In 1950, the great actor, producer and Yiddish theater impresario Maurice Schwartz closed down his Yiddish Art Theater in New York. Demand for Yiddish theater had waned. That same year, what were believed to be the last Yiddish language feature movies to be made were released. They were Josef Berne’s “Catskill Honeymoon” and Joseph Seiden’s “Monticello, Here We Come!” While Yiddish theater would haltingly continue, Yiddish cinema seemed over.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, three film students — Josh Waletzky, Sally Heckel and David Greenwald, put Yiddish language in their short films in effort to resuscitate a once vibrant film genre in Poland, the U.S.S.R. and the United States, beginning an effort that continues today with creation of numerous Yiddish shorts along with cooking, fitness and music videos, many posted on YouTube. Then just over 30 years after the presumed demise of Yiddish cinema, a feature narrative was produced by an unconventional Belgian filmmaker who felt that the only way to tell his story on film was in Yiddish. It marked a new beginning.
The release of Keith Thomas’ “The Vigil” marks 50 years since the start of the renaissance of Yiddish cinema. Numerous filmmakers in Europe, Israel and North America have turned to Yiddish as the suitable and correct language for their films and I expect there to be many more. Here are ten for your consideration.
1) "Brussels-Transit”“ (1981)
Samy Szlingerbaum, whose Holocaust survivor parents found themselves homeless and stateless after World War II, made their way to Brussels in search of a safe home. They were not welcome. This young filmmaker who came for several months with his friend Chantal Akerman to New York to learn from some of the most creative experimental filmmakers in the world, returned home to Belgium to put his parents’ story onto film. The motion picture is largely a compilation of avant-garde moving images with Yiddish narration, the only feature film he directed. Screened at festivals around the world, it was chosen to have its New York premiere at the Museum of Modern Art as part of its prestigious New Directors/New Films series. Tragically, Szlingerbaum died of AIDS a few years after.
2)“Az Men Git, Nemt Men” (Giveaway, 1983)
.The early Zionist leaders saw no place for Yiddish in the establishment of a Jewish state and Yiddish was soundly rejected as a language and culture. When the first Yiddish sound movie opened in Tel Aviv in 1930, the theater was smoke-bombed and the film was only allowed to be screened with sound turned off. Though efforts to create Yiddish theater over the years had been thwarted, the arrival of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants and a new generation of Israelis invested in multiculturalism rekindled interest in Yiddish culture. Israeli director Alfred Steinhardt and writer Michael Greenspan brought together a number of actors, including the incomparable Yaakov Bodo and Yaakov Alperin, and created the first Israeli Yiddish feature. Five years later, Yiddishpiel theater was created with public and private funding.
3) “Solomon and Gaenor” (1999)
Paul Morrison is a Jewish psychotherapist living in London who also makes documentary films. While doing research for a documentary series, “A Sense of Belonging” about British Jewry, he discovered that there was a Jewish community in Wales. He also found that there were antisemitic riots in South Wales in 1911 and this became the centerpiece for a “Romeo and Juliet”-type romance between a Welsh man from an Orthodox Jewish family, and a church-going woman from a neighboring town. Morrison wanted a realism that was reflected in religious, cultural, and language disparities between the Welsh-speaking family of Gaenor and Yiddish-speaking family of Solomon. He saw inclusion of Yiddish language as “an act of reclamation for him.” The film was an Academy award finalist for Best Foreign Language motion picture. He has since made another Jewish-themed film, “Wondrous Oblivion” and is working on a third, “The Leningrad Gig.”
Yiddish language became a centerpiece for the early work of French writer/director Emmanuel Finkiel. He was fascinated by the world of Yiddish speakers, a world in which he grew up, and made his first film, a 38-minute short, “Madame Jacques on the Croisette,” shot in Cannes. The film, which won France’s academy award, a César for best short film, spurred him to audition Yiddish speakers for what would be his first feature. That film, “Voyages,” mostly in Yiddish, focused on the lives of Holocaust survivors and garnered Finkiel three more Césars. Most recently, Finkiel inserted a Yiddish lullaby sung by one his Yiddish-speaking actors in his film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ novel “La douleur,” released here as “Memoir of War.” Duras’ novel contained no such Yiddish singer.
5)“A Gesheft” (The Deal, 2005)
For years, Yiddish theater and cinema were treyf in the ultra-Orthodox world, though for most Yiddish was their mame-loshn, their mother tongue. That began to change a few decades ago, as Haredim began to mount not only shpiels for Purim, but Yiddish plays for basic entertainment. Two brothers, Mendy and Yakov Kirsh saw a way to use movies to teach midos — good character traits and love of Jewish tradition, and they put together a film about one of their own who goes rogue. The thrust was to push the notion that there was a way back into the fold for wayward Jews, teshuvah was available, no matter what indiscretions may have been committed.
6)“A Serious Man” (2009)
Going into the movie theater to see a Coen Brothers movie and watching a seven minute prologue set over a century ago in some Eastern European shtetl was quite a surprise. Even more noteworthy was that this mainstream film began with a quote from Biblical commentator Rashi, followed by a story unfolding with actors on screen speaking in Yiddish with English subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It was clear that the two brothers wanted to capture a realist picture of Jewish life at a bygone time. They chose three actors with strong Yiddish theater experience — Fyvush Finkel, Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson for the part, with Rickman helping to rewrite the Yiddish to make it more flowing. Whether this prologue set the stage for the rest of the film, set in 1960s suburban Minneapolis, is left for the viewer to consider.
7) “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” (2010)
Eve Annenberg met Lazer Weiss and Malky Weisz, along with a number of individuals who had left their Ultra-Orthodox world behind in Brooklyn and were hoping to find a place within the artistic community. Working together with them, she crafted a film about a graduate student trying with the help of these two to craft a Yiddish translation of the “Romeo and Juliet” story. As they work together, the two are introduced by this student to an author about whom they knew nothing, along with concepts like romantic love that were totally foreign to them. A film within a film unfolds as Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues become Satmar and Bobover Hasidim, with this intersection of worlds producing often comic moments together with classic tragedy.
8)“The Pin” (2013)
Canadian film director Naomi Jaye did not know a word of Yiddish before she embarked on her first feature. But after deciding she wanted to make a film about two young people trapped in a barn during World War II, she realized that they would only speak to each other in Yiddish, not Lithuanian. Finding no Yiddish-speaking actors with whom she was comfortable, she put out a casting call for foreign-language actors who were willing to learn a new language. Interestingly, with a scene reminiscent of Keith Thomas’s Yiddish horror film “The Vigil” made eight years later, the film begins with a man acting as a shomer, watching over a corpse. He realizes that the dead body is that of a woman with whom he fell in love fifty years early and this sets into motion the film’s narrative. Despite a strong Yiddish-speaking community and Yiddish taught in many Jewish schools across the country, this is the first and only Canadian feature-length movie shot in Yiddish.
Amos Gitai has established himself as one of Israel’s most important and influential film directors, with his work being touted at retrospectives at museums and festivals across the globe. As a trained architect, his films have often challenged the conventions of cinema language and style. He was inspired by Aharon Appelfeld’s part-autobiographical novel because of the novelist’s experiences trying to survive the war and how, as the writer told Philip Roth, “he removed the story of his life from the mighty grip of memory and gave it over to the creative laboratory.” Tsili is young woman hiding in the forests south of Czernowicz in the Ukraine, finding security in nature, when a young man discovers her. Only when he speaks to her in Yiddish does she realize that she remains safe. There was little doubt for Gitai that this film had to largely be in Yiddish. At a screening of the film at Stanford University, Gitai told students that “since Yiddish is on the verge of being extinct, I want to preserve its memory.”
10) “Menashe” (2017)
Four years ago, documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein made his first narrative film about a Hassidic widower who, refusing to remarry, has his son taken away from him. The filmmaker based the story on the precarious situation faced by widower Menashe Lustig who had moved back home to Brooklyn from England, only to have the local rabbi declare him an unfit parent. Lustig had already made a few short comedic YouTube videos and when approached by Weinstein to play himself, he agreed on the condition that the film would be a “kosher” movie, with no violence or the touching of women. Piercing that essentially impenetrable world of the ultra-Orthodox and shooting locally as surreptitiously as possible, this Yiddish-language movie made its way to the Sundance Film Festival. Most recently, Lustig had the role of Reb Shulem, the individual who shepherds Yacov to the home of the deceased, in “The Vigil.”
