Alexa Karolinski is an old friend. I first met her in 2005, when I was the editor at VICE Italy, in Milan, and she was a particularly bright intern at the VICE Germany office. Alexa quit VICE a few months after I met her; she then moved to Paris for a while, started working in television for ARTE, met her husband, moved back to Berlin, and then moved to New York three years ago, where she studied documentary filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts. And now she is a film director. Oma & Bella, her first feature-length film, began as her thesis, and was then released in German cinemas after being accepted at the Berlin Film Festival last year. If, like me, you have any sort of fascination with World War II, food, and your grandma, it is an absolutely must-see documentary.
Oma & Bella tells the story of best friends Bella Katz and Regina Karolinski (Alexa’s grandmother), two octogenarian Holocaust survivors among the oldest surviving members of Berlin’s Jewish community, who moved in together when Regina had a hip operation. They spend most of their time cooking traditional Eastern European Jewish food, giving that food to their family, talking about food, organizing dinners, going food shopping, preparing food, washing the utensils they use to prepare food, putting food in Tupperware and freezing it, and occasionally taking a break from the food in the form of an amble to the park or the cemetery. With a delicate grace and a warm sense of humor, Alexa made one of the most touching portraits of an elderly couple―and of Holocaust survivors―I have ever seen on screen.
A few months after the movie was released, we collaborated on The Oma & Bella Cookbook. That is to say: when Alexa told me she wanted to make a cookbook that would collect the movie’s recipes, I begged her to let the Milan Review design it.
I recently got on Skype with Alexa to talk about her movie, grandparents, and food.
So, tell me—exactly when did you decide to make this movie?
It began about three years ago, when I was living in Berlin and decided that I wanted to learn how to cook. At the time I couldn’t cook anything more complicated than scrambled eggs and I decided that one day, my children—the children I don’t have yet—should be able to eat the food I grew up with. Therefore, I needed to learn that from my grandmother, and from her best friend, Bella, who she lives with. So I started cooking with them and then I kind of decided very quickly that it wasn’t enough to just cook with them, that I would have needed to write down the recipes and make a cookbook out of it.
It must have been daunting.
Yes. And they don’t cook with measurements—they go by eye—so I had to learn how to cook with them and invent the measurements just by watching them cook. So basically I started this cookbook project, and within that cookbook project I was looking for a visual landscape. And one day I kind of decided, knowing that I was going to go back to film school, to rent a camera and, just for fun, film them. Then I cut a two-minute teaser out of that, just to teach myself how to use Final Cut. And then, when I moved to New York, I showed this around, mostly just to show some friends how much I love my grandmother and how amazing she is. And people were like, This is gonna be your thesis film, and I kind of thought, Yeah, I guess it is.
We talked about this before, when talking about that thing we wanted to do called Guilt. Which, if I remember correctly, was some kind of project involving our respective grandmothers―your Jewish grandmother and my Italian and Lebanese grandmothers. They’re all constantly giving us food, they’re all constantly remarking on how skinny we are, and they’re all cooking practically all the time.
No, not practically all the time. Just all the time. All the time.
And when they’re not cooking, they’re eating, or giving you food, or reheating it, and even in those rare occasions when they’re not in the kitchen, there’s something in there that is cooking in an oven or a pot, anyway.
Yes. Everything they cook takes five hours.
That they’re obsessed with food?
That some culture’s grandmothers and mothers are. Because, you know―and I am aware that this is a sweeping generalization―English grandmothers don’t cook.
German grandmothers certainly don’t either. I think it’s a mix of two things. I think one is the fact that they were in the war, and they don’t want their grandchildren to go hungry. Though Germans and Brits were also in the war. So, I don’t know. They love their grandchildren so much and maybe they don’t know how to express it through words. They express it through food. That’s obvious. I think that in Jewish culture, which is similar to Italian and Spanish culture, there’s a heavy tradition of a matriarch. Maybe more than in British or Northern European cultures. And I think that if you have a very strong matriarch in the family, she needs to impose her power through certain aspects. And since we need food to live, it’s the perfect tool to abuse power. Because if you don’t behave you’ll go hungry.
It’s an abuse of power, that’s what it is. It’s like that old joke we talked about, you know, the one about the difference between a Jewish grandmother and an Italian grandmother.
Sure. The Italian says, “If you don’t eat I’ll kill you,” and the Jewish one says, “If you don’t eat I’ll kill myself.”
That’s the one! But your film is actually about trauma and about how these two ladies cope with it. And cooking is a compulsive thing that they do.
Yeah, absolutely. They shave chicken legs! It’s crazy. I mean, as you know, there are so many movies about the Holocaust. It’s a topic that has been discussed in books and movies so much that it has become its own genre, almost. And for me it was really important to not make the kind of film that gets the reaction that I had to so many films about the Holocaust, which is a very harsh, brutal, numbing experience that’s not particularly cinematic. It doesn’t make you think, because it numbs you. And it doesn’t connect you to what you see. It’s really hard to watch movies like Schindler’s List. You want to crawl up and cry. I wanted to make a movie where the audience can actually get to know two people who went through this.
