An Education (2010) is a coming-of-age film based upon a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barbour, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby. A British schoolgirl, Jenny Mellor (played by Carey Mulligan) accepts a lift home from school from an older man, David Goldman, played by Peter Sarsgaard. The year is 1961, and the girl feels hemmed in by middle-class rules. She is afraid that the world is passing her by, until the charming man in the car offers her glamor and romance. She accepts his offer, and receives an education: to say much more would spoil any surprise the viewer might find in this film. The film won 18 awards out of 48 nominations, including 3 Oscar nominations, and it was critically well-received.
An Education‘s Jewish content and controversy begins with the fact that the David Goldman character is Jewish. Anti-Semitism twice figures into the plot in an overt manner: first, before David’s entrance, Jenny’s father (played brilliantly by Alfred Molina) refers to Jenny’s non-Jewish suitor as a “Wandering Jew,” summoning up a figure from European anti-Semitic folklore. Then, when Jenny is about to introduce David, who has told her that he is Jewish, she taunts her father to watch himself, since David is “a wandering Jew.” Mr. Mellor blusters that he’s not an anti-Semite, it’s just a figure of speech, etc. etc. and is thereby silenced regarding whatever opinions he might have regarding David’s Jewishness. The second overt anti-Semitic moment in the film comes when Jenny tells the school mistress (played by Emma Thompson) that she intends to marry David:
Headmistress: “He’s a Jew? You’re aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?”
Jenny: “And you’re aware, I suppose, that our Lord was Jewish?”
Headmistress: “I suppose he told you that. We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that’s absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.”
Jenny’s response? She prefers to spend his money and live glamorously than to do the boring work of study, and she insolently suggests the headmistress prepare better for the next time a girl wants to know why she should get an education.
The casual viewer might see the film and say, as many have, that David’s Jewishness is incidental to the film, or merely an opportunity to display the narrow-mindedness of the conventional middle-class British mindset of 1961. Indeed, the screenwriter has said that the character is Jewish only because the real con man in the memoir was Jewish. However, as the Lynn Barber observes in an interview about the process of making a her memoir into a film, a lot of other details were changed on the way from one medium to another, so it seems quite fair to ask: why is this detail left in place?
This points us towards a question of a much deeper, more pervasive anti-Semitism in the film, an issue originally raised in an article in the Jewish Journal. David fits many of the ugliest stereotypes purveyed by anti-Semites, indeed, precisely the attributes of the Wandering Jew cited in the beginning of the film. He is an urban and urbane character, at home in the fashionable salons about town. He makes his money by speculating on property values in middle-class white neighborhoods he deliberately devalues by importing black residents; he is an art speculator and a petty thief. When challenged by Jenny about his thievery, he justifies his crimes by citing his lack of opportunity, “We’re not clever like you.” He eventually emerges as having made a hobby out of the ruin of nice English girls. In short, he is the personification of the parasitical Jew in Der Erwige Juden (The Eternal Jew, 1940). In fact, “Der Erwige Juden” is the German name for the figure of The Wandering Jew.
I confess I did not see this on my first viewing of the film, but upon reflection, it is all there and it’s quite nasty, whatever the intent or non-intent of the filmmakers. I was not certain of it until I stumbled across a review of the film by a prominent anti-Semite, who writes that the film is a parable about the seduction of young people’s minds and souls by evil Jews. I’m not going to cite or link that particular item, because I prefer not to give such garbage additional press. My point is that whatever the filmmakers did or did not intend, this film contains certain specific tropes regarding Jews that act as a magnet for a certain type of deranged person.
I wish they had left out the “Wandering Jew” business, and if it is not essential to the film that he’s Jewish, then why make a point of it?
The Anti Defamation League has gone on record saying that they don’t think harm was intended. After reading interviews with the filmmakers and the memoirist, I tend to agree. However, I think that the meme of the Wandering Jew is strong stuff that a filmmaker should use only in a very intentional manner, and that this film is fodder for haters.