Tag Archives: Anti-Semitism

An Education

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.

Commentary

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.

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The Pawnbroker

The Pawnbroker (1965) is one of the first Hollywood films to deal with a Holocaust subject.  It is the story of  Sol Nazerman, (played by Rod Steiger) a survivor of Auschwitz, who runs a pawnshop in Harlem.  He is, as he says, “surviving” but he has become a frozen shell, unable to allow for human connection.  He supports the remnants of his family but feels little connection to them.  People come to his pawnshop, but he feels no connection to any of them, either.  He has taken on an assistant, Jesús Ortiz (Jamie Sanchez) a young man who is attempting to turn his life around.  The film follows Sol through a crucial few days in which his defenses gradually fall apart, as the tragedies in his past crowd in upon him.

Commentary: This may be one of the earliest films about the Holocaust, but in many ways it is still one of the most effective.  Sol’s sufferings and losses are seen only in post-traumatic flashbacks, so we experience (a little bit) his fragmented existence.  Director Sidney Lumet chose to shoot the interiors of the pawn shop in as claustrophobic a manner as possible, every shot hemmed in with bars and grids.  He makes it clear that Sol has never left the camps; he internalized them.  As another survivor observes, he is the “walking dead.”

It was a bold and insightful decision to portray the Holocaust not as a coherent story, but in the splintered memories of a survivor.  In the film, the Shoah is not an event of history, it is a personal cataclysm.  We catch a glimpse of what was, and  receive a hint of the Sol’s agony.  No special effects, no explicit torture scenes, could convey the horror as well as these shattered bits shot in black and white, criss-crossed with the wire cages of the pawnshop.  Steiger’s performance is excruciating, and it is no surprise that it was nominated for an Oscar.

Not every survivor of the camps  was a Sol Nazerman, and the film makes that clear.  Every individual who survived the camps had his or her own private horror.  That fact sometimes gets lost in the grand sweep of blockbuster films like Schindler’s List or the historical detail of documentaries like Shoah.  What the Pawnbroker reminds us is that while the evil of the German death machine may have been impersonal, the tragedies it inflicted were highly personal.

Video Bonus: The original trailer for The Pawnbroker is available on the TCM website.

Liberty Heights

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.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) was described by its creator, Quentin Tarantino, as “a spaghetti western but with World War II iconography.”  It is a fantasy about a group of Jewish American soldiers “The Basterds”) who travel around occupied France hunting down, killing, and scalping Nazis.   The film opened to an enthusiastic box-office and mixed critical reviews.

Reviews

After talking to friends who had seen the film, I decided not to view it.  The violence level in this film is far beyond my tolerance.  Instead, I will point you to some reviews around the web:

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times)

Manohla Dargis (New York Times)

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)

Tassoula’s Movie Review Blog

thumbsupordown

The Movie Blog.com

Bugsy

Bugsy (1991) is a fictionalized, romanticized film about the last ten years of the life of Jewish gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, played by Warren Beatty.  It begins in 1937, when Siegel was sent by the Mob in New York to California to develop gambling rackets on the West Coast.  “Bugsy” (known by that name because of his violent temper) became enchanted with the bright lights of Hollywood and with his vision of a luxury gambling casino and hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The film traces the story of his growing passion for the hotel (the Flamingo) and his love affair with Virginia Hill, played by Annette Bening.  Seigel longed for two things: legitimacy and glamor, and he thought that Las Vegas held the promise of both.  As his longing turned to obsession, he made promises he could not keep to his Syndicate bosses and bankrollers.  He died in a rain of bullets in his home in Beverly Hills.

The film opened to warm reviews and strong box office receipts. It was eventually nominated for 10 Academy Awards, of which it won 2, for art direction and costume design.