I also wanted to make a movie where they could be famous for being amazing, not just for being survivors. The Holocaust is such a big part of them, and it’s always there. Even when they don’t talk about it, it’s there. But they’re also so much more than just that, you know? They’re also awesome ladies. And they cook to remember their home. They are obsessively clean in the kitchen. Their freezer is full all the time. They could entertain thirty people for a spontaneous dinner—it would just have to be defrosted. That’s the war-mentality aspect. Like, you should never go hungry, there always needs to be food. They also never throw anything out—they’re not wasteful at all. If they make stuffed cabbages and they have cabbage leaves left over, they’ll make a side dish with the cabbage leaves. Nothing gets wasted. And I think people who go through something so horrible as a holocaust or as a war start thinking that way. Something as traumatizing as that, it’s not even comprehensible. For me it was interesting to explore how they are in their day-to-day, to explore just how impacted they were by such a huge event.
In your movie there is no montage of black-and-white images of Auschwitz.
Nope. None of that, none of that. Absolutely none of that. To me those images are so important for us to look at, they’re so strong and so meaningful, that it almost devalues them by putting them in a movie about something else.
It also kind of overshadows the rest.
Yes. I mean, I never wanted to do that. When I set out to make the film, I thought, I will never use violin music in this movie. And I’m not going to ever have World War II footage. But what I was playing with, for a while, was post–World War II footage. Because their time in Berlin right after the war is, to me, the most historically interesting time. Right when they came to Germany. I could have made ten different films with the stories they told me, but I just realized that the main reason I wanted to make this film is to add to the canon of Holocaust movies, but also to make the first one where you get to know two people who went through that, to really know them. Because they’re too strong as characters and they’re too personally close to me to make the movie into a historical documentary about postwar Berlin.
It’s a different movie.
It’s a different movie, and also, they’re not natural-born historical storytellers.
Actually, one of the points that comes up most powerfully in the movie is that they don’t want to talk about it and they don’t want to think about it, because it’s painful.
Exactly. And I think that’s quite important. In a world where we all have so much access to media about the Holocaust, the fact that there are people who went through that who still feel uncomfortable talking about it I find really interesting.
Was their moving back to Berlin a curious choice? In 1950, were there many Jews in Berlin?
Absolutely. And there’s actually not a proper movie about this. That’s something worth thinking about. When the Allied forces won the war and Germany became an occupied country, the Americans built so-called “displaced person camps.” And today we know what “displaced person camps” are, because the UN builds them in all kinds of war territories, but they were first built after World War II, for Jews. After the war ended, in 1945, there were all these survivors in Eastern Europe who had nowhere to go, and they wanted to go to Palestine or to America or Canada. And so the Americans put them in these displaced person camps. These were mostly in Germany, because that’s where the Americans were. And then in 1945, even though the war was over, that’s when the pogroms in Eastern Europe really kicked off again. There were huge Polish pogroms after 1945. And so the Americans brought a large number of Poles and Lithuanians to Germany, so they could leave again. And not everybody was able to go to the United States—health issues, for example. Also, these people were often nineteen or twenty years old, they had lost their entire families, and many immediately married, and then they all had children in DP camps. My dad was born inside a DP camp in Berlin. And since they had lost everybody, the people around them in these DP camps sort of became their new family. Bella and her husband might have been able to leave, but then what about the people they had met, and their new families … and somehow that became more important than hating Germans.
Last time I saw you, you were saying how one of your plans for next year is to start mastering Italian food.
I decided that every year or two I want to try to master a cuisine. I mean, it took me three years to master Jewish cuisine.
But I have a feeling it will take you more than a year or two to master Italian food, because there’s too much of it. Every region of Italy has a complex cuisine. You have Tuscan, Sicilian, Neapolitan, Pugliese, Piedmont … stuff from the Alps. Sardinian. There are a billion recipes.
I know. There’s too much of it. And Italian food is also so tricky. Because we all think that we know Italian food. I’m like, I can make a pasta, sure. But obviously a real Italian person will be like, This is not pasta.
Milanese food doesn’t even count much on pasta. It’s mostly risotto.
Yeah, I know, it will be hard. But I would love to learn to cook Italian in a way that an Italian grandmother would taste it and think, Yes, that’s good. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could cook different food like that? Because that’s also heritage. It’s about maintaining heritage.
You should come to Milan and hang out at my mother’s place for a week and just cook with her.
I know! The recipe you gave me is the best recipe ever. It’s a huge hit! Which reminds me that I haven’t made it in a while. But it’s such a hit every time.
What was it? Was that the squash blossoms with the ricotta inside?
No. The cookies with the nuts inside.
Yeah. That’s what it is.
Cantucci are good. You’re supposed to dip them in sweet wine.
Sweet wine? Oh my god. I thought it was like a coffee thing.
No. If you have sweet wine after a meal—if you get some zibibbo or the really sweet wine like vin santo—you dip the cookies in that and you eat them as a dessert.
Oh my God.