1st 04 - 2016 | 2 comments »

The Seventh Room (1996)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Márta Mészáros

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s time again for me to review another film nobody’s seen or heard of from a prominent and still-working female director who is nearly unknown these days outside of her native Hungary because of the general unavailability of her work. Márta Mészáros has been making shorts, documentaries, and feature films since the 1950s, with 64 director credits and numerous international awards to her name, including the Golden Bear at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival for Adoption (1975), the Grand Prix at the 1984 Cannes Films Festival for Diary for My Children (1984), and the Gold Plaque at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival for The Last Report on Anna (2009). The film currently under consideration here, The Seventh Room, came to me through interlibrary loan of a DVD issued by Ignatius Press, a large U.S. publisher and distributor of Catholic books, magazines, videos, and music. As one might expect from a publisher who does not specialize in film releases, the barebones DVD derives from whatever print was available—in this case, a print from Italy with all of the actors dubbed in Italian. Despite enduring the deteriorating images on the well-worn library disk and the lost vocal performances of the international cast, I found The Seventh Room a thoroughly mesmerizing experience.

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The Seventh Room tells the true story of Edith Stein, a German Jew, atheist, and philosopher who converted to Catholicism in 1922, became a Carmelite nun named Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, died in Auschwitz in 1942, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Stein was led to her conversion and vocation after reading the works of St. Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century Spanish reformer of the Carmelite order; the title of the film references the last of the seven rooms of spiritual growth the Spanish saint posited, the stage when a person reaches a firm, all-inclusive worldview for which she or he may be willing to die. Mészáros alludes to Stein’s eventual entry into her seventh room by opening the film with images of trains and archways, which have become iconically linked with the Nazi death camps.

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Mészáros’ approach is a very personal one, offering a complex look at Stein (Maia Morgenstern, a dead ringer for Edith Stein) that seeks to explicate the sharp turn of a worldly life of family devotion and professional acclaim to a severe, cloistered pursuit of spiritual perfection. It is nearly impossible to glimpse a soul, and Mészáros doesn’t really try, but the engaged and convincing performances she elicits and her effective use of light and imagery provide a compelling portrait of a saint in the making.

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Morgenstern’s Stein is forceful and passionate in her work and in her relationships with her beloved family, especially her mother (Adriana Asti). She is truthful to a fault and unafraid of criticizing the rising Nazi Party, even when a beloved student of hers starts innocently sporting a swastika lapel pin from her “youth group,” yet she is made unsteady when a former colleague (Jan Nowicki, then Mészáros’ husband) taunts her and suggests she has won acclaim as a philosopher because she slept with her professor, famed phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. The introduction of this likely fictitious colleague whose thwarted romantic feelings for Stein and inferior professional standing transform him into the worst kind of enemy—a member of the SS—offers a rather heavy-handed symbol of the perverted relationship between the Christian and Jewish worlds that Stein hoped to harmonize. Mészáros and Nowicki may have had Dr. Mabuse in mind when they developed the portentously named Franz Heller, moving from what looks like his attempted rape of Stein in a repeated flashback to complete criminality in his new skin, his SS uniform, a skull and crossbones on his cap.

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The sequences of Stein as a novice in the convent offer telling details about the unsuitably of her previous life and current physical condition to the work she has ahead of her. Already 42 when she enters the convent, she collapses while scrubbing the stone floor on her hands and knees and repeatedly dips her sleeves and veil into the wash water as she tackles the laundry, seemingly lacking the common sense to roll up her sleeves or pin back her veil. The convent’s mother superior (Anna Polony, another lookalike, this time for St. Teresa of Ávila) is skeptical about Stein’s vocation, wondering if she is trying to escape the fate of her fellow Jews, but then she appears to watch over Stein, evoking the spirit of St. Teresa as a guiding force in Stein’s spiritual growth. This is especially apparent during final vows, when Morgenstern’s genuinely moving happiness at becoming a bride of Jesus reflects on Polony’s face, softened in recognition of the bond they now share.

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In a time when a film like The Big Short (2015) is being hailed for making complex concepts understandable to nonexperts, I have to say that The Seventh Room outclasses it in every way. Stein’s niece asks her to explain phenomenology, and when assured that the girl really wants to know, Stein sits at the family piano, which is currently being used to stage plates of cookies, and starts to play it, explaining that it only becomes what it was designed for when it is played. Simplicity itself, but the point is so well made that the Stein family bursts into applause. In another cinematically lucid moment, Stein explains to a novice what the seven rooms are. Mészáros shifts her camera angles as each room is counted off and described; her lighting is dramatic, quite reminding me of a Rembrandt painting, with the contrast between shadow and light offering a visual metaphor for the gradual spiritual awakening the seven rooms represent.

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Mészáros’ grip on the spiritual is matched by her evocation of the secular world that is stalking Stein. Stein’s first visit to her mother’s, in 1922, is marked by a long tracking shot that takes Stein down a street with a gift of tulips in hand to the double doors of her mother’s home. In the 1933 sequence, we get the same shot, the same tulips, but the walls on either side of the doors are defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, an economical and shocking representation of the changes wrought in German society. The secular intrudes upon the sacred in some surprising ways. A movie first for me was seeing the nuns discuss the upcoming elections in which they will vote, with Stein stumping against Hitler; when the time comes for them to cast their ballots in the voting box brought inside the cloister, the officials worried about Stein are told matter-of-factly by the nuns to leave her alone because she has already been denied the vote by the Nazi government. In a unique staging of the overly familiar Kristallnacht, Mészáros shoots down the halls of the convent dimly lit by the glowing red hue of businesses burning to ash outside (another portent of the Holocaust), suggesting the hell one of the nuns says has come to earth.

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The film takes pains to assert Stein’s personal affirmation of her Jewish identity as equal to her devotion to Christ. The film is heavily scored with Jewish liturgical and secular music, the background soundtrack of Stein’s life. In addition, the image of her mother, who died while she was in the convent, appears to her frequently, for example, when the train carrying her and her sister Rosa (Elide Melli), an extern sister with the Carmelites, to Auschwitz passes through their home town of Breslau, as well as in her final moments, when her mother embraces her naked body in a room that resembles a gas chamber. Because Jewish heritage is passed through the mother’s line, this connection is significant; their final embrace, reminiscent of a pietà, represents the reconciliation of her Jewishness and her Catholic identity.

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The final passage—the transport of Stein, Rosa, and a large number of Jewish children to Auschwitz—is strangely peaceful, but the pitiable vision of small hands reaching through the gaps between the boxcar timbers drives home the horror to come without the usual theatrics. As the camp guards sort their human cargo into the two lines that signal life or death, a close-up shot of Stein, her shaved nun’s head a vision of what all of the women in the camp will look like before their extermination, offers dignity to the murdered and the completion of her life’s task. The sure-handed, coherent vision Mészáros builds throughout makes The Seventh Room a cinematic treasure that deserves to be more widely known.


29th 12 - 2013 | 3 comments »

Enemies: A Love Story (1989)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Paul Mazursky

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If anyone is interested in seeing films that successfully take on the male Jewish persona the Coens have been pursuing humorlessly in their recent films, A Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), check out the works of Paul Mazursky. A Brooklyn Jew who changed his first name (Irwin), went to Hollywood, and has spent his career toggling between directing and acting, Mazursky has reflected the times he has lived through in his eight decades of life while maintaining a surprisingly consistent worldview. For Mazursky the screenwriter and director, the world is a disorienting place; his films are filled with people trying to find themselves both physically, following displacement (Harry and Tonto [1974]), and spiritually (Tempest [1982]). His debut feature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) starts in group therapy, moves inexorably to a fumbled foursome, and ends in a parking lot with the title characters staring at each other, still searching for answers.

