23rd 02 - 2016 | 13 comments »

Forbidden Films (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Freedom of speech. Has there ever been a more slippery phrase in modern times? In 2015, French cartoonists exercising their free speech to lampoon Islam were gunned down by offended Muslim extremists, causing worldwide mourning and defiant support for their work; yet, a French comedian was arrested for hate speech for making comments that appeared to sympathize with the gunmen. Americans condemn the repressions of the Iranian state, which has banned writers, filmmakers, and activists, imprisoning and executing some of them; yet, in recent years, Americans have seen major suppression of demonstrations and the killing of citizens, most notoriously in Ferguson, Missouri. Moreover, in the name of free speech, billionaires are now able to spend unlimited amounts of money in U.S. elections on politicians they favor. If there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that free speech is neither universally understood nor universally available, even in countries where it appears to be a core belief.

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Film, of course, has a long history in the debate over free speech. From the Catholic Church to AMPAS and governments at all levels, films have come in for condemnation, censorship, and outright banning for everything from miscegenation of the races (Piccadilly [1929]) to sexuality (Kiss Me, Stupid [1964]). Implicit in these actions is the recognition—or fear—that films can be an effective tool for winning hearts and minds. As Hitler articulated in Mein Kampf:

One must also remember that of itself the multitude is mentally inert, that it remains attached to its old habits and that it is not naturally prone to read something which does not conform with its own pre-established beliefs when such writing does not contain what the multitude hopes to find there. … The picture, in all its forms, including the film, has better prospects. … In a much shorter time, at one stroke I might say, people will understand a pictorial presentation of something which it would take them a long and laborious effort of reading to understand.

With this assertion in mind, the Nazi Party included propaganda filmmaking in its plan, establishing a film department as early as 1930. Eventually, filmmaking was nationalized and administered by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While only about 15 percent of the more than 1,000 films that were made in Germany from 1933 through 1945 were blatantly propagandistic, most films conformed to Goebbels’ Nazification program in some way.

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Today, Germany still grapples with its Nazi past, including how to deal with the hundreds of propaganda films that unified the people of the Third Reich so effectively behind its mission to become masters of the universe. Forbidden Films deals specifically with the 40 or so Nazi-era motion pictures that are still banned from unrestricted public viewing. Director Felix Moeller isn’t as interested in the films themselves as in the debate surrounding whether it would be wise to loose them upon the general public. Although Forbidden Films wends its way through some of the “genres” with which Nazi propagandists concerned themselves, including anti-British, anti-Polish, youth indoctrination, pro-euthanasia, and, of course, anti-Semitic, with each topic prefaced by a quote from Goebbels (e.g., “Film is the educational tool to teach our young people” for films meant to delegitimize parental guidance in favor of Nazi ideology), he’s more interested in the reactions of those who attended supervised screenings of these films in Germany, France, and Israel and discussed them afterward.

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Moeller consults a number of film scholars who foreground the films under discussion with their specific function and the elements that helped them work their magic on the movie-going public. Some films are blatant with their messages, which we see in the anti-Polish Homecoming (1941). Poles are shown discriminating against their German-minority population, climaxing with the gunning down of a family of five—an incredible act of projection that the Nazis used to justify their invasion of Poland. Homecoming fooled one German viewer, who said he never knew about the “merciless way that Poles terrorized minorities.”

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Other films, the scholars say, are more suggestive. The Rothschilds (1940), which takes fictionalized biography to new territory, reinforces with subtle, repeated phrases the notion of a global Jewish conspiracy to control the world by controlling its banks, ending with the admittedly not-so-subtle image of a Star of David formed by connecting the dots representing centers of Rothschild domination. An even more disguised propaganda film, the pro-euthanasia I Accuse (1941), was designed to make the public comfortable with the Nazi plan to murder 70,000 physically and mentally disabled Germans. The film concerns a woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis who begs her physician husband to end her life before the disease leaves her unrecognizable. Right-to-die groups operating today might take a lesson from its persuasive melodrama and the star power of Heidemarie Hatheyer as the wife. Indeed, I Accuse is only one of the films that skillfully used well-known stars for their marquee value and acting talent. In addition to Hatheyer, Goebbels employed Paula Wessely (Homecoming and other films), Emil Jannings (Uncle Kruger [1941] and other films) and Heinrich George (Kolberg [1945] and other films). Many of the viewers are surprised at how entertaining and well produced they are.

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The most notorious film Moeller takes on is Jew Süss (1940). Considered by many to be one of the most effective of the anti-Semitic films of the era, it takes place in the distant German past, during the 18th century reign of Duke Charles Alexander of Württemberg. The duke turns to Süss the Jew for financial help, and this allows Süss to infiltrate Christian society, where he subverts the rule of law and eventually rapes a Christian woman. The money-grubbing stereotype is paired with dangerous, lawless behavior to incite audiences and help them justify the persecution of Jews. A lot of money was spent on this film, and the high production values and quality performances and script made it a big hit.