3/8/21- "The Forward"
Toronto — North of the border, in the cultural capital of Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival has become one of the world’s best showcases of cinema. With a myriad of world premieres, directors and cast members from across the globe in attendance, TIFF has become a go-to place for movie lovers. The list of films screened this year was extensive, with screenings beginning as early at 8:30 in the morning and continuing until after midnight on 33 movie screens spread across downtown Toronto.
This year’s festival featured a plethora of Jewish and Israeli movies: Israel was represented by four feature narrative films and two short subject films. There were four films with distinctly Jewish themes and not surprisingly, three of them are set during World War II.
Here’s a sampling, ranging from an Israeli rock opera, a Yiddish-language horror story, an adaptation of a classic novel by Jerzy Kosinski and a seriocomic story of a German boy and his friend Adolf (yes, that Adolf).
Nadav Lapid’s film won the prestigious Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Set in Paris, it is about an Israeli who wants to become totally French and in doing so attempts to erase his origins. Lapid told me that he began work on this largely autobiographical story shortly after completion of his military service during a time when he was struggling with his identity as an Israeli. Imaginative and ground-breaking, the film will be screened again at the New York Film Festival taking place later this month.
Just as troubling and compelling is Yaron Zilberman’s film, “Yamim Nora’im,” (literal translation “Days of Awe” but referring to the High Holidays). For it’s worldwide release the title was changed to “Incitement.” It’s a look at the radicalization of Yigal Amir, the law student from a nurturing Yemenite family who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Zilberman focuses not only on the perpetrator but also on his enablers. Yehuda Nahari Halevi portrays Amir, from his early days at Bar Ilan University through his failed relationships and his grappling with the politics of the day. The film highlights how he comes to his radical interpretations of rabbinic text, and his eventual decision to murder Rabin. I was not sure if I could sit through to the film’s inevitable ending, but Zilberman tackles the concluding moments with necessary sensitivity.
An Israeli rock opera made its way to the festival this year, conveying a strong message through its edgy and discordant music. Keren Yedaya’s film (“Mami” in Hebrew), is a cinematic adaptation of a musical that had a cult-like following in the 1980s, largely because of its anti-military message. The story follows Mami, a young woman from a development town in the south who wants more from life, but everything changes when her husband returns from reserve duty in a wheelchair. A narrator and orchestra provide operatic structure, and Mami (Neta Elkayam) portrays and empowering lead, fighting for the rights of the marginalized. The eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary music, joined by stunning choreography, makes this work impressive.
Director Oren Gerner succeeded in having me feel like a guest in his parents’ living room, as I watched “Africa,” a film he described to me as a love story about his family. Using a reality-show approach, the filmmaker focuses on retired 68-year-old Meir, who sees himself as irrelevant to neighbors, family and community. Meanwhile, his wife happily goes about her routine of singing in the village choir and conducting her psychotherapy practice. Notwithstanding Meir’s melancholy, Gerner provides an inspirational portrait of Israeli family-life today. The director’s own parents, Maya and Meir, both non-professional actors, are marvelous as the leads.
Among the Jewish-themed films, Keith Thomas’s unnerving horror film, with mostly Yiddish dialogue, is the only one not set during World War II. Set in Borough Park over the course of a day and evening, the film is about a “shomer” who is assigned to stand guard over the body of a dead woman until it is buried. The shomer is a “yotse,” a former member of the charedi Orthodox world. The night that follows includes a demon, violence and exorcism. One thing to consider: Is the Yiddish horror film a new film genre?
Czech director Václav Marhoul’s formidable, nearly-three-hour-long black and white film adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel is about a Jewish boy who is left to fend for himself in order to survive the final months of the war. The youth wanders from village to village through a maelstrom of depravity. Marhoul spares little in his depiction of evil, leaving this viewer numb. If there is one theme that threads the various chapters of the film, it is that small acts of kindness can make a big difference.
The outstanding film of the festival for me was this unlikely coming-of-age film about a 10-year-old Hitler Youth recruit whose imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler. New Zealand director, Taika Waitiki (also known as Taika Cohen), whose father is Maori and mother is Jewish, presents an indoctrinated youth who has been fed venomous hate. We observe the young Jojo’s inner struggle when he finds a Jewish young woman who is being hidden in the attic by his mother. I did not expect to laugh, but chuckle I did. I did not expect to tear up, but cry I did. Waitiki not only does an incredible job as director and co-writer, he takes on the role of Hitler, a portrayal worthy of an award. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo and Scarlett Johansson as his mother are both awesome. This is a story not only about the 1940s, but about our shaken world today.
In first-time director Dan Friedkin’s film, a Canadian Jewish soldier and former member of the Dutch resistance is looking for stolen art in the days following the liberation of Holland. While the Dutch are feverishly hunting down collaborators and seeking revenge, Joseph Piller, played masterfully by Claes Bang, finds himself doubting that a particular artist had aided the Nazis. The Dutch authorities are not amused by this Jew’s involvement. I really liked this film about one man’s commitment to seeking truth and justice in the midst of chaos.
9/26/19 - "The Jewish Week"
INCITEMENT, with Yehuda Nahari Halevi, who plays Yigal Amir, burning a poster of the prime minister
Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry) wants to know more about the whereabouts of her imprisoned husband, so she flirts with Nazi collaborator Rabier, played by Benoit Magimel, in Emmanuel Finkiel’s “Memoir of War.”
In 1996, a French filmmaker auditioned several elderly Yiddish-speaking people in Paris for a short film that he was preparing. At the time, he spoke to me about his attachment to Yiddish culture, his fear that it might be lost, and the special vitality that he believed the Yiddish language held.
His short film, “Madame Jacques on the Croisette,” was released in 1996 as a celebration of a Holocaust survivor generation that he knew would never again be. Several of the actors would be cast in his first feature film, “Voyages,” a largely Yiddish-language narrative film with three intersecting stories about Holocaust survivors; it would be made three years later. The filmmaker, Emmanuel Finkiel, who in actuality speaks no Yiddish, has returned to a Jewish-related theme with “Memoir of War,” based on two chapters from French writer Marguerite Duras’ memoir “La douleur.”
In large part drawing on her own story, after the war Duras had written about her experiences as a woman in occupied Paris in 1944 to 1945, waiting for her husband, Robert Antelme, to return from Dachau. Antelme, whom the Nazis had found to be a member of the Resistance, had been tortured and sent off to a concentration camp. The novel, part autobiography, part fiction, delves into Duras’ deep emotions as she tried to gather information about Robert, sometimes flirting with a French Gestapo collaborator, while attempting to cope with the separation from her husband and her very precarious situation. Marguerite’s relationship with her husband is revealed as complex; she had another lover long before Antelme was deported, and that lover, Dionys, is there with her in Paris. Would Robert return home alive after the war ended? If so, in what condition? Dionys goes to search for him.
Filmmaker Finkiel explores how rather than distancing herself emotionally from her husband during the months of separation, Duras actually might have been drawn closer to Robert.
Finkiel, whose grandparents and uncle were murdered at Auschwitz, approaches the material with a unique perspective. In the France of his youth, the French laid blame for French-Nazi collaboration on the Vichy government. They were far from ready to acknowledge any guilt. Finkiel’s father would share with his son his amazement that in the weeks after Allied troops marched into Paris, the same people who had come out onto the streets to applaud the speeches of Vichy leaders weeks before were now matter-of-factly lauding Charles de Gaulle. Liberation in 1945 called attention to the resistance and martyrdom of the French people, disregarded French complicity, and ignored the singularity of Jewish genocide. Duras did not write much about Jews in her work.
It was not until the early 1970s that the real story of Vichy’s collaboration began to be told, and France’s role in the round-ups and expulsion of Jews was acknowledged. In 1995, Jacques Chirac finally officially acknowledged the French government’s responsibility in the deportation of Jews.
