German documentarian Britta Wauer turns her lens on the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in north Berlin, the oldest (and second-largest) Jewish necropolis still in use in Europe. Dedicated in 1880, it houses 115,000 graves, all meticulously archived in a card catalogue. Weissensee has witnessed 130 years of tumultuous Jewish—indeed, world—history and has as many stories as bodies buried among the bones.
To wit: Gabriella Naidu recounts the family story of her great-grandfather Adolf Schwabacher, the wealthy one-time director of the Berlin Stock Exchange who she discovered is buried at Weissensee. Harry Kindermann remembers playing in the graveyard when his dad worked there as a bricklayer; Harry fell in love with a girl named Marion, who was eventually deported to Auschwitz and murdered. And Ronnie Golz, who was born in London and didn’t find out until he was 11 that he was German—and a Jew—discovers his great-grandfather’s grave at Weissensee and determines he wants to lie in rest there himself.
Meanwhile, above ground, an art class makes rubbings of tombstones for a project in which the students craft their own grave markers. Ornithologists climb the trees to tag chicks for their study about birds of prey. And a young family with a toddler lives in an apartment on cemetery grounds.
These are just some of the personal stories that Wauer includes in her attempt to encompass the entirety of Weissensee’s significance. Not surprisingly, history, particularly Nazi rule and World War II, plays a role here both directly and indirectly, as the cemetery’s managers marvel how it survived the Third Reich and survivors arrive to reconnect with the severed branches of their family trees. But politics appear, too, in a brief interlude about a proposed road that would have bisected the grounds but was never built. And, of course, religion weighs in, as Rabbi William Wolff and cemetery administrator Ron Kohls not only describe Jewish burial practices (like why mourners leave stones on graves rather than flowers) but also dip into big questions about the afterlife.
It’s far too much ground for one 90-minute documentary to cover, and Wauer should have taken a page from Heddy Honigmann, who focused her film Forever, about the Père Lachaise in Paris, on that cemetery’s associations with art and artists. In Heaven, Underground, though, is gorgeously photographed, with loving shots that linger over the lush grounds, a verdant deciduous forest that spans 100 acres in the heart of the city. The film’s stunning aerials provide valuable perspective on Weissensee’s location and expanse but come too late. What’s ever-present and the film’s redeeming feature is the indulgent cinematography that captures the passing of seasons—and time—over the gravestones nestled among the trees.