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Most of what I know about Jew Süss is what I’ve read because Forbidden Films provides only excerpts of that film that are not particularly edifying about why it is so heinous. On the whole, however, the film handles its excerpting quite well, and I found particularly interesting the edited-out footage—swastikas, Hitler, tanks, and planes—of films that then went on to be shown in theatres and on TV after the war.

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Forbidden Films is hardly a well-crafted film itself. It opens somewhat inexplicably at a well-fortified storage facility for thousands of nitrate films. Apparently, the idea was to compare the flammable and explosive nature of nitrate with the incendiary nature of the banned films whose reel cans are displayed for Moeller’s camera. The audience discussions resemble C-SPAN televised lectures and discussions. Better are the individuals who are filmed outside the screening room for their take on what they have seen. These interviews go from unhelpful to illuminating: director Margarethe von Trotta, no doubt approached for her celebrity, adds nothing, while a French woman, interestingly, believes the films would be more dangerous in France, where the right-wing National Front is strong. Moeller also obscures the faces of two interviewees, former neo-Nazis, who offer little other than that these films were popular in their group and available through YouTube.

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Unsurprisingly, opinions about the continued restrictions on these films are varied. In Israel, one man thought they should be shown to every school child so they can be understood and rejected. A Holocaust survivor in Germany did not want them shown on TV, as had been proposed, whereas free-speech advocates believed that people should be allowed to make up their own minds. Some people castigated film fans for wanting them released just to satisfy their cinephilia, and one scholar felt that editing the films was tantamount to mutilation. Knowing how carefully these films were crafted to sway public opinion and how susceptible all of us are to being manipulated, I personally favor erring on the side of caution by offering them only for educational purposes. Forbidden Films is not a great film, but it can be a great facilitator of conversation.

Forbidden Films screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Wednesday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.


27th 06 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Counsellor at Law (1933)

Director: William Wyler

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This review is an entry in the William Wyler Blogathon, hosted by The Movie Projector.

“In the beginning was the Word.” Atheist Elmer Rice, author of the play Counsellor at Law as well as its screenplay, disagreed with what the Bible said that word was, choosing instead to make all words his god. He made a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter, and was lucky enough to find his perfect director in William Wyler. A rarity among Hollywood directors, Wyler respected the words on the page and did little to shape them into an auteuristic vision. His self-described mission was to entertain and make a lot of money, a stance to filmmaking that sent his star plummeting from the skies when the mid-century French critics anointed a canon of auteurs that expressly excluded him.

The fact that Wyler was content to be a showman did not preclude him from having a few expressive tics that show themselves in Counsellor at Law, a stagebound film that nonetheless allowed him to showcase some truly dazzling dialog. Further, sharing a Jewish background with Rice allowed Wyler to coach the badly miscast patrician John Barrymore to a halfway believable performance as a Jewish lawyer whose Lower East Side roots make his marriage to a blueblood with two children a decidely lopsided alliance.

In common with many films of the day, Counsellor at Law has the fast pace and snappy humor of a screwball comedy. Switchboard operator/receptionist Bessie Green (Isabel Jewell) adopts a rat-a-tat, sing-song style to answer phone calls and greet clients that might have been less grating and more funny if it had been played with more of a Jewish spin to it. A controlled chaos within the office, underlined by Jewell’s manic delivery, conveys the rapid-fire business of the successful law practice of George Simon (Barrymore) and John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens). Two Italian clients wait for Tedesco, peppering the dialog with their native language. Several people want to see Mr. Simon, including Zedorah Chapman (Mayo Methot), whom Simon has just defended successfully in a murder trial; Sarah Becker (Malka Kornstein), a friend from the old neighborhood who wants Simon to defend her son Harry (director-to-be Vincent Sherman), who has been roughed up and arrested by the cops for making pro-Communist speeches; and Charlie McFadden (John Hammond Daily), a process server and investigator Simon rescued from a life of crime.

In one of his characteristic flourishes, Wyler teases the audience like another client waiting in line by keeping Simon out of sight; our lead-up to the “reveal” is Barrymore’s hands working the phones on his desk. When Barrymore finally appears, it seems designed to encourage applause, a frequent occurrence in the theatre when the big-name star makes his or her first entrance and a nod to the stage origins of the film. Over-the-shoulder shots with delayed reaction shots, a Wyler staple, also dot Counsellor at Law. The most effective one shows Harry standing, his fist clenched, when he hears Cora’s children disparage the working class. When we finally do see his beaten face wild with anger, Wyler switches to the children and moves slowly in on their frightened faces.

