Rabbi Wolff

A Gentleman Before God


William Wolff is nearly 90 and perhaps the most unconventional rabbi in the world. 

As the State Rabbi of North-East Germany, he looks after the Jewish Communities in Schwerin and Rostock, but still lives in a bungalow near Henley-on-Thames. Midweek he usually flies from Heathrow to Germany. After the services on Saturdays, he either makes his way home or on a leisure city trip. His annual highlight is betting at the Horse Race of Royal Ascot and joining a fasting-retreat in Bad Pyrmont. Willy Wolff leads a Jet-Set-Life, which he actually cannot afford, but dealing with money isn't one of his strengths. Naturally, that occasionally leads to quite temporal conflicts.

With his free-spirited flair and heart-warming laugh, the State Rabbi for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern won the audience's hearts in Britta Wauer's smash hit In Heaven, Underground (2011), a documentary feature about the Weissensee Jewish cemetery in Berlin. Wauer’s new film shows Willy Wolff’s turbulent daily routine and looks at his eventful past: from fleeing Nazi Germany with his family as a child, to leaving behind his London-based career as a political correspondent, to becoming a most respected rabbi. 

Rabbi Wolff is the portrait of a fascinating character, a deeply religious man who, blessed with a tremendous joie de vivre, defies all conventions. More than that, it gives insight into the world of Judaism and introduces us to a uniquely German biography.


"A disarmingly charming portrait."


"Enchanting! Even gives agnostics an appetite for God."


"This documentary is simply irresistible – a real ray of sunshine in a cinema programme!"


"A man full of wit and wisdom -
one can only hope to be so young in old age!"


"The world has never seen such a rabbi."


"This film had to be."


"A captivating portrait of probably the most unlikely rabbi in the world."



About William Wolff

Willy Wolff was born in Berlin in 1927. Following the rise of the Nazis in 1933, he fled with his family to Amsterdam, and from there to London in 1939.

read more…

Even as a child of four or five in Berlin, he dreamt of becoming a rabbi - a desire which survived his adolescence. Fascinated by ancient wisdoms contained within the Old Testament, he wanted to minister to others. However, as a refugee after the war, there was no money to fund his rabbinic studies. Instead he left school and started working as a journalist. 

Rising swiftly through the ranks of journalism, Wolff became a parliamentary correspondent and reporter of global events for several UK national newspapers over the course of some 30 years. For example he accompanied a British Foreign Minister travelling across China and the Soviet Union, reporting also on European heads of state. During the 1970s he made several guest appearances on German TV as part of an established Sunday political discussion programme. 

But Wolff, who never abandoned his lifelong dream of becoming a rabbi, embarked on his training at the Leo Baeck College in London at the age of 53. Ordained in 1984, he went on to hold posts at synagogues in Central London, Newcastle, Brighton, and Wimbledon (in South London). In April 2002, then aged 75, he succumbed to serial invitations from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and assumed the Office of State Rabbi of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (in the former East Germany), a position that had lain vacant for 65 years. Until his recent retirement at the age of 88, Wolff ministered to Jews in Schwerin, Rostock, and Wismar, communities totalling around 2000 members. And, because these Jews hailed almost exclusively from the former USSR, he learned Russian! 

He also keeps himself physically fit: he’s practiced yoga since the 60s, and travels once a year to Bad Pyrmont on a fasting-retreat. He cares for his ever-broadening circle of family and friends, which, over the years, has spread across the whole world - from Berlin to Brooklyn, from Rostock to Tel Aviv. In 2014 he was named an honorary citizen by the city of Schwerin.  

Director´s Note

I first met Willy Wolff when he was attending a rabbinical conference in Berlin. He was sitting in a coffee shop near the new synagogue in Oranienburger Strasse.

read more…

It was the spring of 2008 and I was looking for some sort of narrator for my film In Heaven, Underground, which was about the Weissensee Jewish cemetery in Berlin. I felt that a rabbi would be best suited to convey the differences between Christian and Jewish rituals of bereavement and the concept of the afterlife in Judaism. Willy Wolff, a State Rabbi in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in north-eastern Germany, who was born in Berlin and has known the cemetery since his childhood, immediately agreed to help with the film.

I had no idea of the acting talent and great humour he was to bring to the film, not to mention his rabbinical knowledge. Willy Wolff was an absolute godsend for the film. Although he was only a secondary figure, he achieved the impossible, and employed his unique blend of wit, charm and intelligence to speak about death, bereavement and the concept of the afterlife. As soon as the film premiered at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, the rabbi became an audience darling.

Whatever the film festival and wherever in the world In Heaven, Underground was shown, whether in Beijing, Toronto New York or Johannesburg, cinema audiences would always shake with laughter at William Wolff’s words. At every single audience discussion, I was asked to talk in detail about this man. “He could convert me to religion!”, one audience member exclaimed in London. And in Jerusalem someone said that what made Willy’s unusual wisdom on life so special was “a rare combination of Eastern European Jewish wit and British humour”. As a result, people were constantly asking me why I didn’t make a film about this extraordinary man.

Willy Wolff is not simply entertaining, he opens doors. He leads us unabashedly into the world of Judaism. He skilfully explains tradition and belief, with intelligence and humour. For him, people and their needs come first. Everything should revolve around this, including the way in which religious commandments are observed. A look at the day-to-day life in his communities also gives us the sense of how diverse Jewish life in Germany can be today. His biography, marked by flight and uncertainty, not only recounts German history, it also takes on a particular relevance in the face of the current refugee situation. I am convinced that the rabbi’s encounters and reflections are so universal that they can inspire a great many people.



