Lessons Learned

By C.J. Hirschfield

This meme regarding the controversial teaching of critical race theory in schools showed up in my Facebook feed this week: “If black and brown children are old enough to experience racism, white children are old enough to learn about it.”

The new documentary THE LESSON, streaming as part of The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival suggests this related concept: If German families have members who lived through the Second World War, then their teenage grandchildren and great-grandchildren are old enough to learn about it. And about the Holocaust that was perpetrated by the country’s own citizens.

Director Elena Horn is the film’s narrator, who tells us that her world was rocked when, at age 21, she was confronted with the first Jew she’d ever met telling her “Did you know that your grandparents killed my grandparents?” What follows is her thoughtful journey back to her small German hometown to understand how this painful history is presented to all schoolchildren in Germany when they reach 14, what is—and isn’t—being shared by friends and family on the subject, and why the recent rise of neo-Nazi groups in Germany should be seen in the context of the country’s past.

As with teaching about historical, systemic racism in America, the argument against it questions the need to saddle kids with guilt, since they personally bear no responsibility. The quote attributed to Spanish philosopher George Santayana,  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” seems pretty relevant right about now.

Just as with the excellent recent CRIP CAMP and SUMMER OF SOUL films, THE LESSON would not resonate without the deft use of relevant historical footage. Horn discovered a gold mine of wartime film shot by an amateur, who was filming local life for his own personal use, and not for propaganda purposes. We see schoolchildren being prepared for war and combat, and being taught about genetics for the purpose of stressing the importance of purity– both of plants and race.

In addition to her personal narration Horn follows four high schoolers who are taking the class on Germany’s role in WWII. A statistic is cited that 40 percent of high school aged Germans don’t know what Auschwitz is. And although one says “I’m so bored talking about Hitler all the time,” most of the youth seem interested in learning the history. When the question “Would you have had the courage to resist Hitler?” is asked, only a smattering of students raise their hands.

Outside of school, silence and deflection seem to be the way most families and friends deal with the painful truths.

One student finds a medal with a swastika in her grandfather’s drawer; another, whose grandfather was sent to prison after the Nuremburg trials, denied any wrongdoing up until his deathbed.

We also observe the students enjoying their town’s soccer team, whose games attract large crowds, and where the chant of “sig heils” is enthusiastically yelled by right wing extremists.

Horn tells us that the door is always open to indifference, and if school is the only place where the truth can be aired, then it should be seen as a valuable tool to engage the minds and hearts of Gen Z.

THE LESSON is featured at the SF Jewish Film Festival through August 1.

THE LESSON Official Website has audio and video interviews with filmmaker Elena Horn, press notes and much more.

The world’s first and largest Jewish film festival will present over 50 films from more than 20 countries.  Filmmakers from around the world will join viewers to celebrate bold films that expand and evolve the Jewish story for audiences everywhere and participate in conversations after their films. 

As always there is an exciting selection of narrative and documentary features and shorts. Most of the movies are available for streaming into your home or wherever you are in North America (and some worldwide). A selection of films will play at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco Saturday, July 24 and Sunday, July 25. MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY and PERSIAN LESSONS will show exclusively at the Castro.

While home viewing does not offer the joys of gathering with an audience to experience the community that only comes from the theater experience, one of the benefits of a Virtual schedule is that you can create your own Festival, watching movies when it is convenient and creating your own double features or even marathons.

Download the SFJFF41 Suggested Viewing Guide

Streaming films are available from July 22 – August 1st. However to provide a more festival-like experience, the Festival Directors offer a Suggested Viewing Guide for the films screening through the JFI Digital Screening Room.

To access this guide and information about buying tickets and much more, visit the SFJFF 41 Website.


C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.

C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”

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