Monday, January 08, 2018

NYJFF ’18: The Last Goldfish

Manfred Goldfish (born Goldfisch) preferred to identify as a “citizen of the world.” Having resided in Germany, Trinidad, and Australia, he qualified more than most. When he was forced to immigrate from both Germany and Trinidad, it was to escape escalating nationalistic ethnic violence, but for some reason (likely ideological), his daughter sees little of interest in the parallels. Instead, she focuses on finding the long-lost family members her father forced himself to forget, as a coping mechanism, in the highly personal documentary, The Last Goldfish (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Her father never spoke of his previous life in Germany, most definitely including his first wife and their son and daughter. Su Goldfish (born Suzanne) only knew her father Manfred and her English-born mother, Phyllis, who is the problematically forgotten person in Last Goldfish, banished to the corner after the first ten minutes. The discovery of her half-siblings understandably gave rise to a host of emotions in Goldfish, but when her initial letter to her half-brother went unanswered, she somewhat bitterly back-burnered her interest for several years.

After misspending the rest of her youth on numerous leftist causes, Goldfish renewed her investigation into her ancestry. However, this time her interest would be reciprocated, especially by her half-sister. Unfortunately, she rekindled memories for her aging father at a time when he was increasingly weak and susceptible to feelings of guilt and inconsolable loss.

Manfred Goldfish’s story is indeed fascinating. Perhaps the film’s most remarkable revelation is the friendship shared by Goldfish’s father and the Jewish German athlete Gretel Bergmann, the subject of the film Berlin 36, whom the filmmaker interviewed as a spry and cogent centenarian before her death last year at 103. Unfortunately, Goldfish is constantly injecting her own thoughts, biases, and neuroses into the film. Frankly, you would expect a memory-film like this would duly analyze the emotional toll it must have taken when Trinidad’s “Black Power” street violence forced a survivor of Hitler’s Germany to once again immigrate for his family’s safety. Yet, Goldfish conspicuously opts not to go there.

There are some nice things that happen in the film, like the placement of stolperstein memorials for Golfish’s grandparents. However, the doc is hampered by its own blinders. This is maybe a case where a film is too personal and Goldfish’s subject, her family, might have been better served if she had taken on a more objective co-director. Far from essential, The Last Goldfish screens this Wednesday (1/10) and next Monday (1/15), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2018 NYJFF.