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Her parents avoided discussing World War II and its effect on their family. Yet at some point after studying the Holocaust in high school, Heidi Schmidt Emberling, born in 1967 to a German Lutheran father and a Jewish American mother, began to ask questions.
At first fearful that she might discover something that would alienate her from her beloved father and his family, Heidi, who identifies as Jewish, started to investigate her "tangled roots."
The result of her questioning is a powerful and beautifully filmed documentary, showing Heidi as she talks with both sides of her family about her dual heritage.
When she initially asks her father, Wolfgang, about her paternal grandfather, he tells her that his father was a soldier who drove a truck during the war. Then, when the war was over, he says, her grandfather was detained for two years as a prisoner-of-war, forced to disable mines planted by the German army. After this difficult assignment, he returned to his wife and four children emotionally damaged and spent much of his life in a mental institution.
Shocked at this news, yet relieved to learn that her grandfather was "so human" that he would be disturbed by what he saw during the war, Heidi tentatively asks if he had been a member of the Nazi party. She is assured that he never was.
However, when visiting one of her father's sisters who now lives in France, Heidi inadvertently notices a photo in which her grandfather is wearing Nazi insignia on his army uniform. She sends away for information and learns that he had indeed joined the Nazi party.
From this point on, Heidi's questions to her father's family become more edgy and direct as she penetrates half-believed subterfuges and begins to arrive at a clearer picture of what really happened. In a particularly emotional scene Heidi tells an aunt in Germany that she wants to see Dachau (the site of a former concentration camp), which is nearby. Her aunt, who becomes indignant, says she has taken Heidi to all the beautiful and cultural places of interest, and that she is hurt that Heidi would want to see a site that is shameful. When Heidi counters that as a Jewish woman, her wish to see Dachau is natural, her aunt remains unmoved.
The next time she visits this aunt, Heidi brings up their painful confrontation. As they talk about it, Heidi begins to realize that her father's family considers her German. To check whether or not this realization is true, she then asks her other aunt Gaby, who lives in France, whether she considers Heidi to be German or Jewish. Her aunt replies, "German." When Heidi responds that she considers herself Jewish, her aunt says, "Oh, you are not really Jewish. You don't practice it. This is a pure formality."
It seems clear that her aunt had avoided dealing with that side of Heidi's identity and that their relationship has now become more complicated.
When the film turns to Heidi's questions to her Jewish side of the family, she learns that Janet, her mother, had been a rebel. Resisting a woman's traditional role in the 1950s, as well as the particular constraints on being a Jewish woman at that time--which precluded interdating--Janet wanted to experience as much of the world as she could.
When Janet's strict father didn't want her to attend college, she convinced him to let her go to UCLA by agreeing to take the typing and shorthand courses he insisted upon. Then, she resisted being pigeonholed into an elementary school teacher slot at the university, opting instead for law.
For Janet, marrying was the only way her father would allow her to move out of his home. When she met Wolfgang, then a journalist, his worldliness and charm won her over. When her parents insisted she not date him because he was both German and non-Jewish, the couple decided to elope.
In interviews with her maternal grandmother, Grace Meyers, Heidi learns that her grandparents considered disowning their daughter when they learned of her marriage, but ultimately decided to accept the fait accompli.
Shifting back to her German side, Heidi hears from Wolfgang that he felt like an outsider at the wedding party Janet's parents threw for them. In fact, a large part of the interviews with Heidi's German family members consists of accounts of their difficulties during and after the war. While it is interesting to hear about the war from the perspective of Germans who were children at the time, and thus not culpable for what happened, their pleas for sympathy appear excessive at times. Ironically, Heidi's Jewish American family suffered little during the war, despite having lost European relatives in the Holocaust.
Heidi's parents chose not to emphasize religion in their household, although they did celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and sent her to Jewish summer camp. It was Heidi's positive Jewish summer camp experiences, as well as her grandmother Grace's love of Judaism, that helped Heidi establish a solid Jewish identity.
At the end of the film we see scenes of Heidi marrying under a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy), and then of her holding her newborn son Geordie. In a voiceover, Heidi says that she plans to openly share her "tangled roots" with her son, and to break the pattern of secrets and silences with which she was raised.
Tangled Roots becomes increasingly powerful as Heidi breaks through years of self-deception and denial to arrive at the truth about her family. Confronting relatives whom she loved was obviously painful for all concerned. While at the end she has learned the truth, it has come at a cost, and it appears doubtful that her relationship with her German family will ever be quite the same.
Nevertheless, Emberling's hope to break the pattern of silence and open the doors to communication on the lingering effects of the war on both Germans and Jews is powerfully realized in this evocative autobiographical film.