Category Archives: France

Monsieur Ibrahim

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

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God is Great, I’m Not

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

Grand Illusion

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

Live and Become

L&BLive and Become (2005) [French title:  Va, vis et deviens] is a wrenching tale of exile and assimilation, both topics that resonate for Jews.  The twist, for Jewish viewers, is that the central character is an Ethiopian who at age 9 is pushed by his refugee Christian mother into a group of  Falashas, Ethiopian Jews who are rescued from Sudan by “Operation Moses.”  For the rest of the film, Schlomo (a name he is given by the Falasha woman who adopts him) has to hide his birth as a Christian while assimilating into a new Israeli Jewish identity.  The film follows his life until age 30. The film is not short (140 minutes) and is in Amharic, French, and Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Commentary

This film explores many topics, framed in the immigrant’s experience:  issues of identity, of racism, of perseverance, of family.  It is a valuable and moving film on many different levels.  What struck me, for our purposes here, is that it is the best window I’ve seen into the emotional process of becoming Jewish.

Schlomo’s conversion, if it is a conversion, is highly irregular:  he is adopted on impulse by a Jewish woman who has lost her son, just as she leaves a refugee camp with a group bound for Israel. Before she dies of TB, she hurriedly schools him in his new family’s history and warns him that he must keep the secret of his birth.

Schlomo (played by Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe, and Sirak M. Sabahat) does as he is told by his birth mother and his first adoptive mother:  he lies.  Out of the original lie, however, emerges something much more genuine:  Schlomo pursues a Jewish education, becomes knowledgable enough to best another young scholar in a competition, and becomes a patriotic Israeli.

So how might this connect to the American convert to Judaism?  There are echoes of the refugee experience for some new Jews:  there are losses (the old life, sometimes even the old family) there is prejudice to face (“you don’t look Jewish, you aren’t really one of us”),  and there is the struggle to assimilate into Jewish community, to learn not only the intellectual content but a million small things that every Jewish child (supposedly) knows: Chanukah songs and  jokes about matzah, for instance.  There are new foods to encounter:  gefilte fish and chopped liver, presented with pride by a Jewish cook, are an excruciating experience for some on the first taste.

Questions

There was no beit din, no brit milah, no mikveh:  but if Schlomo is not a Jew, what is he?  The Falasha rabbi with whom he forms a bond (played by Yitzhak Elgar) says that he had misgivings about the first adoption when it took place, but their conversation implies that he has come to see Schlomo as legitimately Jewish.  With his mention of the adoption and naming of Schlomo by Hana, whom he knew to be one of his Jews, he suggests that Schlomo perhaps did not need the intention to convert that would normally be asked of an adult.  Once he was living in Israel, if he pursued a proper conversion, he’d have been deported to the camp in Sudan (and presumably that would have been a death sentence for a child whose mother had disappeared.)  So is he Jewish?  And if not, what should happen?

The film also raises questions about the tension between Torah and the realities of a modern State.  How shall we reconcile the rules of the Law of Return with the commandment to love the stranger [Deuteronomy 10:19]?

Au Revoir, Les Enfants

AuRevoirAu Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) is based on the childhood memories of the great French filmmaker, Louis Malle.  During World War II, he attended a Catholic boarding school in the countryside of France.  One day, the Gestapo raided the school and captured three Jewish students and a Jewish teacher, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz and died there.  The headmaster of the school was arrested for giving shelter to Jews; he died at Mauthausen.   (The headmaster, Pere Jacques de Jesus, was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations and memorialized at Yad Vashem in 1985.)  Malle was eleven years old when these events happened, and they haunted him.  Au Revoir, Les Enfants is the film he made to tell the emotional truth about that experience.

In the film, a pampered French boy, Julien,  has been sent to a religious boarding school in the countryside by his mother, who is worried that Paris has become too dangerous during the war.  There he becomes intrigued by a newcomer named Jean Bonnet, whom he gradually realizes is a Jew in hiding.  The two become close friends, and when the Gestapo raid the school, disaster strikes when Julien inadvertently gives Jean’s identity away.  As the headmaster is led away by the students, he calls back to them, “Au revoir, les enfants!”   [Goodbye, children!}

Commentary

This is among the most powerful of Holocaust films, even though we never see the camps and we only occasionally see a German soldier.  Rather, Malle shows us the terrible losses suffered, and the slow grinding pace at which they proceeded for many French Jews.  Julien misses his mother terribly, but she comes to visit at every school holiday.  Jean misses his mother, too; he carries her last letter with him all the time, but he has not heard from her in months and by the film’s end we realize he will never see her again.  The French boys in the film are normal boys, and they are busy having a childhood despite the fact that a war is in progress.  The Jewish children, however, have a terrible shadow over them; their awareness of that shadow colors even the small pleasures of life.