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Based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies: A Love Story, made exactly 20 years after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, isn’t concerned with parodying the free love/therapy of the ’60s that Mazursky clearly saw through, but it could be considered something of a prequel. Set exactly 20 years before Bob & Carol, Enemies also involves a foursome of sorts, with Polish Jew Herman Broder (Ron Silver) running frantically on the outer edge of his wheel of fortune between three women—his first wife Tamara (Anjelica Huston), returned to him miraculously after eyewitness accounts of her execution at the hands of the Nazis; his second wife Yadwiga (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska), the Broders’ Catholic servant who hid Herman during the war; and Masha (Lena Olin), the concentration camp survivor whose edgy passion and longing for death have Herman helplessly entwined in a torrid affair.

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Like Bob & Carol, this film opens with a therapeutic echo—a dream in which Herman is peering down from a hayloft as German soldiers drag Yadwiga into the barn where he is holed up and beat her to get his hiding place out of her. After Herman awakens from this nightmare in a cold sweat in his Brooklyn apartment, the endless fleeing from his past and himself begins. After rejecting the breakfast simple, trusting Yadwiga has made for him (“your favorite!”), he tells her he will be making a sales trip to Philadelphia to visit some booksellers. Instead, he goes to his real job with Rabbi Lembeck (Alan King), for whom he ghostwrites and does translations of religious texts, avoiding questions about where the rabbi can contact him, and then dashes off to Masha, who lives with her mother (Judith Malina). The three visit for a bit, and then Masha and Herman retreat to her bedroom for the intense sex they both crave as a salve for their battered souls.

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Herman is a man who owes his survival in part to his ability to lie and evade. The truth of his life becomes unavoidable, however, when he comes face to face with Tamara, a woman who knew him well before the war and therefore represents someone to whom he cannot lie successfully. Tamara said she came to see Herman out of curiosity and has no interest in resuming their life together. To her question he confesses that of course he has a mistress—he’s married after all. When Tamara learns he married Yadwiga out of gratitude, she replies drolly, “Couldn’t you have found some other way to thank her?”

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The truth is that Herman needs someone to look after him, and the literally servile Yadwiga fits the bill. When Yadwiga decides to become a Jew so that she can bear his children, she increases the demands on a man whose existential position is described in the game “Wooden Leg.” A woman with the presence of mind to crawl out of a trench of dead bodies after being shot and survive could certainly teach him something about perseverence, but Tamara becomes something like a Greek chorus to Herman’s fracturing life, watching him make the mistakes to which his character is prone and finally offering to become his life manager when she sees him falling down the rabbit hole.

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We expect to feel sympathy for Holocaust survivors, but the genius of novelist Singer, as faithfully translated by Mazursky, is that he created no typical Holocaust survivors; the Holocaust is an important aspect of each life, but it is not the whole of that life. Herman lived in mortal fear during the war years and lost his beloved children, whose picture Mazursky movingly shows Silver kiss tenderly, yet he is the man he was born to be—a weak-willed shlemiel. His “enemy,” as Tamara calls her, is Masha, a strong-willed woman who wants Herman to marry her but who actually lives for her mother. Had she never had a number tattooed on her arm, she would still have the sexual charisma that makes all men fall under her spell, from Rabbi Lembeck to her estranged husband, played by Mazursky himself. Her death wish only amplifies her innate animal magnetism, a characteristic the actress who plays her has in abundance, but she only gets Herman to marry her in a Jewish ceremony when she says she is pregnant. I never once believed she was actually pregnant; her frequent references to already being dead suggested to me that she would never be able to harbor life.

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Although Singer has a sense of the absurd, this film seems to owe its absurdity and sometimes antic humor more to Sholem Aleichem. The curses Herman’s women throw at him as he turns tail and runs have a bit of the Menahem-Mendl/Sheineh-Sheindl bickering to them, and Yadwiga’s burlesque of terror at seeing a ghost when Tamara comes to the apartment suggests Golde’s superstitious nature when Tevye the Milkman relates his manufactured nightmare to her. Mazursky even brings a bit of modern amusement to Herman and Masha’s trip to a Catskills resort, with loud-speaker announcements and fitness classes and other activities happening simultaneously on the grounds that have a whiff of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) about them. There is something cartoonish about Herman; when we see him in the subway looking at the signs that direct travelers to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, each of which contains one of Herman’s women, it’s hard not to imagine Elmer Fudd at a crossroads with contradictory signs directing him to Bugs Bunny’s burrow. The period setting rendered in a soft sepia tone also conjures a certain distance and unreality, the neon lights of Coney Island just a bit too bright and cartoonish.

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Ultimately, Herman is overwhelmed by those he sought out in his neediness and his longing for oblivion, if not annihilation. Having impregnated Yadwiga, he flees from both her and Masha, a woman he said he could not live without, when she suggests a double-suicide in the wake of her mother’s death. Herman, clueless about himself and caught like a fly in a web of pain, never understands any of it. He’s as hopelessly bourgeois as any Mazursky character, sending money to Yadwiga in an unsigned card every week as he evades reality once again. And while Herman isn’t innocent, he is far from guilty of anything but being himself.

My thanks to Amy Brown for asking for a review of this film and for being an enthusiastic Ferdy on Films reader.


19th 04 - 2013 | 2 comments »

No Place on Earth (2013)

Director: Janet Tobias

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

With the vast coverage World War II and the Holocaust have gotten in every facet of cultural endeavor the world over—films, books, plays, television, even video games—the challenge for any artist working in the subject area is to bring something new to the table. Edward Zwick had a chance to tell us a story of Jewish courage and survival with his 2008 feature Defiance, but his rendering of the relatively unknown story of the Bielski partisans of Belorussia is just another generic action flick. Documentarians have fared much better in finding unfamiliar subject matter and making the specific universal. Gordon Quinn’s Prisoner of Her Past (2010) looked at a case of late-onset posttraumatic stress disorder in a Jewish woman living in my town of Skokie and related it to the problems survivors of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina could face down the road.

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Now we have No Place on Earth. Using talking-head interviews and lengthy reenactments, Janet Tobias brings us the story of three families, the Stermers, the Wexlers, and the Dodyks, who hid from the Nazis and Christian Ukrainians during the war. While we learn fairly early that this is a tale of survival, the events unfold for the audience with a glimmer of the dread, confusion, and triumph of those who lived it. The curiosity we share with the real-life detective of the story, Chris Nicola, turns into a strongly suspenseful narrative worthy of anything Alfred Hitchcock might have concocted, and made all the more interesting for being a true tale of life and death.

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This story might never have come to light, however, had it not been for Nicola, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent with a passion for caving. Nicola combined a trip to his ancestral country to trace his family roots with the exploration of Verteba, a rare gypsum cave. When he came across some human artifacts in the cave, he started asking around about the how the caves might have been used in the past. All he could glean was that some Jews hid there during World War II. Years of inquiries yielded nothing more until a message came through his website from a relative of one of the survivors. Verteba had sheltered more than 30 Jews until they were discovered by German troops. Those who escaped capture moved to a second cave, Priest’s Grotto, where they remained until the defeat of Germany. In all, they spent more than 500 days underground; several of the men left at night to gather food and fire wood, but the women and children never came to the surface at all.

