Yiddish cabaret numbers elevate “To Life”

Ruth Weintraub has mastered the art of keeping her Jewish past at bay. But now, evicted from her beloved Berlin apartment of 35 years and placed in ugly, unwelcoming public housing, she opts to stop struggling.

Jonas is nearly half a century younger and less skilled at evading the future (and his girlfriend). So he happens to be Jonas-on-the-spot to rescue Ruth at a crucial moment, reluctantly initiating an odd and unexpected friendship.

It’s the movies, so we’re inclined to accept the unlikely sequence of events that sets the German drama “To Life!” (“Auf Das Leben”) in motion. Even more, we yearn for these good yet troubled people to bond across the generations.

Part of that yearning has to do with our desire to see the Polish-born Ruth (played with grit, wit and gravitas by the formidable Hannelore Elsner) no longer tormented by the losses she suffered during the Holocaust.

That’s a familiar theme in films, of course, to the point of cliché. However, the ways in which younger Germans confront the Holocaust and respond to anti-Semitism is endlessly compelling (to this observer, at least) yet rarely examined in movies.

Consequently, that’s the path one wishes “To Life!” had chosen to explore with greater commitment instead of opting for a more superficial and routine story of strangers altering each other’s lives.

Screening at both the Tucson and the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival, “To Life!” is a good-looking, well-acted and engaging movie that proves more successful at skirting difficult questions than evading potholes of predictability.

The great pleasure of “To Life!” is the Yiddish tunes that the gifted actress and singer Sharon Brauner performs in flashbacks as Ruth. We relish these expertly arranged musical numbers while savoring the talent, charm and devoted lover that Ruth possessed in her 30s.
Along with Brauner’s terrific musical numbers, Hannelore Elsner pulls us through “To Life!” by powerfully conveying Ruth’s unblinking self-awareness as well as her zero tolerance for self-pity (in herself as well as others).

Readers with long memories will recall Elsner from “Go For Zucker,” a provocative German comedy from 2005.
As Ruth, Elsner is totally convincing as a woman who was required to rely on herself from an early age, and takes it in stride without resentment (though not without regret). Elsner’s performance evokes the depth of wisdom, courage and common sense Ruth has to offer.

Jonas, who’s sleeping in his van as “To Life!” begins, has also had to make his way in the world without his parents. That accounts for the tenuous bond between him and Ruth – they’re both loners – and their respectful appreciation for each other’s integrity.

“To Life!” boasts a good heart and good intentions. It’s a shame it doesn’t evince a bit more wisdom and courage.

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