Germany – summer 1936:
Max Eisenhardt and his father, Jakob sit aboard a locomotive that is winding through the German countryside towards Berlin. Jakob shows his son an old photo from his days in the German army. He is standing with another soldier in a tavern; both are smiling and raising their beer steins. Jakob tells Max “Your mother says I’m a fool.” But he explains that Major Scharf was a good and honest man and that he saved Scharf’s life during their time together in the military. Scharf now works in the government and Jakob is hopeful that Major Scharf will help him get his civil service job back.
Max is enthralled by the story. Jakob shows him a medal he received along with the photo. He adds that it may have been even better had Scharf been the one who saved his life. His theory is that people who have helped you once love to do so again as a way of confirming their own good judgment.
He then changes the subject by snatching away Max’s journal and asking him to share a bit about his secrets! Max calls out “Hey!” but does not get the journal back in time to prevent his father from finding the photograph of Magda that he has hidden inside. His father chuckles and says “It’s always about a girl, isn’t it?” Max sinks into his seat and avoids looking at his father as he replies “I don’t know.” Jakob points out that the girl in the photo is wearing the necklace that Max made. Jakob assures Max that he won’t tell his mother about her but he does have one important question “Is she Jewish?” Before Max has a chance to answer, the conductor comes by and asks for their papers. He opens Jakob’s travel documents which have been marked inside with a large letter J to indicate that he is a Jew.
The two arrive safely in Berlin and Jakob triumphantly says that they have nothing to worry about. He sees the workers removing signs that say “Jews Not Welcome Here” and believes that this is a sign of change for Jews. He tells Max that with the Olympics here and the eyes of the world on Berlin, they will have no trouble.
They make their way to a small restaurant where footage from the Games is being shown on a large screen. Jakob instructs max to stay here and watch while he takes care of his business with Major Scharf. He tells Max that if he “plays his cards right” Major Scharf might even buy him his first beer! A blond-haired soldier watching the Games is outraged as Jesse Owens, a black American athlete is awarded a gold medal. He exclaims angrily “First that Jew fencer –- and now this?”
A good while later, Max makes his way to the governmental offices where his father has been seeking out Major Scharf. Jakob greets his son and apologizes for not coming for him sooner. He makes an excuse about being afraid that if he left they might not let him back in. He adds that he did not see Major Scharf and that he must have been “very, very busy.” He gazes at the medal he received for his heroic military service. As they stand on the steps of the building, the blond soldier and his companions walk by. He is still angrily complaining about the results and says “Ridiculous! Four gold medals for a negro?” in angered disbelief.
At that moment, Major Scharf emerges from the building and descends the stairs. Jakob calls out genially to him, calling him by his first name. He corrects himself and addresses him as “Major Scharf” with a friendly chuckle. He tells the major that he was waiting to see him and they must have sent him to the wrong office.
He begins to ask if he has a minute to talk when a guard approaches and interrupts. Major Scharf asks what it is that he needs and the guard replies that he wanted to speak with the “person who was making such trouble in your office today.” Scharf says that there was no trouble really and that this man was just leaving. Jakob agrees, places his hand on Max’s shoulder and says that there was just a mistake and he’ll be on his way. The guard calls out to the blond soldier who is watching the scene and orders him to “Stop that Jew!” The blond soldier narrows his eyes hatefully at Jakob and says coldly “He’s not going anywhere.”
He knocks Jakob to the ground and grabs him by his lapels. Jakob cries, “No, wait…” and the guard calls out “He’s resisting arrest!” Jakob tries to explain that he was a soldier and is a veteran but the soldier doesn’t care. He punches Jakob in the face. Max sees this and tries to run to his father’s aid but is held back by Major Scharf who throws him back. Max lands hard against the ground and bruises his face badly. The guard looks to Major Scharf and asks “Who is that?” Scharf simply answers “Nobody.”
The guards drag Jakob to the top of the steps leading to the government building and then shove him down them. He lands near Max who races over to help his father. Major Scharf looks down at them with contempt in his eyes. He says “They could have killed him. We’re even now.” and walks back into the building. Jakob looks up at Max, blood pours from his busted lip. He begins to ask Max “Did you…?” with pleading eyes. Max seems to know exactly what his father is referring to and hands him his medal which had fallen during the soldier’s attack. Jakob clutches his son and says “Good boy.”
The next day, father and son board a train for home. Form the window of the passenger car, they can see as the signs stating that Jews are not welcome in Berlin are restored to their former place of prominence. Once again, the conductor reviews their travel papers which brand them as Jews. Jakob wears his military medal proudly on his lapel but the expression on his bruised and battered face is one of weariness and despair. He looks down at young Max and forces a smile. He tells his son “Now he’s done me the favor, you see?” referring to his earlier statement that a man who has helped another is more likely to do so again. He tells Max that they will return in a month or two and that everything will be all right. “It can’t get worse than this,” he adds optimistically.
Meanwhile, young Magda and her mother are among the gypsies who have been forced from their homes and relocated to the Marzhan Detention Camp. She watches from behind a barbed wire fence as the train passes her by. A Nazi soldier who is patrolling the grounds tells the “dirty gypsies” that there’s nothing to get excited about and that this is just another train that they won’t be getting on. Magda’s mother is cooking over a small open fire. She asks her mother when they can go home. Her mother tells her to be patient. Magda looks down sadly at the necklace that Max made for her.