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It is a cliché to say that World War II represented a dark time in human history. No Place on Earth examines that notion quite literally. Cave guides will tell you that human eyes cannot adjust to the complete absence of light. Think about that. No light at all for days and weeks on end, no images of any kind to focus on. Of course, the survivors had candles and lamps, but they had to be rationed; it was better to sleep 20 hours a day to escape the darkness, hunger, and monotony than risk replenishing the sources of light. The Jews had a handful of friends in their village, but they were betrayed on more than one occasion, once by a man who discovered their location and whose life they spared. That betrayal cost two lives when the Germans raided Verteba. Living in the part of the world outside of Germany that was most hostile to Jews, these families only wanted to live and let live. They even spared a horse that could have provided them with meat for weeks.

posterNo Place on Earth, with its paradoxical poster image, takes literal darkness and makes it light, that is, safe, as Sima Dodyk says. Sima was a little girl when she fled with her family underground. At first, it was fun to explore the caves and dream up a pretend world of adventure. As the stay became more prolonged, the tension of the adults more extreme, and the gnawing hunger more persistent, the novelty of living in the cave wore off. When the Germans came and rounded up several of their number, the consequences became all too real. It is only in this context that one can understand how total darkness can represent the safety Sima says it was for all of them.

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I saw this film at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, where Tobias and several of the survivors were present to make statements and answer questions. Sonia Dodyk (above left) believes they survived because they decided from the beginning to stick together. Yet we know that the Frank and the van Pels families stuck together in an Amsterdam attic and did not escape their fate. Nonetheless, there is something to Sonia’s assertion that by sticking together, they found the means to survive by using their collective intelligence and labor to keep mind and body together for the duration.

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If there is a hero to this story, it is Nissel Stermer, whom both Saul and Sam Stermer looked up to and followed during their raids aboveground for food and fuel. The Stermer brothers stole a grindstone and were able to grind wheat into flour to bake bread in the cave. When needed, Nissel later bribed the right people to get bags of flour; when the bags proved too heavy to carry, he worked with his brother Saul to fashion a sleigh and stole a horse to pull it to the opening of Priest’s Cave. The ingenuity and foresight Nissel had saved many a life, including Hannah Stermer, who chose to remain aboveground and who escaped the police because Nissel knew her hiding place would be uncovered.

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What I found so remarkable about the film was watching the reenactments and seeing how handy people used to be. They knew how to soak and bend wood to form the runners of a sleigh, carve and use a grindstone, dig a “back door” to the caves to help them escape if they were raided, collect water from the dripping ceilings of the cave and make bed frames and ovens. Reduced to living as our prehistoric ancestors did, they brought their 20th century knowledge to bear on making the caves more liveable and thereby holding onto their humanity.

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Perhaps it was could be seen as a triumph that several of the survivors were able to return to their village and visit the caves again. Their happiness in being able to thank the caves was leavened by their sadness at all the families they used to know vanished from the village and the future. The surviving families were quick to leave the Ukraine as well, where anti-Semitism never seems to go out of style. They settled in the United States, Canada, and Israel, and told the story of the caves to their burgeoning families. Now we know it, too.


6th 05 - 2012 | 3 comments »

Exposed (1983)

Director/Screenwriter: James Toback

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The past few days have been something of a cinephile’s paradise—at least for this cinephile. Australian film scholar and critic Adrian Martin made a very rare appearance in town to give a lecture at the University of Chicago entitled “Cinema Invents Ways of Dancing,” which this dance/dance-on-film enthusiast couldn’t wait to attend. The next night, Martin joined a panel composed of Girish Shambu, Elena Gorfinkel, and moderator Nick Davis at Northwestern University on film criticism and its relationship to academia. Both talks were interesting and illuminated the choice of film Martin made to follow the panel: James Toback’s little-seen, but often derided thriller Exposed. Martin is a big fan of Toback’s work, and puts him in his own pantheon of neglected American directors who deserve praise and study. He commented before the film that Toback projected his usual protagonist—a man attracted to adventure and danger, only to find himself in over his head—onto his female protagonist in Exposed, Elizabeth Carlson, played by Nastassja Kinski at the height of her fame.

Exposed is an engaging film that moves at a pace made brisk by the absence of the extraneous. Somewhat ironically, Exposed, a title that superficially refers to the fact that Elizabeth gains fame as a fashion model and cover girl, seems to me to be a snapshot of the American psyche circa 1983. It mixes overnight fame and fortune with very little sacrifice and no college degree; offers supermodel worship, including a cameo appearance by the self-proclaimed first supermodel, Janice Dickinson; and capitalizes on ripped-from-the-headlines topicality by involving Elizabeth in hunting European terrorists. Perhaps Exposed was too calculated for its own good because it was a big flop, but aside from some laughable performances, particularly by the director himself and trick-casted Rudolf Nureyev, the film deserves more attention and respect that it has gotten to date.

Elizabeth is the first-generation American daughter of Swedish parents (Ron Randell and Bibi Andersson) who is dying to get away from their Wisconsin dairy farm and become a classical pianist. She quits college, and with it, her affair with her controlling English professor (Toback), and heads to New York City, where she is almost immediately mugged. Economic necessity requires her to do what so many aspiring artists do in New York—she accepts a job as a waitress. Fortunately, she waits on Greg Miller (Ian McShane), a photographer out with a bevy of models (all of them real NYC models), who recognizes her potential. She soon becomes a famous model, and at an exhibition featuring Miller’s photos of her, Elizabeth meets a mystery man (Nureyev) who pursues her in a provocative way, which includes breaking into her apartment. The man, Daniel Jelline, is a classical violinist, and after dazzling her with his virtuosic playing, seduces her. When she awakens in the morning, Jelline is gone, replaced by a plane ticket to Paris. She flies there to meet him, only to learn he is actually a child of Holocaust victims who is seeking revenge against a terrorist named Rivas (Harvey Keitel), whose gang planted a bomb in a Paris cafe that killed Jelline’s mother. She joins his search, and the film revs to its inevitably violent conclusion.

Some of elements of the story traffic in cliché, except that behind some of these clichés is fact, lending more weight to the story. Toback’s English professor is, stereotypically, having an affair with the prettiest student in his classes. But Toback really did teach English at the university level, and his coded lecture, a hidden and irritating conceit that he is screwing Elizabeth, seems like something that would really happen. Elizabeth’s rise from farmer’s daughter to high-fashion model also seems clichéd, except that one of the models cast in the restaurant and photo shoot scenes is, much to my surprise, my college friend P. J. Shaffer, who was a cornfed daughter from rural Illinois. Falling quickly and passionately in love with a seemingly bad boy is another cliché, but the love takes on depth when his musical artistry, tragic past, and dedication to a mission answer an unfocused longing in Elizabeth. A final shoot-out of outlaws in an isolated street in Paris is the inevitable quote from films of the French New Wave, but the lingering realism of the violence makes the scene a sober meditation on vengeance and political terror.