Finkiel introduces an Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Mrs. Katz into the story. She is played beautifully by Shulamit Adar, whose performance in both “Madame Jacques” and “Voyages” is so memorable. Duras’ Mrs. Kats, spelled differently, was classic French, but the filmmaker wanted a character reflective of his own grandparents. The character is Finkiel’s effort to introduce a Jewish story into the postwar French narrative, which largely had ignored Jews.
Mrs. Katz sings Yiddish songs while waiting to see if her dear ones have survived and will return from the camps. The hope for return that she maintains seems even more important than the actual return. In a conversation with me in March, Finkiel reflected on how some survivors, including his own father, continued to wait long after learning the news of a loved one’s death. Is it the same in the film for Marguerite?
Mélanie Thierry is exceptional as Marguerite Duras. Benoît Magimel, as French collaborator Rabier, does a fine job of getting us to hate him. Resistance fighter Robert Antelme’s deportation and journey was like that of French Jews, and Emmanuel Finkiel, the child of survivors, provides us with a powerful film about those who anxiously waited, hoped, and prayed for the safe return of loved ones.
8/16/18 - "The Jewish Standard"
Tim Kalkhof as Thomas prepares dough for his special German cookies in a scene from Ofir Raul Grazier’s “The Cakemaker.”
Some of us were raised not to buy German products, never to ride in a German-made car, and certainly not to visit Germany. But that sentiment has been changing over the years, as Germany has become one of Israel’s greatest supporters and as the number of joint ventures between the two countries has mushroomed.
Anyone who has visited Berlin in the last several years will have heard Hebrew spoken on the street, Israeli restaurants abound there, and a cadre of creative Israeli artists has made it home. As Tel Aviv has become a very expensive place to live, Berlin, with its cheaper rents, has become a go-to venue for artists, and it has evolved into one of the innovative and creative centers of Europe, as it had been a century ago.
Undoubtedly the most pro-Semitic country in Europe today, Germany is a place where Israelis feel quite comfortable.
As a result, we are seeing more German-Israeli film co-productions, and many Israeli movies are shot in Germany. Last year, Avi Nesher’s “Past Life” described the journey of a talented musician, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, who goes to Germany to study and search out her grandmother’s “real” story.
This year, in Eran Riklis’s thriller “Shelter,” Mossad agents provide a German safe house for a Lebanese informer, with the supposed assistance of its intelligence services. Now, Ofir Raul Graizer brings us “The Cakemaker,” a story about an extramarital relationship that begins when Oren, an Israeli businessman, walks into a Berlin bakery to buy pastries for his wife, Anat, back home.
When Oren goes missing, a series of events brings the baker to Jerusalem in order to search for Anat, one lover seeking out the other. Before you know it, the pastry chef is creating amazing cakes in Anat’s new café, and she can hardly handle the business. But here we see the film director’s hand — this German is made to feel unwelcome by Anat’s brother-in-law, and the German’s cakes are deemed not to be kosher. Can this gentile turn on the oven and produce food for Jewish mouths? Through his film, Graizer raises important questions about inclusiveness and acceptance of the outsider, the other, in Israeli society.
These days, when Anthony Bourdain’s death eclipsed all other news, and where Michael Solomonov’s “Zahav,” about the world of Israeli cooking, was selected as the centerpiece of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s “One Book, One Community” program this year, cooking and baking are very much a part of our lives. This was not lost on filmmaker Graizer. Not only do we go to the cakemaker’s bakery in his film, we also are introduced to many German delicacies in it. It makes us want to rush out of the theater for a taste. And in the Jerusalem café where the pastry chef makes magic, Israelis seem just as excited about the sweets on the menu.
As the film’s action shifts back and forth from Berlin to Jerusalem, it touches on mixed feelings about the new Israel-Germany love affair. It delves into questions about family, sexuality, acceptance and nonacceptance of difference, and religion in Israel. It also magically pushes the power of the Shabbat experience.
In an interview with the filmmaker, Graizer told me that he developed his screenplay from the story of someone close to him who lived a double life. In fact, he told me, he knew many people who had these secret lives, and he wanted to dig deeper. Graizer always has been proud of his Jewish and Israeli identities, he said; he moved to Berlin in order to “redefine himself,” as he put it. He felt freer in Berlin to develop his film than he would have had he stayed in Israel. He also told me about his love for baking and how this culinary talent was so dynamic, drawing from many traditions and having symbolic meanings. “Just consider the mixing bowl of ingredients,” he said.
Graizer succeeds in infusing these elements into this powerful film. In it, the baker, whether he is kneading dough or simply opening the oven door to reveal the awesome product within, expresses a variety of feelings and passions.
This is Ofir Raul Graizer’s first feature film. What a terrific way to begin his career! Sarah Adler, whom you may have seen in “Foxtrot” earlier this year, is extraordinary as Anat, and the music, by Dominique Charpentier, is exceptional. This is a film definitely worth your consideration. “The Cakemaker” opens nationwide today.
6/26/18 - "The Jewish Standard"
Rachel Weisz as the estranged daughter who returns to sit shiva for her father in Sabastian Lelio’s “Disobedience.”
This has been a year of cinematic introspection about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world — and not everyone is happy about it.
A few months ago, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady delved into New York’s chasidic community with “One of Us,” a beautifully photographed documentary that focuses on three people who each sought to leave his or her group.
The film, first screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September, now can be seen on Netflix. In it, we first are introduced to Etty, a woman in the midst of an ugly divorce, who is seeking to break free from her traditional Jewish life while retaining custody of her children. Hers is a battle that appears impossible to win, as communal forces step in and mount a campaign against her, asking how the community possibly could allow the loss of any of its children. The filmmakers’ portrayal of Etty is sympathetic, and we are led to believe that this is a woman hoping to break free from some cult, in an effort to save her children. But is it so?
What Ewing and Grady make us consider is whether in today’s world, what happens here is appropriate and correct. Does a mother have any rights in determining the kind of future she wants for her child? The New York court weighed in, adjudicating in favor of the father and the community.
“One of Us” reflects a growing interest in the insular world of charedi Jewry, often perceived as exotic. This is not new to the cinema. The foreign, the different, the unknown, the forbidden — all often are seen as the ingredients for great cinema. The world of chasidim was the subject of narrative films like Sidney Lumet’s 1992 “A Stranger Among Us,” Boaz Yakin’s 1998 “A Price Above Rubies,” and Maxime Geroux’s 2014 Canadian film “Felix and Meira.” It is not surprising that in each of these three film narratives, one of the main characters is either seeking to break away from his or her Jewish world or flirting with that decision.
All of this is just a backdrop for the release of “Disobedience,” a film directed by Sebastian Lelio and based on Naomi Alderman’s book, just screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and now playing in local theaters.
Set in London’s Hendon neighborhood, the film begins with the venerated rav of a shul giving a drash about the divine nature of man’s free will, setting the stage for a key question raised in the film. Are there limits for choice? And just how great a role do halacha and community play in a person’s life? In the midst of his delivery, the rav falters and falls to the ground. Shortly thereafter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), his estranged daughter who is living in New York, learns of her father’s death and returns to sit shiva in his house.
Most of the community greets her with mistrust and apprehension, but her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the rav’s disciple, who has been groomed to take over as the community’s rabbi, welcomes her warmly. He invites her to stay with him and his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams). Ronit, Dovid, and Esti grew up together, but years before Ronit had chosen to break free of the frum world of her childhood and leave for America, where she charted a new life. She now must confront what she left behind, what may have been lost, and the consequences of that loss, including the opportunity for a rapprochement and a proper goodbye to her father.
Ronit’s return is a difficult one, made even more difficult when she discovers that her father’s obituary says that he had no children.
“Disobedience” struggles with the very essence of community and choice. The film deals with the tension that you feel when struggling with the choice to stay true to the universe into which you are born. What happens when you perceive that world as inhibiting you and denying a core piece of who you are or want to be? What are the repercussions of breaking away and heading into the unknown? In “One of Us,” we learn that Etty will lose custody of her children and be completely ostracized, and that she will be forced to ponder her future, away from her family and friends, in a world of unknowns. In “Disobedience,” Ronit sought a new life in America, but has she found fulfillment for herself, her dreams, and her passions?
