Tag Archives: Anti-Semitism

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?

The Golem

der-golemThe Golem (1920) [German title: Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam] is based on the legend of Rabbi Loew of Prague, a 16th century rabbi who is said to have made a man from clay and brought him to life to defend the Jews of Prague during a time of persecution.  (The rabbi’s name has many variations.  Rabbi Loew is called Rabbi Löw in the film.) The silent film was originally the third of a series, a prequel to the other two, Der Golem” (1915) and “Der Golem und die Tänzerin” (1917). These films represent the first known sequel and prequel in film history. They were made by the German actor and filmmaker Paul Wegener, who also plays the part of the Golem in the films.

The film offers us an origin story for the “Golem,” a creature from Jewish and European folklore: According to the entry on “Golem” in the Jewish Virtual Library:

…The golem is most widely known as an artificial creature created by magic, often to serve its creator. The word “golem” appears only once in the Bible (Psalms139:16). In Hebrew, “golem” stands for “shapeless mass.” The Talmud uses the word as “unformed” or “imperfect” and according to Talmudic legend, Adam is called “golem,” meaning “body without a soul” (Sanhedrin 38b) for the first 12 hours of his existence. The golem appears in other places in the Talmud as well. One legend says the prophet Jeremiah made a golem However, some mystics believe the creation of a golem has symbolic meaning only, like a spiritual experience following a religious rite.

In this version of the Golem tale, Rabbi Löw of Prague studies the stars and determines that a disaster is about to befall the Jews of the Prague Ghetto.  He fashions a man out of clay, and uses magic to force a demon to reveal the magic name that will enliven the creature.  He has a terrified and somewhat inept assistant, Famulus, who watches and faints.  Famulus is in love with the rabbi’s daughter, Miriam.  When the Holy Roman Emperor sends his junker [knight] Florian with a message to Rabbi Löw that the Jews are to be expelled from Prague, Florian and Miriam make eyes (and more) at one another.  Thus two colliding plots are set in motion:  the rabbi will use the Golem to save the Jews, and Miriam and Florian hatch a plot for their illicit romance.

There is a wonderful sequence in the palace when Rabbi Löw puts on a magic show for the Christian court.  He waves an arm and produces what amounts to a movie about the patriarchs, playing on the walls of the throne room.  In the early 20th century, on another continent, Jewish movie moguls were doing exactly the same thing: was this in the mind of the filmmaker?

The Golem was seminal for so many films that follow, that the images in it have a haunting deja vu quality.  What may seem trite to a modern eye is, in fact, source material.  Watch for visual connections to such varied films as Metropolis, King Kong, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia, (in fact, several sections in Fantasia), Frankenstein, The Corpse Bride (and other images in Tim Burton films), and Iron Man.  In Iron Man, the imagery is connected through the artwork of the original Marvel Comics books, but the connection is nonetheless quite striking, and the concept of a large fabricated “man” that can either save the day or wreck the world is pure Golem.

Commentary

Taking off the filmgoer’s hat and putting on the rabbi’s kippah, The Golem is a true horror film: it is fearful, horrifying, and terrifying in its tantalizing ambiguity.  The film was made in Germany between the two World Wars, a time when Jewish life thrived in Germany, and Jews believed themselves to be integral and respectable members of German society.

This enormously popular film portrayed medieval Jews in a seemingly accurate and sympathetic light:  they were locked in the ghetto, living in poverty, dependent on the good will of the monarch for their very existence.  Rabbi Löw feels responsible for his people:  he studies the stars as a modern rabbi might watch the local news for signs of trouble, and when he believes disaster is imminent, he takes action.  His daughter is a beautiful young girl who falls in love with the wrong man.  His assistant is young, handsome, and clumsy.  So what’s the trouble?

First, there are troubling details:  for instance, the magic word that the rabbi inserts into the Golem’s amulet is written in Latin letters, not in Hebrew.  It’s a bad transliteration of “emet” [truth] (which an Ashkenazi Jew would have pronounced “emes,” anyway).  Various Jewish symbols are dragged in apparently at random:  the shofars look odd and are blown for odd reasons, palm fronds  are waved for a celebration at the wrong time of year (and where would they have gotten them?) liturgical details are all wrong, and so on.  These are stage Jews, like the “Africans” in old Tarzan movies are stage Africans. 

