Most people wouldn’t expect a film that’s inherently about death (and, to a lesser extent, the Holocaust) to be uplifting, but the gentle, tender documentary In Heaven, Underground ultimately achieves it. German filmmaker Britta Wauer explores the Weissensee Cemetery in Berlin, the largest active Jewish cemetery in Europe. It’s one of few that avoided being demolished by the Nazis, thanks to a combination of superstition and, it seems, miraculous timing—as one man explains, “They simply didn’t get ’round to it.”
While the hundred-acre cemetery is still being used for its original purpose, it’s also aged into something like a park, a peaceful, tree-filled oasis in the city, with wildlife and older graves peeking out from under ivy. The film is built around an interview with the elfin Rabbi William Wolff, who explains Jewish traditions surrounding funerals, mourning, paying respects to the dead, and the afterlife, but it also finds within the Weissensee walls dozens of stories that aren’t connected to the burial of the dead. In Heaven, Underground suggests that Weissensee is teeming with life, in both the human and animal sense. A couple and their young child have rented an old caretaker’s apartment—“We don’t throw barbecues,” the wife explains, but they otherwise find it lovely. A group of bird experts scale trees to examine and track goshawk fledglings. High-school students on a field trip make rubbings and reassemble them back at their classroom.
Weissensee’s history is tied to German history, and through interviews and archival photos and footage, the film recounts stories like that of the patriotic Jewish volunteers who fought for their country in World War I. One, his grandson recounts, wore the medal he was awarded in the final photo he took before being deported to the camps years later. Others tell of how the cemetery was no longer used as the war raged on—there was no one left to bury, and then for decades after 1955, only those in East Berlin were able to access Weissensee. But the cemetery endured, and Wauer shows the many people working to restore crumbling monuments, leave headstones on unmarked graves, and visit family long passed and longer unseen. Death’s place as a part of life becomes serenely evident when a man explains how, having once been hired as a guide to the cemetery, he came to want to be buried there. It doesn’t seem morbid; it’s perfectly understandable.