Adrian Martin’s talk the night before the panel and screening helped me understand why he might be particularly attracted to Exposed. Elizabeth is a modern woman in touch with her sexuality, and expresses it in dance before she meets Jelline. Martin talked about the everyday movements and settings that many choreographers and filmmakers turn into dance, and in this scene, Toback creates a believable occurrence that illustrates Elizabeth’s life force. She is working out on an exercycle and talking to her mother on the phone. After she hangs up, she moves to her stereo and puts on a recording of Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song.” The lyrics, talking about how a girl can tell if a boy loves her by his kiss, inspire Elizabeth to dance with an imaginary man in the form of a chair, her exercycle, a wooden support in her apartment—a personal imitation of the self-conscious prop dancing Fred Astaire made iconic in film. Her dancing generates the heat she longs for with a man, and leaves her spent and a bit frustrated on the floor.

The sexuality in the film works on several levels. Elizabeth locks eyes with a blonde woman on a photo shoot in Paris whom she later encounters on her return trip to the city. This woman, Bridget (Marion Varella), is a member of Rivas’ gang and the woman who planted the bomb in the opening scene, and it is her lesbian attraction to Elizabeth that causes her unwise decision to take the model to the gang’s hideout. In addition, Kinski and Nureyev were both sex symbols, the latter particularly for gay men. So Toback ensures that there’s something titillating for everybody. Unfortunately, both foils for Kinski are terrible actors. In particular, Nureyev’s enunciation of English is atrocious, his lovemaking with a woman awkward, and his acting wooden. Because of his central role in Exposed, Nureyev seriously hampers the film with a performance that led to derisive laughter in our audience. If Toback had cast someone with the chops of Keitel and McShane in the role of Jelline, this film might have had a very different reception.

Kinski offers a decent performance, but as a former model and then-current sex symbol, she becomes more than a competent performer. She is the screen for our cultural projections, a symbol of restless youth, liberated women, easy money. Toback subverts all she represents in the final scene—surrounded by death, he desaturates the color until all is grey, like the photo of Jelline’s dead mother in a newspaper and the victims of the Holocaust Jelline shows Elizabeth. The hollowness of the terrorist aims, Jelline’s vengeance, and Elizabeth’s attraction to danger come through clearly on her ashen, sad face, and the film whimpers to a close.


24th 07 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Singing in the Dark (1956)

Director: Max Nosseck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the annals of American independent filmmaking, there is little that is as rare and distinct as A.N.O. Productions’ Singing in the Dark. The production company initials are taken from the last names of the three principals who decided that 1956 America needed a real post-WWII Jewish movie—Joey Adams, Max Nosseck, and Moishe Oysher. These three star-struck Jews had comfortable, but fairly marginal careers in show business, and the experiences of each would find their way into the structure of this somewhat confused, but fascinating film that was only the second American film to have a Holocaust survivor at its center.

Adams (nee Abramowitz), who produced and stars in Singing in the Dark, was a writer and comedian who worked in vaudeville, the Borscht Belt circuit, and nightclubs, and attained some notoriety in New York for his “Strictly for Laughs” column in the New York Post. Nosseck, a German director who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, spent most of his career on Poverty Row making crime films—Dillinger (1945), for Monogram Pictures, is perhaps his best-known film. Last, but certainly not least, Oysher was one of the first celebrity cantors, unkosher in his hambone inclinations toward the stage and screen and jazzy inflections of cantorial repertoire; despite his desire for a big Hollywood career, he mainly recorded and toured, one foot in the secular and one in the sacred, and labored in Yiddish films, including one directed by a landsman well-known to cinephiles—Edgar G. Ulmer. Singing in the Dark is his only English-language film.

So what would you expect from a team like this? A lot of singing, a lot of Jewish-style humor, and some American-style gangsters to please the larger American public. What you’ll also recognize, particularly if you are Jewish, is a certain kind of feeling about Jewishness that I have not found in any other Holocaust-related film I’ve seen. These Jews don’t feel sorry for themselves. They may need help, but they accept it like normal people, not like supreme victims. And Oysher’s survivor is filled with a kind of generosity that cheers people up and attracts them to him; he is the personification of a benevolent god that Jews did not forsake even when they were so forsaken themselves.

The film begins in Germany. Stock footage shows the mass arrests and terrors of Nazism in a frenzied montage. Eventually we see a line of Jews being told to go left or right by a concentration camp guard. A man goes one way, the way toward life, and must watch his mother move toward death. His struggles to reach her earn him a beatdown off camera.

The film flashes forward to the end of the war. An American aid worker, Ruth (Phyllis Hill), is processing refugees who want to go to the United States. When she asks one man about himself, he stands quietly and shakes his head. Another man who was with him in a concentration camp says the man has no memory of who he is, and he and his fellow prisoners called him Leo. Ruth gives Leo an understanding look and says she’ll sort it out. The next scene shows a ship sailing toward New York. Leo and Ruth, now his girlfriend, step onto American soil together.

Leo gets a job as a desk clerk at a second-rate hotel with a failing nightclub called Luli’s Gypsy Paradise. Luli (Kay Medford) is seeing Joey Napoleon (Adams), a third-rate comic with a weakness for gambling. Joey, always hard up for money and owing a tough bookie named Biff Lamont (Lawrence Tierney, who also played the lead in Nosseck’s Dillinger) a lot of money, evades two of Lamont’s muscle men (Mickey Knox and Dave Starr) by telling them Leo is a millionaire and will pay off the debt. When they insist on getting Joey’s story confirmed, Joey tears Leo away from a dinner at the nightclub with Ruth and her uncle (Henry Sharp), a psychiatrist who has been helping Leo try to regain his memory. Leo, nervous about lying to the two thugs, starts drinking for the first time in his life. Lo and behold, he discovers he has a great singing voice that he can unleash when drunk. Joey, seeing a gold mine, signs on as Leo’s agent with a handshake and a quickly scrawled contract.

Leo becomes a headliner at Luli’s, garners rave reviews, and starts packing in the customers. Lamont demands that Joey hand over his napkin contract with Leo to square the debt, and then becomes worried that Leo, who is making progress with his amnesia, will stop singing if he learns the truth. Lamont plots to have Leo conked on the head to erase whatever he’s learned, but in an odd twist of circumstances, Lamont is mugged by his own enforcer (hilariously played by Abe Simon), and Leo, accidentally hit on the head by Joey, remembers everything.

The cheap and ugly sets and silly, threadbare plot certainly make this film far from a masterpiece. The vaudeville shtick, for example, Al Kelly doing his very impressive gibberish routine to the befuddlement of everyone in the film, as well as the audience, offers a bit of Marx Brothers anarchy. Joey Adams isn’t very funny, though I liked his banter with Medford, at her best as a hardbitten dame. Hill has little to do but gaze admiringly at Oysher while he sings and be a prim and proper girlfriend and wife as befits the characteristic prudishness of Jewish audiences.

Singing in the Dark is well worth seeing, however, for the singing and moving performance of Moishe Oysher. The film seems built around his nightclub performances of popular music, which are entertaining, if rather badly served by the cheap surroundings and limited camera work, and his flickering memories. In one powerful scene, Leo lays on the psychiatrist’s couch after receiving sodium pentathol, his eyes closed, his forehead beaded with perspiration, and tears welling in the corners of his eyes. He relates a memory of walking with his father to a place alit with candles, and a blackout takes us to this place, and an outline of a cantor (Oysher playing his own father) standing in the bima and singing a prayer Leo translates as one of peace. Leo remembers that he also sang in the same place for his proud parents, and how “they” came, took him away, and how he never saw his parents again. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this scene.