Looking more closely at the film, the Jews are also portrayed as the menacing Other:  their scenes are lit darkly, and the Rabbi summons demons to give him powerful magic words.  Look closely at a still image from the film, and the Jews other than the principals have stereotypical hooked noses, some of which look fake.

Beautiful Miriam is a lusty woman in contrast to the chaste and innocent Christian women in the film who shrink from the Golem and the rabbi.  She bats her eyes at Florian, and when he puts his hands on her, she reciprocates.  When he proposes that he visit while her father is out, she welcomes him and the film makes clear that they have sex.  She is portrayed as a dangerous, lustful woman whose beauty will  lure a man to his death.

Even the stereotype about Jews and money makes a brief appearance, when Lorian bribes the gatekeeper with coins to let him sneak into the ghetto:  the camera lingers on the grasping hand of the man, reaching for piece after piece of silver.

Paul Wegener was no Nazi.  He was an actor and a pacifist, interested only in telling his stories.  He was a great filmmaker, and this film is worth seeing for many reasons.  It truly was a seminal piece of film, which any student of film should see.  It is also worth studying by the student of anti-Semitism, precisely because Wegener had no axe to grind:  he was simply telling a good story, using images that he thought would captivate.  What those images reveal about the hearts of his audience, however, may be truly chilling.

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think of the portrayal of Rabbi Löw?  Was he a good man, or a scary one, or both?
  • What do you think of the depiction of the Christians in this film?  Good guys, bad guys, both?
  • Which figures in the film are truly innocent?
  • Are there any “bad guys” in this film?
  • What do you think of the Golem figure?  What does the scene with the rose in the throne room convey about the character?  Is he a character, or is he simply a machine?
  • Do you think that The Golem is an anti-Semitic film or not?  Why?

Double Feature

The Dybbuk was also made in Europe, just 17 years later, and it also deals with a tale from Jewish folklore.   However, it is a Yiddish film made by Jews.  Compare it to The Golem, a film based in Jewish folklore, but with Jews as the exotic Other.

Links for Further Reading:

Shanghai Ghetto

shanghaiShanghai Ghetto (2002) is a documentary by Dana Jancklowitz-Mann and Amir Mann chronicling the stories of German Jews who were able to escape Nazi Germany in the 1930’s by taking advantage of a loophole in passport operations in Japanese-occupied China.  At that time, the Jews of Germany were offered a choice with a very short time span:  either find somewhere to immigrate immediately or go to “resettlement” camps.  Even those who realized the seriousness of the situation were stymied:  no country in the world was accepting Jewish immigrants.   Jewish immigration to British-ruled Palestine was blocked.  The United States and other Western nations were closed to Jewish immigration.  There was nowhere to go.

Nowhere, except for a place where the chaos of war had already made enough havoc for a loophole:  The port of Shanghai was the only city in the world in which neither a visa nor a passport was required for entry.  Imperial Japan occupied Shanghai, and for various reasons chose neither to enforce Japanese nor Chinese passport operations there.  As a result, it was an open port:  a safe haven for the Jews who were able to scrape together the bribes to leave Germany and the steamship passage to get to China.

Once in China, they faced a new life, living in the slums of Shanghai among the Chinese residents.  They were helped by the Jews of China (another interesting story, one not sufficiently told in this documentary) and by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish organization that served Jewish refugees all over the world (and continues to exist today, operating out of Israel.)  As the war wore on, their lives became more and more difficult, but they survived, unlike countless relatives and friends left behind in Germany.

This documentary tells their story, through vintage film, through the memories and voices of the refugees themselves, and through poignant film footage of the now elderly refugees visiting modern-day Shanghai.  It is a simple, rather artless documentary, but the human story it tells is profound.

Commentary

Today it is difficult to comprehend how completely the Jewish People were abandoned by the rest of the world during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Perhaps the greatest single contribution of this documentary is its testimony to what the world looked like without a homeland for the Jews.