“Disobedience” also probes a different question, the question of relationships that are outside the perceived norms of traditional Judaism. In the world uncovered in the film and largely in the broader Orthodox Jewish universe, just how much allowance is made for sexual relationships outside of marriage between a man and a woman? What kind of sexuality does Orthodoxy allow and encourage? Director Lelio and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz give us a exceptional drama that pushes these questions.
The performances by Weisz and McAdams are masterful. McAdams in particular is deft at playing the rabbi’s wife, who loves both teaching and the man with whom she lives. Nivola makes us admire him as a warm, caring, and nurturing friend, husband, and rabbi. Each of the three struggles with the tension between wanting to belong and wanting to be free. Their struggle and choices are what makes this film so powerful.
This is a film that asks whether there is room for free will and disobedience in Jewish life and to what extent may that be permitted or even encouraged. The film is rated R for strong sexuality. It is strong, compelling and provocative.
5/4/18 - "The Jewish Standard"
Adel Karam as Tony, a Lebanese Christian, embroiled in a conflict with Yasser, a Palestinian, in today’s Beirut. “The Insult,”
a film by Ziad Doueiri.
Eight years ago, something quite remarkable happened in the Israeli film industry.
Ziad Doueiri came to Israel to make a film.
A foreign filmmaker shooting a film in Israel was not all that unusual, but a Lebanese Muslim filmmaker — that was ground-breaking.
To Israel’s credit, Doueiri was given the freedom and support he needed to shoot his film. The film, “The Attack,” was about a Tel Aviv-based Israeli Arab doctor, highly respected by his Jewish and non-Jewish colleagues, who finds out that the suicide bombing that took place not too far from the hospital where he worked was perpetrated by his own wife. The film, a powerful look at the integration or non-integration of a highly respected citizen of Israel who was an Arab, was powerful. Not only was it screened theatrically, but it also was shown at Jewish film festivals all across North America.
Doueiri, whom I met at the time, told me that he was raised in Beirut to hate Jews and Christians, but had an eye-opening experience when he went to San Diego to study filmmaking and actually met and worked with Jews and Christians, some of whom became close friends. The hatred with which he was raised quickly turned into a need to better understand difference and causes of conflict. After years in Hollywood, he returned to Lebanon in 1998 to make his first feature film, “West Beirut.” Shortly after, he fell in love with a Lebanese Christian woman, whom he married and who co-wrote “The Attack” and his new film release, “The Insult,” opening today in Manhattan.
“The Insult,” set in today’s Beirut, is about a Palestinian, Yasser, who is assigned by the local municipality to fix a code violation, a drainpipe that runs out onto the street. The pipe comes from the apartment of Lebanese Christian, Tony, who is angry that someone came to make the repair without first getting his permission. Yasser — an interesting choice of name — who lives in a nearby refugee camp, and Tony, a Muslim with a strong bias against Palestinians, begin to argue.
Symbolically, the pipe that drains off residue is broken, insults are thrown, and a full-fledged conflict caused by this minor plumbing problem erupts. Writer/filmmaker Doueiri takes a story about a minor infraction and builds a motion picture about how one insult leads to another, and how indifference and an inability to communicate between two people — two sides — leads to disruption, hurt, family dissolution, and eventual disaster.
Neither the Lebanese Christian nor the Palestinian refugee is able to see the human character of the other. Outside parties try, but they don’t seem to be able to ameliorate the situation. The late Middle East conflict resolution strategist Stephen P. Cohen of Teaneck wrote, “Acceptance means defining an end to the conflict and inviting the former enemy to share in its benefits.” Neither man seems ready to do that.
Cohen continued, “It will be difficult to achieve reconciliation while dignity rests so heavily on success in perpetrating brutality against the other.” When might something that begins as a petty quarrel end? In taking note of the growing disrespect that each side has for the other, Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma provide us with an exercise in understanding how conflict evolves.
After making “The Attack” in 2012, Paris-based Doueiri was encouraged to stay away from his home in Lebanon. Because he had broken Lebanese law by visiting and working in Israel, he was considered an outlaw. Here was a Lebanese Muslim employing Israelis and turning his back on the BDS movement. Some people even labeled him a Zionist.
Doueiri eventually did go back to Lebanon and he filmed “The Insult” there, with the assistance of the police and the military. But when he returned to Beirut for the film’s premiere several months ago, he was arrested at the airport for having visited and worked in Israel. His enemies finally had prevailed on the authorities.
After a short detention, the filmmaker was released, and all charges were dropped. In the end, Lebanon submitted “The Insult” as its Oscar submission for best foreign language film.
It is unusual that I turn to a Lebanese film to review in the Jewish Standard. But because Ziad Doueiri’s unusual connection with Israel, and because “The Insult” is a film that struggles with conflict and its possible resolution, it is a must for anyone trying to understand Lebanon, the Middle East, or even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Doueiri masterfully avoids political statements, but he lays out an amazing scenario for analysis. There is no blame placed on any one party. Though this is not a film about Israel, it provides the viewer with an unusual perspective on how not recognizing the humanity another person can lead to disaster, no matter on which side you stand.
1/12/18 - "The Jewish Standard"
Yonatan Shiray is an Israeli soldier stationed at a checkpoint in Shmuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot,” this year’s submission by Israel for the Oscar for best foreign language film. Starring in the film are Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler.
The worst possible thing that can happen to the parents of a child in the army is to see a cadre of army officers, about to knock on their door or ring their doorbell.
Shmuel Maoz’s brilliant Israeli film, “Foxtrot,” begins in this way, as we arrive, on the backs of these carriers of dreadful news, at an Israeli couple’s apartment. Most Americans can relate to this only from a handful of films or television shows that show such scenarios, but for Israelis, tragically, it is not such a farfetched reality. Over the years, it has been all too common. Most Israelis know firsthand someone who died during a terrorist attack or military service.
In “Foxtrot,” Michael and Dafna open the door to their home. Immediately, without a word uttered, they understand why these people are there. Dafna faints and the medic immediately drugs her and takes her away to her room. Over the next several minutes, in what seems an infinite amount of time, we watch Michael struggling with his grief. Writer-director Maoz does not spare us for one moment, as Michael, in extreme close-up and presented from a multitude of camera angles, tries to make sense of the loss of a child.
Maoz wants us to delve into the psyche of this wounded parent, a child of Holocaust survivors, who has grown up in the pressure cooker we know as Israel. In his childhood, Michael learned early on that he could not complain, that he had to repress his emotions, because his parents’ life had been hell and he had it so much better. Compounding this intergenerational transmission of suffering and anxiety, he had fought in wars, experienced the horrors of those encounters, and had his own post-traumatic stress disorder. With this tumultuous history, who can face the worst of all life horrors, the loss of a child?
I had an opportunity to talk to Shmuel Maoz at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The 55-year-old director had served in I.D.F.’s Tank Corps during the First Lebanon War. Shortly after the hostilities began, his commander ordered him to fire on a suspicious vehicle. The enemy in that war did not wear a uniform; it was never quite clear whether the man Maoz killed in the car was a bad guy. He has struggled with that ever since.
Then, years later, as a parent, one morning he told his eldest daughter that he no longer would pay for her to take a taxi to school when she overslept, and he sent her off to take Bus #5. Half an hour later, he learned that the bus had been a terrorist target and that dozens of riders had been killed. With the city’s cellular circuits overloaded, he waited for more than an hour for news. Then his daughter walked in the door, telling her dad that she had just missed catching that very bus. “How do I deal with such moments?” he told me. “That hour was the impetus for this film.”
It seems that with each new film, the acting of Lior Ashkenazi, who plays Michael, only gets better. Beginning with his breakout role as a young Georgian bachelor in the 2001 film “Late Marriage,” opposite the late Ronit Elkabetz, he had starred in such films as “Walk on Water,” “Footnote,” and last year’s “Norman” with Richard Gere. His acting is absolutely mesmerizing. Joining him in a standout performance is Sarah Adler as Dafna, who after waking up from her drug-induced sleep, also must contend with the harrowing news.
