Gemütlichkeit: A German-American Fairytale, a new documentary that chronicles the last days of Lincoln Square’s iconic, 52-year-old German restaurant and beer hall Chicago Brauhaus, will premiere at 7 p.m. on Thursday in a one-time-only event on Facebook Watch and the film’s website.
Known for a bustling, family-friendly atmosphere that drew generations of regulars, the Chicago Brauhaus gave patrons a year-round Oktoberfest with lederhosen-clad musicians, massive beer steins, and hearty German fare. The restaurant became a preferred location among neighbors for wedding receptions, family holiday gatherings, and celebrations of all kinds, where diners of all ages mingled and danced together. The restaurant closed in spring 2017 after more than half a century.
Closing a restaurant is often painful for owners, staff, and customers who have woven a given establishment into the fabric of their lives. When brothers and co-owners Harry and Guenter Kempf announced they would close the Brauhaus after more than five decades, documentarian and former Brauhaus bartender Matt Richmond said he felt that sting. The documentary’s title loosely translates from German to “coziness,” a sensation Richmond associates with the restaurant.
“The feeling I always got there was that time stopped when you were inside,” he says. “There was a sort of a magic about it — it was dark and warm and friendly...It was a place where inhibitions were lowered and conversation just felt a little bit warmer and a little more enlightening. It felt like there was history there and the people you met there had interesting histories. For anyone who enjoys people and enjoys stories, it was just a priceless place.”
Though Richmond was originally the Kempfs’s employee, his relationship with them evolved when he went on to rent office space upstairs from the restaurant for three years. Armed with an intimate understanding of the Brauhaus’s legacy and its many characters, Richmond started filming at the restaurant in 2012. He ultimately abandoned the project at the time for lack of a narrative hook to grab viewers and pull them into the world of the film.
Five years later, a property listing for the building at 4732 N. Lincoln Avenue spurred rumors that the restaurant would close. That storytelling hook Richmond was seeking appeared, but also turned out to be the restaurant’s death knell. The news gave him a reason to investigate, he said, and some questions to pursue: what does it mean when a treasured establishment goes away, and why did it happen?
Some answers are much more apparent than others. For Richmond, the closure’s impact on Lincoln Square (where he now lives) is obvious. “The neighborhood just feels different,” he said. “It was more than a restaurant, it’s been an anchor for the neighborhood... it’s been a community center in a way, and people feel that.”
Those looking for a clear-cut reason behind the closure, however, aren’t going to find it in Gemütlichkeit. What viewers will discover are some surprising revelations (Richmond doesn’t want to reveal too much) and intimate moments. The Kempfs, for example, recount some details of their experience fleeing Germany after World War II at ages 8 and 3, in stories Richmond describes as “shocking.” Richmond also interviews longtime Brauhaus staff, passionate regulars, and other business owners about the effect of the restaurant on their lives and livelihoods.
Richmond hopes that the film conveys the nuance behind the Kempfs’s choices, and portrays them as real people with differing perspectives on the same event. “It was a complicated decision for everybody and there were really no easy answers,” he says. “I didn’t go in with any judgement as to fault or disappointment. I just went in to hear everybody’s story.”
Even those who didn’t know the Brauhaus will find echos of the establishments they’ve loved and lost in the documentary, he added. In light of the numerous temporary and permanent restaurant closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he thinks diverse audiences will be able to relate the story to their own experiences. “There are businesses closing all the time that leave holes in people’s lives and in their neighborhoods,” he says. “The film is just this one case, but it’s about more than this restaurant.”