Commentary

No doubt about it, Bugsy is a marvelously entertaining film and a treat to watch.  The period sets and costumes are beautiful, the script is excellent, the actors are wonderful, and we have the added pleasure of watching Warren Beatty and Annette Bening fall in love on the screen before our eyes.  (They married after this film, and remain married to this day.)  The trouble is that while it’s a great movie, it’s also wonderful fiction.  The real Bugsy Siegel may have been as handsome as Beatty, but in real life he was a much uglier character, a stone-cold murderer who was known and feared for his crazed rages and cruelty.

However, the film points to a part of American Jewish history that is often glossed over:  there was indeed a Jewish Mafia that operated during the first three quarters of the 20th century in the United States, with roots in the 19th century.  Jewish mobsters are often pictured as the “accountants” of the Mob, a stereotype that this film perpetuates with its depiction of Meyer Lansky, played by Ben Kingsley.  In fact, as the life of Bugsy Siegel shows, they were violent men engaged in organized crime who often died violent deaths.  (Lansky was an exception.  He retired to Miami Beach.)  Within the Jewish community there is often an urge either to romanticize them (as with this screenplay) or to forget them altogether.  The truth is much more complicated, and an interesting contrast to stereotypes of Jews as bookish and weak:  these were men who were completely unafraid of a fight, as Rich Cohen points out in his book about them, Tough Jews.

One other thing to note about the gangsters:  while the American Jewish community doesn’t talk about them much, Anti-Semites are obsessed with the Jewish Mafia.   They tell tall tales suggesting that the gangsters were part of an international conspiracy by the Jews.  The truth is bad enough, but those men were in no way part of a larger Jewish plan.  That is one reason it is worth learning the genuine facts, however unpleasant.

See this film for a good time, but don’t take it too seriously.  If you are curious about the Jewish gangsters, check out Cohen’s book, or any of the other good books on the subject.

The Governess

The Governess (1998) is set in the 1830’s, and it tells the story of Rosina (Minnie Driver) the pampered daughter of a London Sephardic family whose father dies unexpectedly and leaves the family in debt.  Faced with the choices of the Austen ladies in a similar situation a century before (marriage, domestic work, or prostitution), she rejects marriage and tries her hand at being a governess.  For marketing purposes, she poses as a Christian lady and goes to work for an odd family living on the Isle of Skye.  Rosina has an affair with her Scottish Protestant employer (Tom Wilkinson), and predictably, it does not end happily.  She also collaborates with him on his experiments in the chemistry of early photography, and their collaboration, too, is problematic.  In the end, she goes her own way.

The movie opened to rapturous reviews from many critics, who hailed the beautiful photography in this film set in the early days of photography.  It won several British and European film awards.  The soundtrack is also notable, featuring both chazzanut by Maurice Martin and vocals by Ofra Haza.

Commentary

I was all prepared to enjoy this movie:  I have a weakness for costume dramas.  There were some things about The Governess that I did enjoy very much:  it portrays parts of Jewish life (in this case, Sephardic Jewish life) that are rarely depicted onscreen, and while not everything is authentic, a lot is quite well done.  On the other hand, the story is just plain stupid, an unwholesome fantasy.

The governess of the title is a young Jewish woman who appears to be well educated, but without much in the way of either scruples or common sense.  (However, the screenplay doesn’t make much sense either, so maybe that was inevitable.)  She masquerades as a Christian to take a job teaching children, and expects to support her mother and sister on the wages she receives.  Much is made of the need to keep her Jewishness a secret, but she apparently keeps a considerable number of keepsakes in her room that any nosy maid or child could find.

Despite the fact that her mother and sister are dependent on her wages, Rosina initiates an affair with her employer, pitches noisy fits when he eventually rejects her, and after doing what she can to make domestic life a living hell (presenting his wife with a naked photo of her husband, in the middle of a dinner party) she hops in a carriage to go back to London, carrying stolen camera lenses, and with their daughter in tow!  (The daughter then disappears from the film — what was that about?)

Leaving most of the ten commandments in ruins behind her (at least she didn’t kill anyone, I suppose) she lives happily ever after as a fashionable photographer in London.