But this film is not just about the encounter in the apartment. There are two more acts in this classically crafted film. In Act Two, in flashback, we get to learn about Jonathan, their soldier son, and his tour of duty. We get a sense of what it is like for a soldier on a remote Israeli border to have to check passing cars, an act that could bring about his imminent death. Act Three is far more complex, as we are forced to confront a situation where issues that possibly should be out in the open are repressed and kept from being discussed and debated. In many ways, this is Maoz’s allegory, his call-out for a more open society.
“Foxtrot” is an exceptional work of art that transcends politics and psychology. Though laced with humor, not everyone will feel good watching a film that can be seen as challenging aspects of Israeli society. Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, took direct aim at the movie, which was supported in part with Israeli tax dollars. Without even seeing it, she claimed it to be offensive and denounced it as “contributing to the anti-Israel narrative.”
“Foxtrot” is a film made by an Israeli, in a society that not only allows for but actively encourages artistic expression. “Foxtrot,” the winner of the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and Israel’s submission for the Oscar for best foreign language film, is passionate and insightful and should be a must for anyone who loves Israel. The film opens today for a brief one-week theatrical run in New York City. It should reach neighborhood theaters in late winter.
12/7/17 - "The Jewish Standard"
Two Jewish men detrain in a small Hungarian village in Ferenc Torok’s “1945,” with story and screenplay by Gabor Szanto.
The train pulls into the depot, and we watch the stationmaster taking special note of who gets off.
The opening scene of a new Hungarian film seems to be straight out of Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 masterpiece, “High Noon.” Almost! In screenwriter Carl Foreman’s memorable screenplay, outlaw Frank Miller comes to Hadleyville with the clear intent of killing the man who sent him to prison. Now out of jail, he is in town for one reason only — to seek revenge on Sheriff Will Kane. Who in town will join with the sheriff to fight Miller and his gang?
In many ways, the movie was writer Carl Foreman’s contemporary commentary on an America that allowed citizens with unpopular views and associations to be blacklisted, shunned, and at times even imprisoned. Who came to their defense? Who was ready to fight for justice, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly? We quickly learn that the lawman is left very much on his own. Nobody seems ready to stand with him.
What writer Gabor Szanto and writer-director Ferenc Torok give us in their powerful new movie, “1945,” are two Jews coming to a Hungarian village to… what exactly are they going to do?
The war has ended, the Nazis are defeated, Soviet soldiers are keeping the peace. We see a black-hatted, black-cloaked older Jewish man with a nicely trimmed white beard getting off the train. He is accompanied by a youth in his late teens with dark scruff on his face, also black-hatted and black-cloaked.
These two are not outlaws, but they do seem to be outcasts, and certainly they are unwanted. Jews had not had a presence in this village since the day, not too long before, when they were herded away, most to their death, on those same train tracks. The stationmaster is stunned when the two arrive. Why are they there? Are they seeking out revenge of some kind? Who have they come to take on? Will the town stand strong in unity? Will the constable be left alone with these strangers? And what might be in the two heavy black crates that are pulled off the train and placed on a wagon?What exactly do these Jews want?
Off goes the railway official to warn the police chief and villagers as the two men begin their trek to town, walking behind what looks like a horse-drawn funeral caisson carrying the black crates.
This is Torok’s sixth film, and he does a splendid job of showing us the perspectives of various villagers who follow the wagon and watch its Jewish escorts arrive in town. He is a master of creating shots through windows, doors, and cracks, allowing us to come up with our own interpretation of what each observer sees.
There is no color; cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi effectively uses black and white to create striking visual textures.
It has not been long since Jews lived comfortably among these villagers, so why such curiosity? So what if two Jews come into town? Exactly what is the point of Szanto’s story? We will learn that there are many stories, apparently tales that most people in the hamlet might have hoped would be buried and lost. This film seems intent on making sure that some of those accounts are shared, and that nobody forgets them.
I was fortunate to meet both Torok and Szanto in New York last week. Szanto, a novelist, poet, and editor of a monthly Jewish journal in Budapest, had written the short story upon which the film is based 13 years ago. He spent the next decade working with Torok on adapting it for cinema. I asked Szanto, a Jew, and Torok, a non-Jew, why they made the film. They told me that they wanted to “move in a totally new direction in a telling of the post-Holocaust period in Hungary.” They chose to “parallel a story of returning survivors with that of guilty villagers.”
I asked them how the film was received in Hungary, and whether they were at all concerned by the perceived move to the right these last years. In 2014, 20 percent of Hungarians voted for Jobbik, a party often compared to the pro-Nazi Iron Cross of the war years. The two kept reassuring me that although the film looks at how Jews were treated both during and immediately after the war, it was widely applauded in Hungary. Audiences and critics accepted it and loved it, they told me. And there were no death threats.
“1945” is a powerful observation on what Jews who survived the war in Europe and returned to their homes found when they got home. Some found temporary hospitality that waned with the years, and some suffered indescribable cruelty and tragedy. They were left with unavoidable questions: What did the non-Jews who watched their neighbors, friends, and business partners sent off to die think? What did they do? What happened to the homes the Jews left behind? What happened to their belongings?
In “1945,” two Jews return. They may not be the same Jews who had left just months before, but in any event, they are back. Would the town sheriff gather the townspeople and seek justice? Would he be left alone to investigate, or simply fend off these Jewish interlopers? And what of his responsibility for upholding the law?
“1945” is beautifully photographed, raises important questions, and gives us a perspective on a Hungary seemingly ready to tackle difficult questions.I highly recommend it.
11/8/17 - "The Jewish Standard"
Noa Keller is Michal, in Rama Burshtein’s “The Wedding Plan” Here, she is trying on a wedding dress, for a ceremony where the groom is not yet known.
Rama Burshtein simply got tired of seeing film portraits of her ultra-Orthodox Israeli community in a negative light.
This is what the Israeli charedi filmmaker told me two weeks ago, when we chatted, just down the block from the theater where her film “The Wedding Plan” had screened the night before at the Tribeca Film Festiival.
“I came out of pain,” she said. “I saw a film that spoke about my world, but it was so untrue. I can tolerate voices that are not mine, as long as there is another voice, which I thought was really lacking. So I felt that I studied all those years to actually practice that. I was 40 years old and not looking for a career.”
The American-born Burshtein had studied filmmaking at the prestigious Sam Spiegel Jerusalem Film School before she made her shift to a totally observant Jewish life. Once she was part of the ultra-Orthodox world, she married, had four children, taught filmmaking to young charedi women in a high school, and then decided to try her luck making movies for the growing number of charedi women who turn to cinema as an entertainment venue. Going to the movies has become a women-only event, and a growing number of trained charedi women filmmakers in Israel are making films exclusively for that community.
Then it was time for her to break out and make movies for a much larger audience.
Burshtein immediately caught the film world’s attention with “Fill the Void,” which won the Israeli Ophir Award as the best film of 2012 and went on to play at the New York Film Festival. It told the story of the sister of a woman who dies in childbirth; she is pressured by family and friends into marrying her brother-in-law, so the child will be raised within their community. Burshtein showed total command of cinema form in that first film, and she does so again with “The Wedding Plan.”
Charedi women are the heroes of Burshtein’s two films, and she celebrates them beautifully. Burshtein’s women are “restrained out of choice,” words carefully chosen by the writer/director. They are “totally committed to the halacha and not to the way people act.” Burshtein is not a filmmaker who holds back on her comfort level as a charedi woman, putting onto the film canvas the everyday life of her community. She has received the heksher of her rebbe, though she told me that her rebbetzen has shared some concerns about her filmmaking. The professional actors who play the lead roles in her films always seem to have a special glow and exude a love of life.
Noa Koler as Michal proves that an actor does not have to be charedi to play one. She shows unbelievable range as a 32-year-old woman who somehow has not yet been successful in finding her man, her bashert, her intended. Worse, as a hozeret bitsuvah (“returnee” to Judaism), she may not have made it to the top of the most wanted bride list. But no! Rather than go to Tinder or sawyouatsinai.com, she turns to what appears to be a Moroccan shawafa who lops all kinds of goo over her in an effort to ward off the evil spirits that must be thwarting her matrimonial efforts. It is scenes like this that lighten and brighten our special look into a world unknown to many of us.
