaries, which manifest in surprising ways, forming the starting point for many of this film’s most remarkable conversations. It portrays the journey of a small group of contemporary youths who discover that they still carry indelible trauma that is present in every aspect of their lives. A deeply moving testimony to the virtue of growing into one’s identity and understanding the elements that are embedded in their cultural history, Delegation is a powerful film that evokes strong emotions in its dedicated endeavour to capture the feeling of rediscovering yourself and embracing the past and the lessons it established in even the most modern of circumstances, a challenging but beautiful endeavour captured brilliantly by a director deeply committed to every detail of this poignant story.

(c) Image copyright: Natalia Łączyńska