Scenes such as this, as well as an early one of Leo wandering through a bombed-out temple, were filmed on location in Berlin in the soon-to-be-razed Levetzow Synagogue by none other than Boris Kaufman, who filmed On the Waterfront and who only rarely gets a chance to stretch his skills in this film. Seeing this grand ruin, used as a Nazi deportation center during the war, powerfully and economically sums up the destruction of European Jewry. The temple’s fate under Allied bombs seems a fitting one for a place so defiled that it was a blessing to be put out of its misery.

It is only at the end of the film that the darkness lifts enough for Leo to see the Star of David on the wall of the great building and remember that his name is David and that he was a cantor. When he gives up show business to return to his sacred work with the happiness of knowing who he is, he seems serene, untroubled by his harrowing experiences. While this is rather simplistic, and out of step with Oysher’s real career that toggled between the theatre and the synagogue, I felt rather exhilarated to see a Holocaust survivor find comfort in the one thing that made him a target for annihilation. It has always seemed such a paradox to me that centuries of persecution and murder had not turned Jews away from their beliefs long ago, but this film offers a glimpse of how life-sustaining those beliefs could be. I’m not a believer myself, but I rejoice in the beauty of Jewry this dedicated group of filmmakers unself-consciously revealed to the world.


8th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: The Matchmaker (aka Once I Was, 2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Avi Nesher

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Anyone who reads me regularly knows of my antipathy toward most Holocaust films. Their apparent attempts at ennobling victims and resisters of the Nazis always seem like just the reverse to me: to riff on something director Melvin Van Peebles said about black characters in movies, I suspect audiences just like to see someone suffer. Rarely in my experience have I seen a Holocaust-related movie that shows suffering without exploitation (Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is a very notable exception) or, more importantly, offers some kind of life lesson beyond the eternally paranoid “never again.” I’m extremely happy to report that The Matchmaker, by popular Israeli director Avi Nesher and based on a book by Amir Gutfreund, is a wise and wonderful coming-of-age tale that comments on the misuse and misunderstanding of the Holocaust while showing us a way to live a more gentle, tolerant life.

The film is told primarily in flashback by 50ish novelist Arik Burstein (Eyal Shehter), who is in for some surprising news from an attorney (Ya’ackov Bodo) whom he drives with his elderly father Yozi (Dov Navon) through a war zone in Haifa to meet. The attorney tells Arik that he has inherited the sizeable estate of Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), a matchmaker for whom Arik worked one summer when he was 16 years old. Both Arik and Yozi are thunderstruck at hearing this name, long vanished from their lives, and Arik is even more surprised to find that Yankele kept a story Arik wrote and gave to him during what would turn out to be their last meeting.

We are taken to the summer of 1968, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) is aware of the “doctrine” of free love espoused by American youth, and perhaps only dimly aware of the onset of their determinedly delayed adolescence. Arik is interested in sex, of course, but he goes against the grain of his American counterparts by wishing he were 18 and able to start his compulsory national service in the Israeli armed forces.

One afternoon, he and his friends are approached by Bride, who asks them if they have a brother or sister looking for love. He specializes in matching people who have some problem—physical or mental—that keeps them from attracting a mate. The boys decide to have it off on Bride, and Arik tells him he has a sister with flippers, that is, webbing between her fingers, that have ruined her chances for marriage. He directs Bride to his family’s apartment, and the boys follow him into the building to listen in on what is bound to be a humorous conversation. Much to Arik’s surprise, and his friends’ disappointment, when his father answers the door, he recognizes Bride as an old classmate from Romania and invites him in. When Bride learns that Arik is Yozi’s son, he offers him a job tailing prospective matches to be sure they don’t have any dark secrets that could make his clients unhappy. Arik’s qualifications beyond his family connection are his ability to lie convincingly and his love of detective novels.

Yozi and Yankele are both Holocaust survivors. Yozi chose to put the past behind him and start with a clean slate in Israel; his wife is a native Israeli, and neither of them talks with Arik about the Holocaust. Yankele, limping and with a huge gash across his face, is marked in more ways than one by his dark experiences. He lives “off the map” near the waterfront in the low-rent district people from Arik’s neighborhood only visit when they want to buy something that “fell off the boat.” He and his neighbors feel safer flying under the radar of the government and being near a port where they can flee quickly should the need arise.

Yankele works next to a movie theatre run by dwarves and across from a bagel bakery whose front-loading, coal-fired ovens face Yankele’s glass-fronted office in painful (and obvious) reminder of what 6 million of Yankele’s fellow Jews suffered in Europe. Another painful reminder is Clara Epstein (Maya Dagan), a beautiful woman Yankele loves but can never marry because her memories have left her so deeply damaged that she cannot bear strong feelings—even love; she has left her son in the care of others on a kibbutz so that he won’t be scarred by her emotional instability. Clara works with Yankele coaching his clients in the art of courtship and running a card gambling establishment out of her apartment. Yankele makes his money on the black market, and sees his penny-ante matchmaking business as more than a front—it is a mission to bring love back into the world.

Before meeting Yankele, Arik looked up to Meir (Dror Keren), the local librarian, who guided his literary choices to help him develop as a writer. But Meir proves to be a foolish and obsessive person who believes the stereotypes about Holocaust survivors—the men must have been camp capos and the women forced to be prostitutes for Axis soldiers—and tries to wreck revenge on Yankele when he dissuades Meir from pursuing Clara, whose attentions during his coaching session have set Meir’s heart on her. Through Yankele’s example—trying to find a mate for the beautiful dwarf Sylvia (Bat-el Papura), checking to see that his clients won’t be hurt in a bad match, treating Clara and everyone he encounters with kindness and dignity—Arik learns what being a mensch is all about and comes to love the sad, goodhearted “criminal.”

The Matchmaker is a teeming and brilliantly told story with a mise-en-scène that creates a believable past while still offering a certain timelessness that befits the film’s universal theme of love. The characters wear period clothing that seems somehow contemporary, and even some aspects of Israeli society, like kids as old as Arik being in the scouts, are updated when Tamara (Neta Porat), the cousin of Arik’s best friend Benny (Tom Gal), comes for the summer. The insertion of the rebellious Tamara, brought to Israel from the United States by her Iraqi Jewish father to remove her from the 60s youth culture, seems a bit of a non sequitur, but it is through Arik’s relationship with her that we see how he is developing as a sexual and emotional man. It is also through her that Arik comes to realize that it might not always be a good thing to inform on the people Yankele is considering for matches—that they may have loves and lives of their own with which no one has the right to interfere.

The performances are superlative and believable, with the actors and director affording dignity to characters that might have come off as too tragic, clownish, or freakish. Indeed, this entire film seems to be a plea for understanding, that we try to stand in the other person’s shoes. One moment I particularly liked is when Arik tells Yankele that he knows it’s a good deed to try to help Sylvia. Yankele shoots back, “What? Do you think they are pets? They are people!” Yozi, too, complains to Arik about what the average Israeli thinks about Holocaust survivors, calling The House of Dolls, a popular book about Nazis turning Jewish women into sex slaves, distorting rubbish.

The Matchmaker taught me a lot about Israel when it was still quite young and active in dealing with the fallout from World War II. Most important, it taught me about an aspect of the Holocaust that is often hidden, but that I so hoped existed—survivors surviving and learning to live, love, and try to spread joy to fight against the hardships of life. In these rather bleak times, The Matchmaker is a bittersweet valentine to the human race that might just renew your hope for a better tomorrow.