Rama Burshtein does not shy away from struggling with the theme of desire in “The Wedding Plan.” Michal seeks love. She wants a man to be by her side. She clearly states in words and action her desire and belief that she can have what she wants. “The essence of everything is desire,” Burshtein told me. “The desire to find love, and the belief that it is possible to find that love.”
Michal does find that shiduch, that match that is finally put together for her. A wedding date is set for the last day of Chanukah and all looks good — until the khasn, her future groom, backs out. Now what? Other dates? New introductions? Prospective husbands of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities? But no future husband seems to be in the offing. Now what? Despite these developments, Michal opts to put down a deposit on a wedding hall, giving herself the eighth night of Chanukah as a deadline for finding her man.
And so begins her search for love and companionship, which includes a visit to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine. Yes. Maybe the rebbe will look after her and see her through this journey!
Rama Burshtein gives us a film that is sure to delight and entertain you. She shows a mastery of filmmaking that makes this film just simply fun to watch. Alfred Hitchcock marveled at cinema’s ability to enter worlds beyond our scope as spectators and Rama introduces us to a charedi world generally closed off from our sight. Watch it and enjoy!
5/11/17 - "The Jewish Standard"
Richard Gere in a scene from Joseph Cedar’s “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”
For millennia, Jews have prayed for a return to Zion, and Zionist dreamers and thinkers sought the creation of a normative Jewish nation, a state like any other state, with its beggars, prostitutes, and yes, criminals.
Who could have imagined a State of Israel with prime ministers being investigated, and a member of the Knesset and a president of the nation joining a prime minister in serving time in prison? Israel has become a “nation like any other nation.” In “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” Joseph Cedar gives us another piercing narrative societal study of contemporary Israel, its politics, and its machismo.
In his first film, “Time of Favor” (2000), the American-born Israeli film writer and director looked at the Hesder yeshiva movement and the various misconceptions and fractures within and without that community. Next, in his 2004 “Campfire,” he provided an insightful study of life, particularly for women, within the Israeli settlement world. Cedar’s “Beaufort” (2007), set within an army fortress across the Israeli border in Lebanon, took a compelling look at average Israeli soldiers forced to live with each other in close proximity, bogged down in a war that they can’t quite comprehend. Then there was his 2011 “Footnote,” the film that almost won him an Oscar, about two parallel players, father and son, vying for attention in a very competitive academic setting.
What do his films have in common? And what does this extremely talented filmmaker bring from his previous work to this one? One theme emphasized here is empathy for the outsider who struggles to achieve acceptance and entry to a world that bars him or her from coming in. That is the story of Norman.
Norman Oppenheimer, played skillfully by Richard Gere, is a Jewish fellow on the periphery looking to gain access to the high-powered life of New York Jewry and Israeli society. He lacks the resources, the contacts, and the intellectual acumen to be part of the inner circle, until a few chance moments provide him the entry he long sought. He meets and coincidentally befriends a mid-level Israeli government official (Lior Ashkenazi) who one day would become prime minister of the State of Israel. To tell you more would spoil how beautifully director Cedar weaves this tale of one man, about whom we pretty much know nothing, who comes out of nowhere to become a central player in Jewish and Israeli circles, sought after for his insights and access.
Gere, who flew to Israel for the opening last month, gives one of his best performances. He is perfect as that person you may remember meeting at some party, who seems to know everyone, yet nobody you ask about him knows him. Lior Ashkenazi is fast establishing himself as one of Israel’s premier male actors, with exceptional work dating back to such films as “Late Marriage,” “Walk on Water,” and Cedar’s “Footnote.” Steve Buschemi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Hank Azaria, and Josh Charles join these two in cameo appearances. Cinematographer Yaron Scharf does a great job in capturing on film the shallowness of Norman’s life through moving shots in alleyways and celebratory halls. And editor Brian Kates, from Teaneck, is superb in his exquisite editing of the contrasting worlds of each of the players.
There are interesting similarities between the tale spun by Cedar in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” and the one that brought down Prime Minister Olmert, who ended up in prison. In 2008, Long Island macher and businessman Morris Talansky testified in an Israeli court that he had given his friend Ehud Olmert $150,000. Talansky told about how he would go to hotels and give Olmert cash-filled envelopes. Though investigators assumed that the money was for Talansky’s benefit, they could not identify business ventures from which Talansky would gain. So why did he do it?
The drama caught the attention of the Israeli public, already dazed by several corruption investigations of the prime minister, but this picture of envelopes stuffed with dollars in hotel lobbies really tarnished Olmert’s image. Any Israeli watching this film will make the connection immediately.
As an American-born filmmaker schooled in moviemaking in New York and creating cinema in Israel, Cedar has had to feel on the perimeter of the tight network of Israeli-schooled filmmakers. He also is a Jew who comes from a traditional home, and this immediately makes him different. In a powerful way, this theme of “outside wanting in” continues to punctuate his work, with Cedar creating each film more brilliant than the one before.
“Norman” is not only the study of one man, but a deliberation on the Jew throughout history, and a consideration of Israel, a shunned nation of Jews not only seeking normalcy but acceptance.
4/21/17 - "The Jewish Standard"
Jessica Chastain does a fine job portraying Antonina, the “Zookeeper’s Wife,” a film based on the true story of two “Righteous Among the Nations” individuals who saved Jewish lives during WWII.
A film about cages and freedom, then and maybe also now!
I wasn’t sure how I’d react to “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Do we need yet another Holocaust film, I wondered. Did the film’s producers adapt another story about the murder of Jews for their own profit?
But this is a film about individual heroism, about people who risked everything in order to battle evil and save lives, about light in the midst of darkness. In the film, some Jewish lives are lost and many are saved. It is a saga that was not well known until the writer Diane Ackerman discovered a diary that would become the basis for her book and the source material for this film.
In the 1930s, Warsaw was a center of Jewish life, home to more than 350,000 Jews, who made up about 30 percent of the city’s total population. It also was home to one of Europe’s finest zoos; Dr. Jan Zabinski was highly regarded not only for the zoo he oversaw, but for the popular books about biology and animal behavior that he wrote. Working by his side, his wife, Antonina, an author of children’s books about animals, helped to care for the animals and run the zoo.
When Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939, the zoo suffered extensive damage and was forced to close. Many of its animals were killed in the bombings. The Zabinskis soon realized that their zoo grounds now could provide refuge for another species in danger of extinction — their Jewish friends and neighbors. What took place at the zoo during the war years provides the framework for what is an incredible story of two heroes, Righteous Among the Nations, who risked everything to save Jewish lives.
The visual contrast between a zoo that kept animals barred inside and a ghetto, just down the road, where Jews were kept behind barbed wire and walls, is powerful. Director Niki Caro and her crew worked extremely hard to create a world where both animals and human beings are confined for the amusement of others.
Both people and animals were in an alien environment — the only difference was that at least at first the animals were well cared for, while the Jews simply were being held for the slaughter.
Caro uses the cages in the zoo and in the ghetto to make her point. When the Nazis arrive, they seem to have the same disregard for some of the animals, shooting them at will, as they do with Jews. Though we see suffering on the streets of the ghetto, and eventually we see its destruction, we also see the incredible impact that a few good people could have. It was those same cages that once held their animals that the Zabinskis would use for Jews’ escape route. Director Caro and her cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, masterfully shot through those cages into dark places and shadowed hallways. That was the pathway to salvation.
Unlike in the ghetto, where confinement was a prelude to deportation and death, the zoos’ underground cages provided safety and comfort.
Jessica Chastain gives Antonina a strong presence. We watch Antonina’s character develop as she moves from the periphery, as a wife whose job is to assist her husband, into a woman who shows immense courage and takes control. She becomes the overseer of the safe haven and the engineer of the underground escape route. We watch her develop as a woman and as a human being, even as she takes greater and greater risks and the danger surrounding her intensifies. Chastain does a masterful job in the role.