Among the clichés of the script is Simon’s hard-working, ultra-efficient secretary “Rexy” Gordon (Bebe Daniels), a beautiful, young woman whose unrequited love for her boss plays out in painful expressions every time she must interact with his snobbish wife Cora (Doris Kenyon) and her repeated rebuffs of law clerk Herbert Wineberg’s (Marvin Kline) too-frequent attempts to ask her out. Wineberg’s persistence is deeply annoying, but Daniels’ beautifully modulated distress and growing agitation make these scenes a somewhat harrowing experience.

Another cliché is Simon’s mother Lena (Clara Langsner), a patient, self-effacing Yiddishe mama who repeatedly answers “I’ve got all the time in the world” when she is kept waiting to see her son. Nonetheless, Wyler keeps Langsner from overdoing it or tipping over into melodrama when she tries to guilt Simon into helping his wastrel brother David out of yet another jam or offering a hurt look when she speaks with Cora and it becomes clear that she has not seen Cora’s children in some time. I got a delightful jolt when Barrymore called his brother a gonif (crook), a beautifully integrated Yiddish expression that almost made me forget Barrymore’s perfect British profile.

The disconnect between Barrymore’s appearance and his character was a serious handicap for me; indeed, I could have seen Melvyn Douglas, who played a rival for Cora’s affection, as a better choice to play George. Yet, Barrymore offered a kind of intensity that stayed kosher, and suggested the avarice of his profession without making it a stereotype of the grasping Jew. When he lathers over a potential $100,000 payday that would compromise a friend of his wife’s, his eyes could light half of Manhattan; however, like the doting Jewish husband, he lets the suit go to please Cora.

George has blinded himself to his real position in his family—Cora’s children from a previous marriage, Dorothy (Barbara Perry) and Richard Dwight (future director Richard Quine), disdain George and proudly declare their father is in Washington, DC, yet George persists in calling himself their father. When he learns that Cora is abandoning him, his despair goes a bit too big, but Wyler achieved the appropriate somberness by keeping Barrymore in the shadows and having Daniels interrupt his intended leap out a window in a very quick scene that doesn’t allow for too much mugging for the camera.

Many small comic moments brighten the film. For example, when the adults who see Dorothy and Richard unfailingly exclaim, “my, how you’ve grown,” or words to that effect, not only does young Richard predict their comments, but he also adds, “What do they expect us to do? Get smaller?” Wise-cracking Bessie insults an inattentive boyfriend with, “Sure I missed you—like Booth missed Lincoln.” Middle-aged, ample secretary Goldie Rindskopf (Angela Jacobs) moves languidly through the office, her broad beam a vision of delight for the two Italians and a thoroughly refreshing, if superficial look at the sex appeal of an older woman.

Rice studied and practiced law for a short while, and his jaundiced view of the profession, from the emotional tricks and fake alibis that help lawyers get criminals acquitted, to the lobbying on behalf of big business and the flexible fees to cover losses, gets a full airing in the actions of George Simon. Class conflict is also well represented in the scenario, but anti-Semitism is only vaguely alluded to. Rice had seen the rise of the Nazis during a trip to Germany in 1932, but with only a few exceptions—most notably, the films of Frank Borzage—the studios stayed far away from the impending calamity; Counsellor at Law is no exception. Nonetheless, George Simon remains a fairly sympathetic character, and the subtext of presumed Aryan superiority represented by Cora and her set gives this film the kind of meat a thorough professional like Wyler could sink his teeth into.


6th 12 - 2009 | no comment »

Defamation (Hashmasta, 2009)

Director: Yoav Shamir

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Handcuffed to the Holocaust. Shackled to the Shoah. Those of you who read me know these are phrases I’ve used before to express my dismay and disgust at how I’ve felt forced to wear an invisible Star of David on my invisible, threadbare schmattes, forever linked to a history of victimhood that saw its peak in Nazi Germany. It has long been a sore spot with me that Jewish stereotypes include meek lamb to the slaughter among them, and that because of our recent tragedy, we are held to a higher standard of humanity than the people who actually perpetrated the Shoah. When Jews act “out of character” with aggressiveness, it’s somehow worse—we should know better. Yet, as Shakespeare’s Shylock said:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.

Yet, while I strain at the anti-Semitism inherent in singling out Jews as both victims and mandatory moral arbiters, many Jews, especially in America, cling to our past victimhood with all their might. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the largest organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism in the world, feels every pinprick, no matter how insignificant, and adheres to the broken window theory: let just one incident slide and you’re halfway down the slippery slope that leads to another Holocaust.