Nuremberg – 1938:
Max is now twelve or thirteen years old. Times have become much harsher and Max is scouring the streets for money. He finds a gold coin and lifts it triumphantly. A smile lights his gaunt, dirtied face. A trio of boys recognizes Max. They‘re the same boys who beat up Max when he was unfairly expelled from school. The ringleader says to Max “Typical Jew, just like the headmaster used to say. You’d pick through anything for a little money, huh?” The boy pulls out another gold coin and taunts Max with it, saying he could probably feed his family for a week with it. He throws it into a pile of filth. Max looks at it longingly and the boy laughs that Max is even considering going after it.
Max clenches his fist and then grabs the boy by his lapels. He drives the boy head first into the muck and then retrieves the coin. Max smiles and says “Thanks” before running away. The boy looks up, stunned. His pals help him to his feet but Max is already out of sight. As he gets to his feet, he demands to know where Max is.
An older man passes by and snickers. The gang of boys grabs the man and demands to know where Max is. Max is hiding behind a corner listening. He looks and sees that they have begun to beat the man. One of the boys has found a brick and smashes the man across the face with it. Max refuses to stand by while the man takes a beating and boldly calls out to the boys.
A short while later, Max sits at the kitchen table as his mother tends to a vicious looking black eye. Resting on the table in front of him are the two gold coins. He tells his mother he was reaching for a coin and tripped but she clearly doesn’t believe him.
His uncle, Erich enters and says “It’s going to get worse” and shares the news that the German attaché in Paris has been assassinated by a Jew. He tells his brother, Jakob that it is time to go. Jakob is surprised and ask where they could go. Erich suggests that they could go to Poland where they could be hidden by the family of someone named Cecelia. Jakob points out that the Nazis have already begun to ship the Polish Jews back to Poland and Poland won’t even take them. He asks his brother why he thinks they’d take them. He argues that they should stay in Germany. “Better the devil you know…” he adds, saying that they will figure out the rules and get through this together. Erich asks what “rules” he is referring to and notes that in Austria they are taking people’s property and kicking them out of the country!
Jakob turns to Max and says that he can tell them about the rules. Max is surprised that the focus of their argument has been turned on him and asks what his father means. His father reviews his story of how he blacked his eye: he was finding coins where no one else could see a thing when someone picked a fight. Max replies yes. His father then suggests that he walked away from this fight and Max reluctantly replies that he did not. Jakob is not surprised as he repeats that his son stayed and fought back. Erich chimes in and says “Well, good for him!” Jakob replies firmly “Rule number one. Fight back, and they’ll stomp in your head.” Erich rises in anger and asks “That’s what you want to teach your son?” Jakob slams his hands on his table and yells passionately “I want my son to live!” He then sinks back into his chair and says in a calmer tone “I want all of us to live.”
Later that night, Jakob and his wife are in bed talking more about the changing climate in Germany. Mrs. Eisenhardt mentions that she heard from a friend that the camp in Dachau is being expanded. Jakob assures her that they will be all right and they’ll just stay off the streets. She asks for how long and he replies “However long it takes.” She begins to voice her concerns but he tries to quiet and soothe her fears away.
In the next room, Max can hear his parents’ discussion. He rises from his bed and crosses to the window. With his sharp eyes, he sees a group of Nazi soldiers violently forcing their way into a Jewish home. His eyes grow wide as he realizes what is happening. He rushes to his parents’ room and leaps on their bed, startling his father. He says bluntly, “We have to go.” His mother echoes his father’s words “No, Max. We’re staying off the streets.” But Max is insistent, his eyes hardened and determined. He looks at his father and says “Now, Poppa.”
Moments later, the entire family is dressed and creeping through an alleyway. Ruth thinks that this is crazy and laments that they didn’t do anything. Max tells her to hush as he leads the family through a nearby graveyard. Ruth continues to complain, saying that she won’t hide in a graveyard. Her concerns are cut off by an explosion that lights up the night sky. Up the street, the neighborhood synagogue is consumed by flames. Chaos erupts in the streets as Nazi soldiers ransack Jewish homes and force families into the street. Jakob tells his wife to stay down no matter what.
Through the iron fence of the graveyard, the family watches in horror as a Nazi soldier violently beats a Jewish man with the butt of his rifle. The man’s wife pleads for the soldier to stop and he turns and strikes her across the face. Seeing the woman assaulted forces Jakob to his feet and he calls out “No!” as he moves to help her. Erich stops his brother and simply says “Jakob… the rules.” Jakob looks at his wife and children and then sinks to the ground, out of view of the soldiers and the violence that has consumed the neighborhood. He utters a horrified “O, God…” as the reality of their situation sets in.
Poland – 1939:
Months later, Max and his family have made their way into Poland. They travel into the countryside and seek refuge with the relative of a friend. They give her a bit of money and she agrees to let them hide in her barn. As they enter, Jakob says “Well. It can’t get any worse than this.” At that moment, their hostess cries out. Jakob turns and asks what’s going on and the woman looks horror-stricken. “The Germans… they must have finally invaded… but Poland’s brave sons are ready for them!” she says with confidence as a battalion of Polish soldiers on horseback with spears rides by. Max chases after them and climbs atop a short wall to get a better view. His father chases after him. Max’s keen eyes scan the distance. He can see that at the far end of the road, a small contingent of German tanks is rolling over the hillside towards them. His eyes widen as he tells his father “It’s worse.”