Johan Hardenbergh provides a compelling portrayal of Antonina’s husband, Jan. The Flemish actor is soft and sensitive when the role calls for it, but at other times he is forceful and dynamic as the non-Jew who grew up with Jews and would not accept bias and hatred. In moving scenes, Zabinski twice goes to Dr. Janusz Korczak (Arnost Goldflam), the famous author and orphanage director, and offers him an opportunity to escape to freedom. The second time, Korczak explains that he cannot leave his children. Instead, he asks the zoologist to help him put the children onto the freight train headed for the death camps. He does not want them to panic. Niki Caro’s direction of this scene is incredibly powerful. Every time that yet another child is lifted onto the death train another wound is inflicted on the viewer.
Daniel Bruhl does a fine job as the predatory Nazi Lutz Heck, and Israeli actors Efrat Dor and Iddo Goldberg, as Jews sheltered and saved by the Zabinskis, give moving and real portrayals. Tel Aviv native Shira Haas as the young Urszula, who leaves the ghetto psychologically damaged but comes alive on Passover eve to initiate a seder in hiding, deserves special mention. Harry Gregson-Williams’s musical score is superb.
How can a film set during the Holocaust be a feel-good movie, especially for Jews? Don’t get me wrong! I sat on the edge of my seat for a great deal of the movie. I worried about the growing power that Heck held over Antonina. As the Nazi in charge, what would he do?
Niki Caro does a fine job in navigating the screenplay, by Angela Workman, from suspense to pathos. In an odd touch, as the war comes to an end, little Jewish stars are painted on the walls of the zoo. When I asked Caro why she did that, she said that she just wanted to “honor those who had passed through the zoo, and that seemed like a lyrical and appropriate way to do it.”
This film honors not only those who survived, but those who sacrificed much and risked all to save Jewish lives. It is a film that must be seen.3/31/17 - "The Jewish Standard"
Tal Brody being lifted up by Maccabee Tel Aviv basketball teammates after a 1977 European Cup victory in Dani Menkin’s “On the Map.”
It is not only a film about one of the great underdog dramas in sports, it also is the story of Israel’s quest for recognition as a nation among the nations.
Sixty-nine years ago last month, Jews around the world were anxiously waiting to hear the results of the vote on Resolution 181 at the United Nations in New York. It was a vote about partition of mandatory Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states. In the weeks before the vote, it appeared that there simply were not enough votes from the then 56 members in favor of partition. Lots of backroom maneuvering and arm twisting would ensue, but when the vote took place on November 29, the world body voted in favor of partition. When the British were about to leave the following May, there was sharp debate within the Jewish leadership about whether to declare a Jewish sovereign state, because support around the world seemed tepid.
In spite of this, David Ben-Gurion, who would become the new country’s first prime minister, proclaimed the existence of the State of Israel on May 14. He knew full well that many countries around the world were not prepared to accept the new nation into the world community.
Ben-Gurion defied outside efforts to delay declaration of the new state. He understood that there were many forces working against the recognition of Israel, just as there had been in the fall of 1947. The Soviet Union made clear that it would recognize Israel, but the United States appeared not inclined to do so. The CIA and the State Department boldly advised against creating a state, claiming that it was ill advised and making it fairly clear that creation of a state would be rebuffed here. Zionist leaders understood that getting American approval, and with that America’s friendship, was most important. They also knew that the task was a daunting one. We now know that at one point President Harry Truman was under such pressure from American Jewish and World Zionist leaders to extend United States recognition to the new state that he simply stopped seeing Jewish representatives. Finally, with some coercion from the president’s former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, Truman agreed to sit with Chaim Weizmann.
The result of that meeting would be a diplomatic coup, recognition of the State of Israel by the United States. Recognition from Israel’s neighbors and from countries around the world was and still remains a key issue for Israel.
So from the very beginning, Israelis understood that many nations around the world had no interest in recognizing a Jewish state. What did Israel try to do to change attitudes? They sent shlichim (emissaries) to Asia and Africa. Israeli doctors volunteered in far-off places. Israelis shared technology with third world countries. The idea was “If you get to know us, you will like us”!
Just five years after the Olympic tragedy in Munich, Israel fielded a basketball team that had every hope of making it to the finals at the 1977 European Cup, a competition typically dominated at the time by Spain and the U.S.S.R. But as the athletic event moved forward, the question about recognition arose again. The Russians, now 29 years after their enthusiastic endorsement of the new state, had broken relations with Israel, and so the Soviet team refused to play the Israelis. How could negotiations bring the teams together? If it succeeded, how would the Israelis fare against a much more seasoned Russian team?
It defied all logic that an Israeli team spearheaded by New Jersey-born Israeli new immigrant Tal Brody, joined by a broad mix of players of all religions and colors, could be so good that they could challenge the best in European basketball. But at that magic moment, Israel seemed ready.
Though the final Euro Cup would be played and won against Spain, it was Israel’s game against the U.S.S.R. that was the most historic. Refusing to allow the Israelis to play in Russia, the Soviets finally agreed to play on neutral ground in Belgium. Before the game, coach Ralph Klein, a Holocaust survivor, told his players, “We are fighting for our country as well as for the thousands of Jews who cannot immigrate to Israel because of Soviet policy. Let’s beat the Soviet bear.”
A lot seemed to be on the line that day, as David went into the arena to play against Goliath. Once again, David would win. On the court after the victory, an excited Tal Brody announced “Israel is ON THE MAP, not just in sport, but in everything.” It’s noteworthy that his words were not “we are the best,” but rather a statement that time was ripe for Israel’s recognition in all spheres.
This is but one of the fascinating stories that filmmaker Dani Menkin brings to the screen in his superb “On the Map.” It is a delightful feel-good film that includes interviews with Brody, several of the other players, NBA great Bill Walton, Ambassador Michael Oren and Natan Sharansky.
What is exceptional about Menkin’s film is that this is not just about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s quest for the win. It is about a deflated post-Yom Kippur War Israel that despite the heroic Entebbe rescue a year earlier was feeling pushed away by a world trying to ostracize it. On that basketball court, Brody, Aulcie Perry, Miki Berkovich, and their teammates were vying for recognition and acceptance.
The victory against the U.S.S.R. and later against Spain’s team, as Brody noted, succeeded in putting Israel “on the map.”
12/8/16 - "The Jewish Standard"
Elite Zexar’s powerful narrative provides insight into Bedouin culture and society. Winner of Israel’s Best Motion Picture of the year, the film also garnered Zexar the award for best director.
Plain and simple — Israeli cinema can match up today with cinema from about any other country.
With new funding sources from both within and outside the government, and with co-productions with other countries, we are witnessing a quality of filmmaking that can make us proud. And what’s even more exciting is that Israeli filmmakers are tackling all aspects of Israeli life in their narratives, and their documentaries are winning prizes all over the world. This week, Shimon Dotan’s “The Settlers” is showing at the New York Film Festival and Elite Zexer’s “Sand Storm” is playing at Film Forum in New York City. Dotan’s work is a documentary about Israelis who are living in territories Israel conquered during the Six Day War, and Zexer’s is a narrative about a Bedouin community. It is in Arabic with English subtitles.
Most Israelis see the Bedouin as semi-nomads whose tourist tents they may have slept in or whose coffee they might have sipped. For first-time feature filmmaker Elite Zexer, they are family.
The future director, then 25 years old, joined her mother, a still photographer, more than a decade ago on a photo shoot of Bedouin women from neighboring villages in the Negev. That trip had a lasting effect on Zexer; her fascination with Bedouin life and culture made her want to put some of the stories she heard on paper. When she began to study filmmaking at Tel Aviv University, it became clear to her that she had to put one or more of the stories onto film. After producing a short film set in the community, she has now made her feature film debut. It is a terrific look into a world most of us know nothing about.
Zexer’s “Sand Storm” has taken the Israeli film community by storm. The Israel Film Academy selected it as the best motion picture of the year and therefore it is Israel’s submission to the Oscars this year. Zexer was picked as best director, an amazing feat for a first-time movie-maker.