The Matchmaker will be shown Monday, October 11, 2 p.m., Sunday, October 17, 4:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 19, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)


12th 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

Prisoner of Her Past (2010)

Director: Gordon Quinn

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It has been a Kartemquin week for me. First, I saw No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010). Then, Kartemquin’s cofounder Gordon Quinn opened his film Prisoner of Her Past at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Both films are very personal—the first, a chance for director Steve James to learn more about his home town through the lens of what appeared to be a racial incident, the second, a son’s investigation into his mother’s tragic past. Both films range beyond the immediacy of these personal stories to explore their larger implications—that’s the Kartemquin way. Prisoner of Her Past raises awareness of a phenomenon that many thousands of people are or will suffer from during their lifetimes, thus offering hope that a correct diagnosis and follow-up treatment will help them.

During the night of February 15, 2001, a petite, elderly woman named Sonia Sys Reich bolted from her modest home in Skokie, Illinois (where I make my home), and went screaming down the streets that someone had threatened to put a bullet in her head. The police picked her up and brought her to a hospital emergency room, from which her son, Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, retrieved her and eventually had her admitted to a nursing facility. Mrs. Reich’s delusions mixed her lifelong paranoia with strange rituals and thought fragments that seemed purposeful. For example, Mrs. Reich would take a loaf of pumpernickel bread Howard would bring to her each visit and divide it into exactly 10 baggies; she would keep half the baggies and give the other half to Howard. She also constantly complained that no one was going to turn her into a whore, and that books she was given to read had swastikas in them. What could these actions and thoughts mean?

It took about a year for Reich to receive a definitive diagnosis of what was afflicting his mother. Her psychiatrist, Dr. David Rosenberg, said Mrs. Reich was not suffering from dementia, that she was well aware of the world around her and could interact with it. Rosenberg, who has 40 years worth of experience with Holocaust survivors, said, “Your mother has late-onset PTSD with bells and whistles.” Posttraumatic stress disorder, of course. Both of Reich’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Reich put on his journalist’s cap to uncover exactly what had happened to his mother during World War II in hopes that the truth might help restore her to something of a normal life.

Because Reich’s parents had told them almost nothing about their wartime lives, all he had to go on was his mother’s mutterings, that is, until he opened a letter his mother had received from Irene Tannen, the aunt who had adopted her after the war. Irene had written a letter of concern when phone calls to Sonia’s home went unanswered. Reich barely knew of Irene’s existence. Reich, Quinn, and his crew traveled to New York to interview Irene, another survivor who remained tight-lipped, repeating what many survivors say, that there are no words to describe what they went through. She does, however, come through with a photo of Sonia and Sonia’s grandfather and cousin Leon.

Reich follows the trail to Poland, where he connects with Leon and Leon’s son Peter. They all travel to Dubno, formerly part of Poland but now in Ukraine, where Sonia’s childhood home, the old synagogue, and Leon’s old home are still standing. The people living in the homes are gracious; the pleasant owner of Leon’s home gives him a huge armful of Ukrainian apples, which Leon praises.

Of course, the return to Dubno reveals many of the horrors that Reich traveled to find. A woman takes Reich to a large field which she says holds two mass graves. She witnessed Ukrainian soldiers round up Jews and machine-gun them into pits. A soft snow falls like cold tears on this killing ground. Leon, Peter, and Howard go to a Dubno museum dedicated to the memory of the town’s Jews. Leon and Howard note the complete absence of bystanders in the dioramas showing how German troops rounded up the Jews.

Nonetheless, although Reich never finds out the particulars of his mother’s experience, he walks the streets where she walked, sees the window from which she and her brother escaped the ghetto into which Dubno’s 12,000 Jews were herded by the Germans, and learns a bit about the family from Leon. Sonia Sys’ home had been occupied by members of the Red Army when she was 8, and her family of four shoved into a back room. The Germans invaded when she was 10. Extrapolating from statements Sonia has made, she and her brother spent the next four years hiding and surviving as best they could, working on farms, carefully splitting whatever food they had. Was Sonia forced to prostitute herself? Reich probably will never know. When Leon makes the trek to Chicago to see Sonia, she refuses to speak with him, though both he and Howard believe she knows who he is. Her survival depends on maintaining her denial of the past, just as Dr. Rosenberg warned Howard and Leon to expect.

Quinn and Reich answered questions after the screening. Reich revealed that his mother is still in the nursing facility, and until a recent surgery weakened her, she spent every night sleeping fully clothed in a chair next to her bed. He said his sister discovered what might have triggered her PTSD—the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death. Reich said his father was outgoing, Sonia’s bridge to the world; he couldn’t point to a single friend his mother had made during her 40 years in Skokie. He said that his mother spent every night at the window in their front room, looking out into the street through a small opening between the drapes.

Interestingly, though Reich’s parents settled in the epicenter for Holocaust survivors—Skokie had as many as 8,000 survivor-residents at its height—it took a year for anyone to recognize what was wrong with his mother. Even in Israel, the disorder was not recognized; now, two large centers to help Holocaust survivors with PTSD have been opened. And Reich and Quinn traveled to New Orleans and filmed mental health workers interview girls who survived Hurricane Katrina, recognizing one girl with a flat affect as someone who might be vulnerable to delayed PTSD because she is distancing herself from her experience.

Prisoner of Her Past is under an hour long, and a number of the details revealed in this review I learned from the after-film discussion. While I admire the odyssey Reich undertook with Quinn in tow, the seven years spent on Sonia’s trail don’t come across as completely as they could on screen. I was confused about various relationships, particularly Irene’s. Reich wrote a long article about his mother for the Tribune and used the article as the basis for a book, and I filled in blanks with these two documents. Nonetheless, Prisoner of Her Past presents a touching portrait of Sonia Reich, horribly victimized and horribly haunted. It’s a great place to start learning about PTSD and the need for healing in all the scarred regions of the world.


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.


26th 07 - 2009 | 31 comments »

Defiance (2008)

Director: Edward Zwick

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I have a complicated relationship/reaction to films about the Jewish experience during World War II. The vast majority of the stories deal with the Holocaust. It has even become something of a sick joke that making a good Holocaust film—fiction or documentary—is a fast track to an Oscar nomination. Certainly, an event so singular and dramatic has its own powerful magnetism to storytellers and viewers alike, and several of the best films of the past few years—Black Book, The Pianist—have added considerably to the depth and breadth of our understanding about this horrible time. Too often, however, filmmakers fail to understand that the Holocaust is not a fit topic for every type of film. Life Is Beautiful is a film that plays too fancy-free with the event. Schindler’s List milked it for cheap emotion that helped Gentiles in the audience feel good about themselves.

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My personal problem with these films is that as a Jew I feel unwillingly chained to the Holocaust. Is there any way mainstream filmmaking can catch up to contemporary Jewish issues? A Price Above Rubies was a rare film about the problems of Hasidic Jewish women in America; I loved it and wondered why I couldn’t find anything else like it among English-language films. Why must we be buried year after year under the mantle of Supreme Victimhood? Why must our story be used to distance audiences from the holocausts of the present?

Last year, Hollywood offered us yet another Holocaust-related story called Defiance. The film is based on historian Nechama Tec’s book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, which tells the true story of the Bielski brothers of Belorussia who, in 1941, led a group of Jews from surrounding towns into hiding in the vast Naliboki Forest, where they lived, armed, and defended themselves—their numbers growing to 1,200—until the end of the war. A quote from a commenter on Amazon.com gives some hint about what is different about this film:

If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by mainstream history, it would be compliance. If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by Nechama Tec it would be, and is, Defiance. Her title is an apt one indeed.

