Film Review: In Heaven, Underground

A majestic garden is the real star of this somber yet inspiring documentary.

In Heaven, Underground brings to life the history and wonder of the little-known Weissensee Jewish Cemetery located in North Berlin, Germany. Director Britta Wauer honors the setting with an artfully crafted film. Viewer appeal should be less limited than it would first seem.

Created in 1880, Weissensee represents the oldest Jewish burial ground in Europe and contains 115,000 graves. What is remarkable is that it survived the period of the Third Reich. In fact, it was one of the few German properties that remained in Jewish hands during the Nazi era. The 130-year-old cemetery still holds a fascination for visitors, but it is well hidden from the rest of Berlin and seems almost unreal in its grandeur and mystery.

Wauer blends archival footage and stills (mostly black-and-white) with new color footage. Aided by cinematographer Kaspar Koepke, she allows the camera to gently glide through plants and trees, as if filming scenes for a fairytale. The visitors Wauer finds include an Argentinean family looking for descendants and a bird watcher who once fell in love in the garden. Others include grave painters restoring old tombs and schoolchildren working on a classroom assignment.

With a nod to such fictions as The Secret Garden, Brigadoon, and even the cult horror movie The Iron Rose, In Heaven, Underground delicately balances the inherent sadness of a movie about the dead (and the Nazi era) with the stirring and wondrous narrative about the garden. The quirkier moments (especially the contributions of the bird watcher) add welcome comic relief. Wauer’s technique is creative without being arty, using a 3D computer effect to enhance the still photos and employing a charming original score by Karim Sebastian Elias. Even through film, this visit is memorable.