Most Israeli Bedouins live in the Negev. During Israel’s War of Independence they were caught in the thick of battle, and many chose to flee to neighboring lands. The Israeli government pushed hard to get the Bedouin who remained to commit to living in a specific place, particularly as developing the Negev became a priority for the new state. A variety of problems developed as the Bedouin, who had their own unique culture, history and social order and were used to moving freely, now were confined to live within demarcated areas. Their ability to support themselves worsened, and today Bedouins are ranked toward the bottom of Israel’s socioeconomic ladder. According to a 2010 Knesset report, “unemployment is high and education level is low in comparison to other minorities.” On top of that, the Bedouin’s fertility rate, at 5.5 percent per year, is one of the highest in the world. That means that there are always more mouths to feed. And although a large proportion of Bedouin serve in the IDF, they have never been able or willing to integrate into the greater Israeli society. In “Sand Storm,” Zexer gives us a rare and unique opportunity to learn about the Bedouin.
It should come as no surprise that Zexer’s focus is on women and their status within this community, where tribal laws and customs prevail. The film begins with a father and daughter arriving in their village, and throughout the film Zexer uses entrances and exits as a unique way to exhibit the fragility of the female presence in this patriarchal world. Layla has been away, studying at Ben Gurion University, where she encounters a new social culture. Now she is back in her village for her father’s wedding to a second wife. Her father has three daughters, it is never clear whether he is marrying again to try to have a son or just because he wants to — about 25 percent of Bedouin men have more than one wife. So how does her mom react, and how does this 18-year-old feel about having another woman in the household? And what will be her fate, now that she has reached marriageable age? Layla is being given the luxury of a college education and interaction with an outside world, yet she knows full well the limitations posed by the strict traditional world in which she lives.
It is clear from the beginning of “Sand Storm” that Elite Zexer — who after all is a photographer’s daughter — is a filmmaker with a keen sense for lighting and ambiance. Shooting in a gorgeous desert landscape, she brilliantly uses its hues and the overpasses and underpasses that weave their way through the sands. There are clear and open passageways and dead ends and tunnels to nowhere. Zexer plays with different color schemes to emphasize and contrast different situations — the wedding, where there are separate pre-nuptial events for men and women; the bridal suite, and the home’s interiors and exteriors. Even Layla’s and her mother’s departures and arrivals are visually powerful as we track their standing within the village and the various physical and communal obstacles that may keep them from shaking things up too much. It is wonderful to see Layla’s younger sister survey the action through an outside window, just like we, the spectators, do.
In a recent conversation, Elite Zexer talked to me about her affection for and obsession with Bedouin life. The film’s story is based largely on a true one. Many Bedouin women study on a university campus, where they see a different set of rules. But what are their choices? What are the consequences they and their families face if they break these rules?
“Sand Storm” is exquisite and visually stunning. The actors, most of whom are non-professional and all of whom are native Arabic speakers, had to learn Bedouin dialect; Bedouin women are restricted from acting in films. Not for the first time, Israelis have to watch an Israeli film subtitled into Hebrew. That an Israeli Jew could make an Arabic language film, and that it could garner such honors, is a tribute to Israel and the government funds that supported its making. Elite Zexer is a filmmaker to watch; I hope that this first feature is an indicator of many more superb movies to come. I am going on record, without yet knowing anything about the competition, to predict a first for Israel — an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film.
10/8/16 - "The Jewish Standard"
Rachel Weisz plays historian Deborah Lipstadt in Mick Jackson’s “Denial,” a film about the libel case against Lipstadt for having identified Holocaust deniers.
It is not unusual to learn that while audience members may love cinema with Jewish themes, they have little interest in seeing more films about the Shoah.
The plethora of Holocaust movies that have been on the screen have, sadly, turned off a number of cineastes. I often make the point that there is much to learn from each new movie. Films made around the world not only tell us about aspects of the Shoah with which we may not be familiar, but also offer a great deal of information about the country and culture in which it was made. Case in point — several of the superb Holocaust films made the last few years are from Germany and Poland.
Films made recently in this country or the United Kingdom are of special interest. Edward Zwick’s 2008 “Defiance” put forward a Hollywood-style look at resistance, with the good guys — the Bielski brothers, torn between waging a fierce armed fight against the Nazis and protecting a community of Jews hiding in the forests. The next year, Quentin Tarantino provided us with “Inglourious Basterds,” a fairy tale-like story about a platoon of Jewish American soldiers who take on the task of assassinating Hitler. Then there was Simon Curtis’s 2015 “Woman in Gold,” which had an Erin Brockovich feel to it. It was about the crusading lawyer who manages to extract a prized piece of stolen art from the Austrian government for the family of the original Jewish owners. Each one was a “feel good as a Jew” film — but, with the possible exception of the Tarantino film, far from brilliant. Now, Mick Jackson has directed “Denial,” the true story of an academic’s fierce battle to prove that the Holocaust actually happened, and the strategy waged by the legal team that had the task of proving it.
“Denial” has us join Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt in her classroom as she teaches a course about the Shoah. Having us meet Lipstadt provides a wonderful teaching opportunity, and Jackson uses it to launch the film. The Holocaust denier David Irving is in the class, and he challenges the scholar on her facts and asserts that the Shoah never happened.
This is the essence of the film. The question left to producers Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff was where to go with the story. What kind of film was this to be? Could it possibly replicate the importance of last year’s Best Picture Oscar-winning “Spotlight” in taking on an important issue and setting the record straight on fact, not fiction?
That Holocaust denial has become more widely accepted around the world and had to be refuted was clearly an underlying issue for the filmmakers. The question was what approach to take. David Hare, who had done a brilliant job adapting German author Bernhard Schlink’s novel, “The Reader,” for the screen was hired to write the screenplay. In “The Reader,” a former Auschwitz guard is put on trial in Germany; the film’s best scenes take place not in the courtroom, but in a law school lecture hall. In “Denial,” Hare moves most of the action from Lipstadt’s classroom, the site of the encounter, to a British courtroom. Irving has sued Lipstadt, claiming that she libeled him in a book she wrote. The next question to be answered is whether she will settle with him out of court or defend herself in the United Kingdom. Under British law, the burden of proof lies with the defendant; she is guilty of libel until proven innocent.
The film has us get to know and admire Lipstadt, who seems always to be jogging. She’s smart and Jewishly identified; she clearly loves her research and life’s work. Lipstadt has lectured in our community several times and is a force to be reckoned with; I can testify to that, having attended graduate school with her. She finds herself defending the truth — that is not a role she had chosen for herself, but it is one for which she is fit.
Rachel Weisz does a superb job playing Lipstadt, and though her Queens accent sometimes is missing, she comes across as likable and admirable. Hinting that she sees herself as a modern-day Deborah, a warrior like her biblical namesake, may be taking it a bit far, but there is little doubt that a legal victory for Irving, a man who claims that the Shoah was a made-up event, would have been a disaster for historicity and the memory of the Six Million.
Some of the more powerful moments in the film come when Lipstadt must choose between allowing survivors to testify or deny them this opportunity in order to win the case in a British court. Her connection and interaction with one such survivor is a highlight of the film. Another momentous scene is when Lipstadt sits at the dinner table with wealthy British Jews who advise her to settle with the denier quietly rather than bring undo attention to England’s Jews. Back to the 1930s and 40s, with Jews hiding under the table?
What could be better than watching some of Britain’s foremost barristers and solicitors putting such an abhorrent man on the witness stand and proving his falsehoods to a far-from-empathic British public? Oh, if such a stage were readily available for today’s purveyors of lies and falsehoods! But does this make great cinema? It could have — we have seen many a great courtroom drama prove it. But “Denial” somehow does not make the mark. Far too much time is spent on legal strategies and not enough on the personalities at the heart of the story.
If you are looking for a film that shows the good guys — us — beating the bad guys — those who hate us — then this is a film for you! I must tell you that I left the screening pleased with the outcome but dissatisfied with what I felt could have been an outstanding motion picture. The film does showcase brilliant performances by Weisz, Timothy Spall as Irving, and Tom Wilkinson as Barrister Richard Rampton. Want to feel good? See it!
9/30/16 - "The Jewish Standard"