The story told here is about the German Jews.  The film alludes to but says much less about the other Jewish communities in Shanghai.  The Baghdadi Jewish community had originated in Iraq (hence its name) resettling in India during the British Raj, and the few families in Shanghai were there doing business for British concerns.  There were also a Russian Jewish community which had moved to Shanghai after the pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The German Jews arrived in Shanghai just before the beginning of war in Europe.  After it began, other groups began to trickle into the Shanghai Ghetto.  A few Austrian and Czech Jewish families followed.  Then a small group of Polish Jews arrived, some of them the faculty from the Mir Yeshiva, the only one of the yeshivot of Europe to survive the war intact. In 1943, all the Jews of Shanghai, Baghdadi, Russian, German, Polish, and so on were crowded into a ghetto less than a mile square and kept there by order of the Japanese army.  There they remained until the end of the war.

In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, Hillel is quoted:  “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.”  I was struck, watching this film, how the Jews in this miserable situation managed to construct a society that worked despite the losses, the deprivations, the uncertainties, and starvation.  Our communities today, living in relative safety and prosperity, could stand to learn a thing or two from them.

Everything is Illuminated

EisIEverything is Illuminated (2005) is a superb film that “begins in goofiness and ends in silence and memory”  (Roger Ebert).  It begins with broad comedy, but zigzags steadily towards a wrenching drama about the connectedness of all humanity and the inescapability of the past.  It’s the tale of a man (Elijah Wood) who goes in search of his grandfather’s escape from the Holocaust, and the story of the people who help him find the story, who are mysteriously entangled in the same story.  All of these people are odd, and they regard each other with astonishment.

Everything is Illuminated is based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer (who has a cameo in the film — watch for the man with the leaf blower) and adapted for the screen by Liev Schreiber.  Schreiber also directed the film.   It won awards at a number of film festivals in Europe and South America, but some reviewers felt it did not have the scope of the novel.

The film includes some wonderful performances, particularly that of Eugene Hutz, a Romani (gypsy) musician and actor.  His band, Gogol Bordello, performs several pieces on the soundtrack of the film.  Elijah Wood, a name much more familiar to filmgoers, performs a remarkable act of tzimtzum [contraction]  in taking both a literal and a figurative backseat to the colorful character played by Hutz.

Besides the obvious Holocaust theme, the movie also takes a sharp look at Jewish identity:  what does it meant to be a Jew?

Commentary

Most Holocaust films focus on the tragedy in the 1940’s, without looking at the many tragedies that stem from those initial events.  This is a film that takes a hard look at the way that every person touched by the Holocaust is effected by it, even if he or she is born years later.  It asks questions about survival:  what does it mean, “to survive”?  Can a person live through something and not survive it?  Can a person die but somehow remain?

Two figures in the film are “collectors.”  The film does not explain why they collect things:  that is left for the viewer to consider.  What do each of them collect?  Why do you think they collect them?  Do you think they will continue to collect things, after the events in the film?

I was struck by the subtle reference to the Wizard of Oz at the end of the film.  Jonathan returns to the states, but as he moves through the modern airport, he recognizes faces that he saw in the Ukraine.  What does this mean?  Unlike Dorothy, he was not dreaming.  How are these people connected to the people he saw overseas?  How is he connected to each of them?

Jewish culture puts a high value on Zikkaron, Remembrance.  Who is remembering what in this film?  What is the value of remembrance?

Double Feature

The screenwriter and director of this film, Liev Schreiber, is an actor in another film on this list, Defiance.  Both are films about events connected with the Holocaust, but they deal with it quite differently.

Other Reviews

For a slightly different take on the film, check out this blog post.

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.

Biloxi Blues

biloxi_bluesBiloxi Blues (1988) is the second play in Neil Simon‘s semi-autobiographical “Eugene” trilogy, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Matthew Broderick, who originated the role on Broadway.   Most of the story is set in the barracks of an army base in Biloxi, MS, in 1945, where 20 year old Eugene Jerome struggles with heat, mosquitoes, virginity, and an eccentric drill instructor (played by Christopher Walken) .  As one of only two Jews in the barracks, he has to cope with the anti-Semitism of the sergeant and the other recruits, and with the general sense that he has somehow landed on an alien planet a long, long way from Brooklyn.  His best friend is the other Jew, Arnold Epstein, played by Corey Parker.