The film does an excellent job of showing the many different opinions about Jews among French Christians, from the most anti-Semitic bigot to the gentle headmaster.  It also has a brief but poignant investigation of the banality of evil.

The end of the film raises for us the guilt of the helpless bystander.  In real life, Malle did not betray a Jewish child, but his choice to make Julien accidentally betray Jean in the film is brilliant, because it throws a bright light on the guilt that the helpless real-life children felt, watching their friends led away by the Gestapo.   It makes it impossible for us to rationalize that Julien shouldn’t feel guilty; we are drawn into his misery.

Au Revoir, Les Enfants is a magnificent film, one of the finest ever made about the Holocaust.

The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob

MadrabbijacobengThe Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973) is a classic French comedy directed by Gérard Oury starring Louis de Funès as Victor Pivert, a wealthy French industrialist who believes that everyone who is not white, Christian, and native-born French should go back where they came from — and if they were born in France, they should simply go away, out of his sight.

His life, however, is on a collision course with education.   On the way to his daughter’s wedding, he discovers that his trusted chauffeur Salomon is (oh horrors!) a Jew.  He stumbles into the hideout of a gang of murderers hired by an Arab government to kill a revolutionary, Mohamed Slimane, played by Claude Giraud.  He himself is kidnapped by Slimane, and after a madcap chase in the Orly airport, winds up disguised as Rabbi Jacob, a beloved rabbi from New York who has come to visit family in France, who just happens to be the uncle of the chauffeur, Salomon.

Thus begins the reeducation of Victor Pivert, and the mad adventures of “Rabbi Jacob.”   This film gleefully tackles the serious topics of racism and multiculturalism, holding out a vision of what might be possible if we were all forced to “get over it.”

Commentary

The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob is a timeless comedy that has only improved with age.    The humor is suitable for children, and still funny for adults. It is a great film for adults and children to share, because something in the film will be accessible and entertaining to nearly everyone, even those who don’t like or can’t read subtitles.

The message in the film is treated with a light hand, but there is a moment near the end of the film that approaches profundity.  Salomon and Slimane, the Jew and the Arab politician, acknowledge their kinship and shake hands.   Then everyone dashes off to be silly again.

The Jewish material in the film is authentic, especially the scenes in the synagogue.

Questions

Some viewers may wonder, after watching, why I tagged this picture as a film to watch for  “Jewish values.”  Watch the Jews in the film:  what Jewish values do their actions express?  How serious is Salomon about Shabbat, about hospitality, about loving and protecting “the stranger”?  Why is Rabbi Jacob so beloved?

Shoah

200px-Shoah_filmShoah (1985) is a documentary about the Holocaust made by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann.  The film is 9 1/2 hours long, and it includes interviews with survivors, guards, and townspeople, forty years after the events it describes.  It focuses on the death camps, and on what happened in them.  Lanzmann did not use any archival film footage:  every moment of the film was shot in the 1980’s.  (He insists that because there is no archival film, the film is not a documentary.  However, it is almost always classified as such.)

Commentary

There is an eerie quality to the ordinary middle-aged and older faces as they speak:  they look utterly ordinary but they say extraordinary, dreadful things.  Lanzmann presses his subjects to go into minute detail about their experiences, and while any small part of the film is “too much information,” the sum total of it is horrific and hypnotizing. And just as the faces are ordinary, the areas in which the camps were located is quite beautiful; we see scene after scene of lush European forests and countryside.  In many cases, what is left of the camps is just foundations, or memorial stones.  The only evidence for what happened there is in the voices of the interviewees.

In the case of the Germans who were interviewed, most of them were filmed secretly; they believed they were providing information anonymously.  Lanzmann also interviewed Polish bystanders, people who did not work in the camps but who were aware of them nearby.  He interviewed bystanders more for their attitudes about Jews than about details of the camps.  What emerges is a picture of a populace who had some idea what was happening, and who might have had some vague misgivings about it, at most.   Some bystanders say on the record that they are less ambivalent:  they disliked the Jews in their towns and were glad that something bad happened to them.

This is not a film for the faint of heart, nor is it a film which children should see.  The details reported by survivors and guards are horrific; the attitudes expressed by bystanders are equally so.

One of the challenges in watchng Shoah is that interviewees spoke German, Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish.  Lanzmann interviewed them in French, through an interpreter.  When the interviewees are speaking, we hear them in their own language, at length, without subtitles.  The subtitles come during the French translator’s speech.  This slows down the film considerably, but it allows the viewer to focus on the faces and facial expressions, which are sometimes more eloquent than the words.

The question remains:  why make such a film?  Why watch it?  Lanzmann was making a record of the workings of evil, interviewing survivors who were already aging, most of whom are dead at this writing.  This is an attempt to capture what can be captured before the witnesses are gone.  The film is an excellent way to get beyond the soft-focus treatment that Hollywood inevitably gives the subject.  Shoah is in no way entertainment, and it is absolutely not for children.