The word “defiance” as applied to Jews is a difficult one to pin down. What does the film make of it? I’m not sure that defiance, as in the usual use of the word to describe Jews as stiffnecked about retaining their religion and customs, is right, nor is the implicit defiance of murder at the hands of the Nazis. Talk about the defiance of the stereotype of Jews not being willing to fight, of being delicate intellectuals and compliant women, and you’re getting closer. Ultimately, however, I’d say the Jews of this film defied the odds by surviving the harsh forest conditions for years.

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Our heroes are Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). Both strapping farmers, they discover that the local police, under orders from the Nazis, have been to their farm as part of their round-up of local Jews and have killed their father and mother. A young brother, Aron (George MacKay), hid successfully from the murderers. The Bielskis, later joined by brother Aseal (Jamie Bell), seek refuge in the woods. Soon, they stumble upon others like themselves. Tuvia goes to the home of a sympathetic Gentile to get food and weapons for the group. When the police show up looking for more Jews—and the bounty they will receive for them—Tuvia runs to the barn. There in the rafters are more Jews. Tuvia learns that the police chief (Sigitas Rackys) is responsible for his parents’ deaths. He takes the handgun and four bullets the farmer has given him and visits the police chief’s house. Pleading for his life, the police chief says he always looked the other way when the Bielskis went about smuggling for extra cash. “Ask your father.” “Ask him yourself,” says Tuvia, as he shoots the chief and his two sons.

The Bielskis ask for supplies from sympathetic locals, and failing that, steal what they need. They rob a milkman, who brings Soviet partisans to attack them. Zus and Tuvia have a major rift—Zus thinking they should have killed the milkman to prevent his betrayal when they had the chance, and Tuvia choosing a path he thinks will keep them human in a situation that could turn them all into animals in short order. Eventually, the brothers make a deal with the Red Army partisans to help them in exchange for protection. Zus and some of the other action-oriented men of the community leave to fight with the Soviets, while the Jews clean and repair their clothing and perform other support tasks back at the forest camp.

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As the camp grows, romance sparks. Tuvia and Zus have lost their wives and children to the Nazis. They begin romances with new arrivals Lilkas (Alexa Davalos) and Bella (Iben Hjejle), respectively. Aseal falls for Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), and the pair gets married in a traditional Jewish ceremony presided over by schoolteacher Shamon (Allan Corduner). The forest environs must have made the community feel very safe indeed for them to dance and party to the sounds of the musicians of the group playing their violins and clarinets. Of course, more threats to their safety arise, most seriously in a bombing raid, with Nazi troops hot on their heels. The disheartened Tuvia must be roused by Aseal to lead the community through a swamp, hoping that the troops and tanks will not be able to track and follow them.

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For me, there was an element of Swiss Family Robinson in the building of the log huts in which the community of Jews dwelled. But there was also a sense of the kibbutzim to follow in Israel, where I’m sure some of the survivors emigrated after the war. The stereotypical bad apples, inept sentry Lazar (Jonjo O’Neill), and intellectuals Shamon and Yitzchak (Iddo Goldberg) arguing over a game of chess played with pieces hewn from the surrounding trees suck some of the reality from the situation. It is reinfused, however, when the Jews fight over food after having gone without for days, and with the lovely, deadly flakes of the first snowfall of winter. Zus’ disillusionment with the Soviets after repeated anti-Semitic comments and attacks was inevitable, and sealed when the Red Army retreats with no consideration for the Jewish partisans. I loved that the cast actually learned Russian for scenes played between the Jews and Gentiles. (Among themselves, they spoke English.)

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The acting is uneven. I didn’t like Craig, who never really emerges from the pose he adopts for Tuvia as a strong, but silent type, perhaps with a small messiah complex. He was, for me, the least interesting of the main characters. The women never emerged from their stock characters, and the intellectuals seemed there primarily to populate the film with Jewish types. However, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell really knock their performances out of the park. Schreiber is a believable strongman with an observant and knowing streak—though his Russian comrades respect his fighting ability and fearlessness, he always behaves slightly uncomfortable around them, knowing that their hatred of Jews is never far from the surface. Bell goes from young and sweet to impassioned and adult, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly. He is fiery and inspirational—everything Craig could and should have been had the script been less dedicated to making him a reluctant hero.

As with all new films, this one is too damn long, though I have to say that it isn’t bloated with filler. The true story unspooled over three years, so there was plenty of material to work with, though clearly, many scenes are fictitious or embellished for dramatic effect. Interestingly, this film has been more or less savaged by film critics and has been the object of attack by anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers on the Internet who prefer to paint the Bielskis as nothing but common thugs who brutalized the surrounding Gentile communities to get what they needed and wanted. The latters’ motives are clear, but I’m not so sure what the critics are so upset about. It’s not a great film, but it is an engrossing one that tells its unfamiliar story using the conventions of cinema to pretty good effect. I would have liked the characters to emerge more as individuals and the battles to be a little more sloppy and believable, as it was hard to really feel deeply for the Bielski partisans. Most of all, Craig kind of did this picture in with his flat performance.

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Zwick was smart to shoot as near to location as possible, in Lithuania. With a script that doesn’t deviate too much from a standard action film with stock characterizations, what stands out as formidably real are the unforgiving winters, lack of access to a ready supply of food and medical care, and dangers from wolves, snakes, and other natural elements. Nature supplies the glue that bonds with the better aspects of this film. We might have had just another exploitative Holocaust film without this dispassionate “observer” of the Bielski partisans in action. Nonetheless, I think I’d be pretty happy not to view another of its genre ever again.


15th 05 - 2009 | 4 comments »

The Reader (2008)

Director: Stephen Daldry

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By Roderick Heath

In the film version of Ira Levin’s pulp fantasy-revenge novel The Boys from Brazil (1978), Laurence Olivier plays a fictionalised version of Simon Weisenthal dubbed Ezra Leiberman. As he tries to uncover the machinations of fugitive war criminal Josef Mengele, he visits a jailed female SS guard he caught, Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen). Their interview proceeds uneasily until Leiberman gets to the point of his visit, at which point Frieda loses her temper and unleashes undimmed, venomous hatred at Leiberman. He immediately barks back—the first time in the film his voice has lifted above a pleasant whisper: “You are not a guard now Madame! You are a prisoner! I may walk through that door, but you are not going anywhere!”

This scene kept creeping into my head watching Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, and not just because it’s more fun. It’s an exchange that keeps our after-the-fact moral assumptions of the situation intact and satisfying: righteous survivor faces down the evil Nazi bitch-queen. Toy with this balance and, as some of the reactions to this film show, you’re soon in deep water. In the last Oscar season, Daldry’s film became something of the appointed sacrificial lamb for our contemporary culture’s heightened distaste for eating its greens. The Reader, however, pushes into rich and darkly confronting territory about the nature of responsibility and circumstance.

I might already be giving the wrong impression here about what I thought of Bernhard Schlink’s novel and the film made from it: neither is particularly good. But I have empathy for what both are getting at. I’ve always been decidedly in the camp that feels artistic explorations of the Holocaust are necessary and desirable, even if not pleasant, and the more the better. I feel about this as I do because art is often the only way to stab at the truth left out of history texts. Schlink does, too. As he puts it in an interesting if gracelessly essayistic passage:

When I think about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real…We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reassured until the 1980s, and in intervening years they were out of print. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie’s Choice and especially Schindler’s List, actually moves it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations.