It is indeed a very pretty film, with a very pretty soundtrack.  The chazzanut at various points, especially the opening credits, is marvelous.  Ofra Haza’s voice is beautiful (but why not employ any of several wonderful Sephardic singers?) The trouble is, this film hasn’t much going for it other than “pretty.”  As a feminist film, it fails miserably, because it does not begin to grapple with the real situation of women at the time:  they were far too vulnerable to pull the stunts Rosina does. It would have been much more plausible for her boss to kick her out the door empty-handed, to walk back to London or to die of cold and starvation.

What about the Jewish elements?  Beautiful chazzanut, yes.  And it is true that the Sephardic community of London from the time of the Commonwealth onwards has many stories worth telling, stories with lots of rich costumes and romantic intrigue.  I just wish this had been one of those, instead of being such an unbelievable yarn.

Jewish identity seems to mean a great deal to Rosina (we see her lighting a clandestine Shabbat candle, and attempting to make herself a little Passover seder, wrapping herself in her father’s tallit), but it does not seem to inform her behavior at all.

Double Feature

If you want to see a romantic story about a stubborn Jewish woman in a fictionalized past, go watch Yentl.  It is romantic and a bit silly in parts, but at least Streisand’s heroine knows what she wants.   It says something very, very bad about The Governess that Yentl’s plot is more plausible.

Walk on Water

Walk on Water (2004) [Hebrew title: Lalehket al HaMayim] is an Israeli film by director Eytan Fox, set in the midst of the Second Intifada, in 2002.  A crack Mossad hitman, Eyal, (Lior Ashkenazi) returns from a successful hit against a Hamas operative to find that his wife has committed suicide.  His handler, Menachem (Gideon Shemer) believes that he is more upset than he claims to be, and gives him an “easier” assignment, hunting down an aging Nazi by pretending to be a tour guide for his young grandson, Axel (Knut Berger).  Supposedly the old man is dead, but Menachem has come to believe that he was smuggled away from justice after the war, and he is still alive.

Eyal becomes more involved than he intends with the young man and with his sister, Pia, who has been living for years on a kibbutz in the Israeli countryside.  Before all is said and done, the film wrangles with the aftermath of the Holocaust, its connections to current events in Israel, Israeli-Palestinian relations, terrorism, and homophobia.  It is a tall order, and a complicated film. To Fox’s credit, it is mostly successful in its attempt to tackle such challenging material:  it was nominated not only for nine awards in 2004 by the Israeli Film Academy, winning three, but also nominated in 2006 for the much-coveted Cesar Award (France) for Best Foreign Film.

Commentary

Much has been written about the connections between the trauma of the Holocaust and the present-day responses of Israelis to security threats.  This film focuses on these tensions within one man, who has a fierce love of his own country and yet who is growing sick of killing.   It is also a testament to the power of relationship to transform lives.

The film also does an excellent job of capturing the feeling in Israel during the Second Intifada.  It was a very strange mixture of normal life going forward, regularly punctuated by horrific bombings.

Questions for Discussion

1.  Why does Menachem send Eyal after the old Nazi?

2.  What do you think of the ethics of Eyal pretending to be a tour guide to get close to Pia and Axel to find out about their grandfather?

3.  Should the Nazi have had a trial, or is it just simply to assassinate him? Should Eyal have followed orders?  What do you think about Axel’s action?

4.  In the opening of the film, Eyal kills without a second thought, after smiling at the child of the man he is about to kill.  In Berlin, he twice has the opportunity to kill and does not.  What happened to change him?

5.  What did you think about Eyal’s attitude and behavior in the incident of the coat?  Why did he behave as he did?  Was he wrong or right?  Why?

6.  What changes Eyal’s attitude about Axel’s homosexuality?

7.  At the end of the film, is Eyal still working for Mossad?  Why do you think so, or why not?