Israel is the one place on earth where Jews are just people, living in their customary way, unburdened by the feeling that to declare oneself a Jew is to risk a range of kneejerk reactions among neighbors, coworkers, friends, and strangers—though perhaps the only real reaction is one’s own paranoia. As a young Israeli, Defamation director Yoav Shamir acknowledges at the outset that he has never known anti-Semitism, even though the newspapers, magazines, and TV broadcasts he consumes shout of its existence with disturbing regularity. He doesn’t understand what anti-Semitism is, how it relates to anti-Zionism, or even if an anti-Zionist is automatically an anti-Semite. His film seeks answers in Israel, Auschwitz, and the United States, as he questions his 90-year-old Zionist grandmother, an early emigré to Palestine; Abraham Foxman, a concentration camp survivor and head of the ADL; American scholars critical of the American lobby for Israel, including the reviled Dr. Norman Finkelstein, a son of Holocaust survivors who was fired from Chicago’s DePaul University, he claims, because he is an outspoken critic of Israel and the ADL’s peddling of the Holocaust; and Israeli high school students who take a field trip to Auschwitz.

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Each thread Shamir follows reveals a different set of assumptions about how Jews can, should, and do look at the world. The high schoolers are shown the by-now-prescribed footage of mounds of dead Jews being bulldozed; they wrinkle their noses in disgust, but say they can’t feel the anger and sorrow they are “supposed” to feel. Already we are seeing that the “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz is meant to indoctrinate these young Israelis, who have never felt the sting of anti-Semitism, to feel angry, tortured, and seek vengeance on Jew haters everywhere. One of the girls says what I and other Jews have thought in the context of our religion—that she would be killed just because of her nationality (note she didn’t say religion), not because she personally did anything to anyone.

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When we move to Shamir’s adventures in America, we are in what for me is more familiar territory. Foxman’s numerical Auschwitz tattoo is incontrovertible proof of his legitimacy as a victim and moral arbiter. His self-confessed obsession with anti-Semitism has propelled his work. When Shamir asks for a case he can follow up, an ADL worker who records reports of anti-Semitism can’t find much beyond employers who won’t give Jewish employees the Jewish holidays off. Foxman reads a letter he received from a woman who was incensed when she overheard a cop providing protection at a Jewish funeral in Crown Heights, New York, tell someone on his cellphone that he would be over after he was done with the “Jew shit.” Anti-Semitic? Well, I don’t know—regardless, the cop’s immediate apology ended the ADL’s role in the matter.

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Shamir finds a more suitable case—black teens have thrown rocks at a bus taking Jewish students to a yeshiva in Crown Heights, where tensions between blacks and Jews have flared through the years. His interviews with several black men and women on the street sound both anti-Semitic and a bit incoherent but no moreso than his interview with his grandmother who says any Jew who isn’t a Zionist is anti-Semitic, though whether that means pro-Israel, making aliyah, or backing Israel 100% in everything wasn’t clear; she left me thoroughly confused.

finkelstein_01.jpgThe most interesting part of the documentary for me was to hear from Jews who feel much as I do about Israel—supportive of its existence but concerned about the power of the Jewish lobby to influence American foreign policy and condemnatory of Israeli abuses against Palestinians. Finkelstein, a very unique Jew to merit ejection from Israel as a security risk, is savage in his opinion of Foxman, whom he sees as a profiteer of the Holocaust; the ADL has a yearly budget of $13 million, and Foxman regularly takes lavish junkets, Finkelstein says, to hobnob with world leaders. When Finkelstein gives the Nazi salute at the mention of Foxman’s name, Shamir reacts badly. “Why are you all of a sudden so politically correct? You Israelis call each other Nazis all the time” and then ticks off the names of Israeli leaders who have done so in the past. In another case, this time at a conference on anti-Semitism in Israel, a British Jew calls out Israel for its human rights abuses in the West Bank, only to be met with vehement attacks afterwards by other lecturers. He is nonplussed: “Back home, I’m considered radically pro-Israel. There were some very right-wing elements at this conference today.”

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Shamir scores his documentary with strangely childish music that suggested to me he saw himself as Alice in Wonderland; to many piously self-righteous Jews and humanists, this might have seemed irreverent, but I thought it hit just the right note myself, for what else must it be like for a Jew who has never experienced life outside of Israel to suddenly be thrust into a world that plays by different rules—surely it must be a through-the-lookinglass experience. On the other hand, Shamir isn’t a naive babe; he knew to tell the black New Yorkers quoting from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that the book was a proven fraud written by Jew haters.

This documentary, while touching on politics, stays within its scope of exploring the meaning of anti-Semitism. I don’t know if Shamir felt the sting of it, but he surely can’t deny (as others did in the film) that it doesn’t exist. Yet, how much of Jewish wariness and vigilance is hype and actually counterproductive to Israeli and Jewish interests? Anyone who sees this thoughtful and, yes, often enjoyable documentary will be better equipped to answer that question.

Michael Guillen has a terrific interview with Yoav Shamir at The Evening Class.


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