Britta Wauer

Director & Producer

is an award-winning director and producer. Based in Berlin, she has directed documentaries focusing mainly on contemporary history, current affairs and biographies. In 2005 she founded the independent production company Britzka Film. There, she produced her 2011 feature documentary In Heaven, Underground, covering the story of the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery of Berlin, which received among others the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Wauer was honored with a showcase in Berlin-Nikolassee in 2013. She also teaches documentary filming in Germany and abroad.

Kaspar Köpke


lives as a freelance cinematographer in Berlin. He works with Eric Ferranti, Arndt von Rabenau, Victor Holand and David Sieveking to name a few. Following study at the German Academy of Film and Television in Berlin (dffb), he began his cooperation with Britta Wauer for her documentary Berlin – A Square, A Murder and a Famous Communist in 2005. Rabbi Wolff is their sixth movie together.

Berthold Baule


has edited images for documentaries, commercials and feature films since 1998. Since then the successful cinematographer now even shoots his own film material . He was nominated for the German Camera Award in the Editing category. His works have been honored at the  Deauville Green Awards, at the New York Festival and at the World Media Festival. He works in close cooperation with Britta Wauer and has been the Editor for all her films, excluding only one.

Karim Sebastian Elias


has composed and produced more than 80 film soundtracks for cinema and television, and has also provided theme music for 300 television series. His works were honored with the German Television Award and the ECHO Classic: this includes the musical soundtracks of Rhythm Is it (2004), Treasure Island (2007) and Nichts mehr wie vorher (2013). He also composed the orchestral accompaniments for Britta Wauer's Gerda's Silence (2008) and In Heaven, Underground (2011). Elias has worked as a professor of composition and arrangement for media at Film University Babelsberg since 2013.


Date Place cinema Time Ticket
July 25th ARD German TV 22:45 Das Erste


DVDwith English subtitles

Rabbi Wolff:A Gentleman Before God


A film by Britta Wauer
Duration: 91 min + Bonusmaterial
Language: German-English Original Version
Subtitles: English, Russian, German for the Hearing Impaired
Edition Salzgeber
Rating: approved for 0+ years

Booktranslated English edition

Rabbi Wolff and the Essence of Life.Memories and Insights


For over three years, director Britta Wauer and her team followed Rabbi Wolff through his professional and personal life. Over 100 hours of conversations with Willy Wolff have produced not only a film but also a book full of reminiscences, reflections and insights. Through anecdotes and conversations, Willy looks back on his eventful life and talks about his childhood in Berlin and Amsterdam, about his career as a political journalist in the UK and about his lifelong desire to become a rabbi. The book includes many stories that didn't make it into the film.

120 Pages, Paperback 
27 Images
original German edition 
compiled by Britta Wauer
translated into English by Bea Green

Bookoriginal German edition

Rabbi Wolff und die Dinge des Lebens.Erinnerungen und Einsichten


For over three years, director Britta Wauer and her team followed Rabbi Wolff through his professional and personal life. Over 100 hours of conversations with Willy Wolff have produced not only a film but also a book full of reminiscences, reflections and insights. Through anecdotes and conversations, Willy looks back on his eventful life and talks about his childhood in Berlin and Amsterdam, about his career as a political journalist in the UK and about his lifelong desire to become a rabbi. The book includes many stories that didn't make it into the film.

118 Pages, Hardcover
27 Images
ISBN 978-3-95565-154-1
Published by Hentrich & Hentrich
compiled by Britta Wauer


DVDwith English subtitles

The first film with Rabbi Willy Wolff!

In Heaven, UndergroundThe Weissensee Jewish Cemetery


The first film with the audience favourite,
Rabbi Willy Wolff!

A Film by Britta Wauer
Duration: 90 min
Language: German
Subtitles: English
Edition Salzgeber

Photo book

Abraham was an Optimist:Rabbi Wolff and his Congregation

by Manuela Koska


Photographer Manuela Koska-Jäger accompanied Rabbi William Wolff with her camera for one year. The final product is a compassionate, ambitious pictoral account of human truth and Jewish identity in today's Germany. The images are accompanied by letters from a wise, worldly rabbi with unique charisma, by writings of a young Jew who was born a month after the German Unity, as well as by portraits of members of the Jewish Community in Schwerin - each of which speak for themselves.

Language: German,
with additional English anthology

176 Pages, Hardcover
150 Images
ISBN: 978-3-942271-15-8
Published by: Hentrich & Hentrich
edited and photographed by: 
Manuela Koska


All reprints are free of charge for reporting purposes on Rabbi Wolff and must bear the copyright : © "Uli Holz, Britzka Film".



Director & Producer: Britta Wauer
Cinematography: Kaspar Köpke
Editor: Berthold Baule
Sound: Felix Heibges
Sound design: Sebastian Tesch Mischtonmeister: Florian Beck
Music: Karim Sebastian Elias
Stills: Uli Holz

Production management rbb: Rainer Baumert
Line Producer: Karsten Aurich
Programme Editor: Dagmar Mielke, Rolf Bergmann
Producer: Britta Wauer

With Rabbiner William Wolff
and Valeriy Bunimov, Kathleen Egleton, Leo Hepner, Elsa Hillman, Stefanie Horn,
Olga Korneeva, Manuela Koska, James Leek, Lord David Owen, Karla Pilpel,
Juri Rosov, Brian Shand, Sarah Thompson, Ruth Weinberger u.a.

BRITZKA FILM in co-production with
in collaboration with ARTE

Kindly supported by
Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg,
FFA Filmförderungsanstalt,
Deutscher Filmförderfonds (DFFF),
Die Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien
und die Kulturelle Filmförderung Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Russian subtitles kindly sponsored by the URSULA LACHNIT-FIXSON STIFTUNG.

World sales: MAGNET FILM



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