Commentary

Biloxi Blues is first and foremost a young man’s coming-of-age story, and as such, it follows the conventions, and accomplishes that in fairly conventional ways.  One more interesting aspect of the film, though, is the way that two young actors, Broderick and Parker, portray the two Jews in the company.   Some of the roles are clear in the screenplay, but the choices made by the actors and the director pose us a fascinating question:  when one is a Jew, a new Army recruit deep in the bowels of the South, surrounded by mostly unfriendly anti-Semites, what is one to do about that fact?

Eugene experiments with various approaches:  he wisecracks for a while, until it is clear that it will win him no friends.  Gradually he attempts to blend in:  he doesn’t hide his Jewishness, but he wears it lightly, shrugging off slurs, and laughing with the other guys when he can.  He’s a lousy soldier, but he tries hard to fit in.

Arnold chooses another route:  he is not concerned with popularity.  He is in fact determined not to fit in, because he does not approve of most of what he sees around him.  At one key moment, when asked why he is so pointed about his Jewishness and his insistence on his own values, he says, “The Army has its logic.  I have mine.”  He is utterly uncompromising about his values, and it costs him dearly.

The two Jews drive one another to distraction:  from Eugene’s point of view, Arnold makes everything unnecessarily hard for himself.  He admires Arnold’s “constant and relentless pursuit of truth, logic, and reason,” but it interferes with his own efforts to keep his head down and get along.

From Arnold’s point of view, Eugene seems to stand for nothing at all.  Eugene’s real coming-of-age doesn’t happen among the usual trappings and conventions:  it isn’t his first sexual experience, or his first experience of love, it’s his discovery that there is something in his life worth dying for.  I won’t spoil the film by saying more.

Questions

How do you decide when to stand up for your beliefs, and when to duck the question?  Has anyone ever made an anti-Semitic joke when you were in earshot?  What did you say or do?  How about a racist joke, or a homophobic joke?  Where is the line (is there a line?) between “political correctness” and standing up for your values?
Double Feature

Biloxi Blues makes an interesting companion piece to Gentlemen’s Agreement.  They portray the same period, although Biloxi Blues does so with forty years’ hindsight.  Gentleman’s Agreement shows the workings of anti-Semitism in genteel New York society; Biloxi Blues shows it in the coarse melting-pot of an Army boot camp.  What are the differences, if any?

Black Book

blackbookBlack Book (2006) is a World War II film about the Dutch Resistance, directed by Paul Verhoeven, and starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, and Halina Reijn. We originally meet the central character, Rachel Stein, when she is  living in hiding on a Dutch farm.  When the farm is distroyed by American bombs, she is forced out into the open to survive on her own.  She finds her way into a Dutch resistance cell which is troubled by a turncoat, an ongoing mystery in the film:  who is it that keeps ratting  to the Nazis?

Rachel serves the cause by sleeping with the enemy:  she dyes her hair blond, becomes the mistress of a powerful Nazi, and reports back to her cell what she learns from him.   No fool, he figures out that she is Jewish, and chooses to overlook it for the time being.  Verhoeven suggests, through his characters and others in the film, that it is harder than we like to think to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

This is absolutely not a film for children or for the sensitive; it contains a lot of graphic sex and violence.

Commentary

You may recognize the name of the director:  he also directed Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls.  Verhoeven is known for making violent, lurid films and this one qualifies on both counts.  The screenplay is stuffed with handy coincidences, and when the opening credits claim that it is “based on a true story” one should reach for a box of Morton’s Salt.  There was a lawyer in the Netherlands who kept a “black book” like the one in the film.  Beyond that, the film is fiction.

So why include it on this list?  Why might this film be worthwhile for some viewers?  Black Book makes the point again and again that anti-Semitism was not the sole province of the Nazis.  Many Christian Europeans felt that Jews had brought their troubles upon themselves by failing to become Christian; others believed that Jews could not be trusted, were driven by a desire for money, etc., etc.  Verhoeven’s moral relativism may go too far when he suggests that there were “good Nazis” but he acknowledges something that most Holocaust films do not:  that the Holocaust was not a Nazi aberration, but an extreme expression of themes that had long been part of European Christian culture.

Is this a great film?  No.  It’s a thriller-melodrama with a lot of slick sex and violence. I include it here because it also contains some kernels of truth about things that nice people don’t want to discuss.  Leave it to Verhoeven to go where nice people won’t.