Self-evidently, the trouble this opens up is that one has to be very careful about how one is embellishing. If one creates a work of art to explore a nadir of human existence as a work of moral searching, then one must be very clear about how one approaches that sanctum. Despite the sex scenes, Schlink’s novel is the perfect book for high school teachers to give to teenagers to study (it is a set text in German high schools). It’s short, the writing is simple to the point of tedium, the narration is opaquely self-analytical, and the ambling meditations such as that quoted above are laid out in such a way that’s easy to quote in essays.

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The basic narrative is that old wheezy The Devil and the Flesh business of the sexually awakening boy who has an affair with an older woman with a dark secret, married to a Holocaust guilt theme. Here, the boy is Michael Berg (David Kross), the son of an elderly, disengaged philosophy professor, and the older woman is Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor living out of a cramped, seamy, but impeccably neat flat in Neustadt in 1959. Schlink’s psychological insight is shallow: he never convincingly paints a portrait either of a normal woman who found herself in an intolerable situation and lived with the consequences or of the man who is tied to her to the point where it infects all his future relationships. Schlink genuinely strains to define some obscured truths that inevitably have the most resonance for modern Germans: the limitations of the righteous fury his generation adopted in confronting an evil committed by people they loved. The climactic scene of both novel and film comes when Berg goes to visit a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin), whose brittle, pleasant refusal to countenance the intricacies of Hannah’s story is bound to hit hardest for a people who feel guilty and yet live with contradictions.

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The foreground elements in Daldry’s film of Schlink’s novel, especially Kate Winslet’s bravura performance as antiheroine Hannah and Ralph Fiennes’ haunted turn as the older Michael, make the film worthwhile. Daldry, a wishy-washy director who painted The Hours (2002) in shades of diuretic pastel as a kind of symphony of constipated suffering, mostly does his job by keeping his scenes framed and free of dangling boom mikes. He serves up the dreary obviousness of summery sunlight for days of carefree youth and drizzling dourness in wearied middle age. Daldry and screenwriter David Hare exacerbate faults of Schlink’s novel and invent their own. It’s one of those stories about ambiguity where the ambiguity is artfully contrived. Rather than offer new substance, the film is happy to transcribe almost verbatim. In filming The Reader, it becomes more apparent that it’s largely a standard-issue love story with a darker than usual gimmick for separating and torturing the lovers.

The tale’s crucial Macguffin is the fact that Hannah is a functioning illiterate, a fact that pushed her into situations— from leaving a job at Siemens and joining the SS, through to her final punitive conviction at a war crimes trial. It’s not terribly convincing that she’d be so ashamed of her illiteracy and so unaware of the pain it’s caused her that she’d let it go so far. But leaving that aside, that she learns to read in prison and thus finds a measure of self-respect has been handily dismissed by some critics as a specious celebration of “reading is good” that betrays the gravity of the subject matter—which is itself a pretty stupid assumption. Schlink’s point is about power: the command inherent in education, the possibilities offered by communicative skill, and the lack of liberty imposed by inequality. “Knowledge is power,” we say, without paying much attention to those without power. It’s not the most deeply pursued point in the novel or film. Plenty of educated, entirely self-motivated people got themselves into the thick of the Holocaust, too. But it’s legitimate, nonetheless, that The Reader takes aim at the tendency of societies to use its disadvantaged, malleable members to do their dirty work.

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That Hannah can’t read cuts her off from both history and culture—the whole Western canon that Michael reads to her is a new world—and also from clear lines of empathy. The world is full of incoherent signs and gaps in understanding for her. It’s clear in Schlink’s novel that she uses her new talent to read texts like Primo Levi’s autobiography and other Holocaust survivor tales to understand what she herself, despite participating, only had an outside perspective on: reading is implicitly an act of outreach and understanding. This is an aspect the film fails very badly in realising, to the point of obfuscating Schlink’s core character point. Hannah hangs herself on the eve of being released as an act of guilt: because she is a moral being caught in a situation without clear moral choice, and is no psychopath, she judges herself in a final, moral way. In the book, this is clear. In the film, it seems to be because Michael wasn’t demonstrative enough at their reunion.

Then again, in both book and film, just what Hannah represents seems ill-conceived. Schlink tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by presenting Hannah as both an avatar of guilt and a suffering martyr. In the film and rather more cheaply in the book, Hannah is pushed forward at her trial both by her own honesty and by the other ex-female guards with whom she’s tried as the mastermind behind the death of 300 Jews who were burned in a church. Schlink describes the other guards as fat, ugly, and immoral. Compared to Hannah’s desperate composure and comely features, it’s the cheapest of effects to render her a victim. In the film, this comparison is softened slightly—the other defendants look like women who disappeared into the middle class—but the point is just as obnoxious. Whatever the idea is about the fraught relationship of elders and youth in post-War Germany, it is repeatedly softened and rendered moot by the incompetent melding of the sentimental genre it’s inspired by and the very unsentimental exigencies of the problem at hand.

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Hannah’s brusque sensuality both hypnotises and appalls Michael, and one of the crueler twists comes when he discovers that her habit of making him read to her placed him in the same position as the favourites Hannah would adopt in the concentration camp; likewise a strange analogy is made between Hannah’s complicity in mass murder and her willful use of a teenage boy. That this sits uneasily and unresolvedly with the manipulation to perceive her as tragic victim is something neither Schlink nor Hare and Daldry attempt to resolve. Still, Schlink was well aware of the kink value inherent in the idea of an affair with a Nazi woman, preempting in his novel the many Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS quips fired at the film, when Michael confesses to fantasies of a “hard, imperious, cruel” Hannah and realising the gulf between fantasy and fact. The film has no such wit; indeed, no feel at all for the swirl of culture beyond its own immediate shoals. There are some scenes in a hippie-era university dorm (we know it’s the ’60s because the girls have long straight hair and guitar music wails), and one of Michael’s fellow students gets hot under the collar and speechy about the trial’s lack of moral expedience. But the social resonance is of the academically reduced variety. Only in the inevitably affecting moments when Michael visits Auschwitz and confronts a cold, rough-hewn reality does the film pack real punch.

The Reader is also about sexual intimacy. The film sports copious nudity in the first third, but it’s that curiously aseptic, pseudo-art-film sex where the erotic fumbling is as carefully poised as the camera to keep the dick shots to the permissible minimum. Where The Reader desperately needs some sense of the kind of passion and pain that upends lives, it has only studious, tasteful distance. The film finally feels exactly like the kind of muted, bourgeois, meandering effort of empathy that it’s supposed to be decrying. Kross, with his puffy cheeks and lack of any suggestion of emotional and intellectual depth, is the film’s weakest element, but he represents its lack of chutzpah well. The filmmakers recast the tale under the new generic format of Brokeback Mountain—an aging man forging a relationship with a rejected daughter by revealing a hidden, forbidden love.

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The other actors keep the film buoyant, from Winslet, who gives her ill-defined character as much of her body and spirit as she can, and Fiennes, who plays repressed feeling like a master conductor, even on so small a stage, through to smaller contributions from Olin, and Bruno Ganz, as Berg’s intellectually forceful law professor. Ganz played the same role, more or less, in The Boys from Brazil—the knowing professor who leads the hero into understanding the Nazi plan. This is where I came in. l


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