Berlinale 2023 review: The Klezmer Project (Leandro Koch & Paloma Schachmann)

“With The Klezmer Project they show that you can take a rather small subject to put a spotlight on a larger cultural and societal issue, and make it entertaining at the same time.”

The Holocaust not only took six million Jewish lives, it also in part is responsible for the erasure of a Jewish culture. Only in part, because paradoxically another Jewish culture took care of the rest. When the state of Israel was formed shortly after the war, Hebrew was adopted as the official state language, replacing the language that 75% of its people spoke at the time: Yiddish. With that came an attempt to eradicate not only the language, but also any cultural outing in that language. While this wasn’t wholly successful, it does mean that young people of Jewish descent like Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann, the Argentinean directors of hybrid documentary The Klezmer Project, have grown up in a different Jewish culture than their grandparents. In their multi-layered and cleverly constructed film the two explore their heritage and find how a culture can die out in one place, only to spring up and bloom in another.

One aspect of Yiddish culture was its music. Klezmer is an instrumental art form, largely based on the fiddle, mostly played at weddings. As Yiddish culture died out, so did klezmer, almost. There was a revival, however, started in the ’70s in the United States, and somehow the music survived and is now being played as a musical style in its own right, removed from traditional Jewish weddings. Yet The Klezmer Project starts at a wedding, although a fictional one. Koch and Schachmann have cleverly constructed their exploration of klezmer and its origins, and by extension Yiddish culture and its erasure, around a fictional love story between a cameraman filming weddings and a clarinetist of a klezmer band; Koch and Schachmann play the lovebirds themselves. To impress Schachmann, Koch pretends to be making a documentary about klezmer music, and this little white lie eventually leads him (and later Schachmann) on a trip through Eastern Europe with an Austrian film crew in search of the origins of klezmer, only to find that in the place where it was born, the Carpathian Mountains, the music and the culture that had embodied it has died out.

Koch and Schachmann introduce another layer to the The Klezmer Project by having the latter be part of a class about Yiddish culture, in which her teacher reads an old Yiddish story about a not-so-religious gravedigger who pines for the daughter of the rabbi and tries to impress her and her father by pretending the ideas of Spinoza are his own. The story clearly mirrors the one Schachmann and Koch play out over the course of the documentary, which weaves another element of cultural revival into the film. The fictional flourishes add a sprinkle and a bit of humor to what would otherwise be an interesting but somewhat dry journey in search of an elusive subject. Despite these ornaments the message of The Klezmer Project remains in stark focus: a culture has been erased. A culture that was at peace with its neighbors and its surroundings, but because it knew no borders could not prevent its own extinction.

Speaking of cultural erasure: the search for klezmer’s origins also takes Koch and Schachmann into Ukraine, pre-war. Little did they know that only a few months later the country would be invaded in an attempt to erase its own culture. It gives The Klezmer Project a wry yet poignant aftertaste that the fictional fun around the documentary filmmaking can’t quite wash away. Koch and Schachmann certainly had to overcome a number of hurdles to get their ambitious debut project to Berlin (COVID also got in the way for a while), but after winning the GWFF Best First Feature award last night that will be an afterthought for the two young filmmakers. With The Klezmer Project they show that you can take a rather small subject to put a spotlight on a larger cultural and societal issue, and make it entertaining at the same time.

(c) Image copyright: Nabis Filmgroup, Nevada Cine