Tag Archives: Anti-Semitism

Defiance

defianceDefiance (2008) tells the story of the four Bielski Brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron, who gathered and led a 1200-member community of Jewish resistors in the forests of Belarus during the Holocaust, preserving their lives. The film was directed by Edward Zwick, and stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schriber.    It opened to mixed reviews and some controversy:  reviewers tended to credit Zwick with a high degree of historical accuracy, and some controversy.

Polish commentators argue that while the film acknowledges that the Bielskis allied their group with Soviet partisans in the area, it fails to reveal the significance of that alliance:  this was not the regular Soviet Army, but an NKVD group (NKVD being the precursors to the KGB.)  The Soviet Union had NKVD operatives in the area to murder Poles in preparation for a Soviet invasion.

While the film doesn’t engage with this particular controversy, it makes no bones about the fact that often the group had to operate in ethically questionable ways.  The Bielski brothers managed to save over 1000 Jewish lives.  Whether that outweighs their methods and choices is a question worth discussion.

Commentary

As history, Defiance is a success; it tells the story without significantly changing it.  However, as a drama it received mixed reviews.

Reviewer Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out that this is a problem of the “Holocaust genre” as it has developed in American film.  According to LaSalle, successful “Holocaust drama” has good guys (Jews, or a Christian trying to save Jews) bad guys (Nazis or collaborators), and ultimately an upbeat ending in which the good guys survive to tell the tale.  Given that we are talking about the Holocaust, the “upbeat ending” requirement is more than a little ridiculous.

The good guys of Defiance are the Bielskis, who steal and kill in the interest of preserving the group.  At least one of them is more interested in revenge than survival.  The way the film is cut, the main conflict in the film is not Jews-vs-Nazis or even Jews-vs-Death, but brother-vs-brother as Tuvia and Zus wrestle over the question of revenge versus community organizing.  Given the backdrop of survival in the forest with Nazis circling behind every rock and tree, there is a feeling of disconnect through the film:  why are these guys fighting?  Don’t they realize who the real enemy is?

Still, Defiance is well worth watching because it is an accurate account of one of the cases in the Holocaust where Jews fought back and did so successfully.  The fact that the filmmaker chose fidelity to history is really rather remarkable, given that, as LaSalle pointed out, were the film to fit the genre, the Bielskis would have been re-visioned to paint them as saints.  They weren’t saints; they were human beings in an inhuman situation.  Their choices, and our discussion of their choices, can make for genuine learning.

Questions:

What choices did the Bielskis make in order to survive?  What options did they refuse to take?  Could you say that their choices were informed by Jewish values?  Why or why not?

What other Holocaust films have you seen?  Did they fit Mick LaSalle’s description of the genre?  Given that many Americans get most of their Holocaust education from the movies, what consequences do you see for the “happy ending” requirement?  What are the consequences of changing the details of stories so that the Jews make no ethically questionable choices, and appear “saintly”?

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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.

Exodus

exodusExodus (1960) is adapted from the blockbuster novel by Leon Uris. It is set in Cyprus and Palestine during the British Mandate period of 1947-48.  First it follows  the misadventures of a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe whom the British imprison in Cyprus rather than allow them entry to Palestine, then it follows characters on that boat and their friends and lovers through the events leading up to Independence in 1948.

The movie was produced and directed by Otto Preminger, and it starred Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, and Sal Mineo.   One notable aspect of the movie is that it was filmed entirely on location in Cyprus and in Israel.  Paul Newman makes an odd-looking Israeli, but every scrap of the scenery is authentic.  Given that the real star of Exodus is the land itself, Eretz Israel, that is especially appropriate.

Other notable facts:  Otto Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo to adapt the screenplay from the novel, despite the fact that he was one of the people on the Hollywood blacklist.  This marked one of the first times a major director “broke” the blacklist.

Exodus won the Oscar for Best Music, and Sal Mineo received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Commentary

Exodus is another film that runs deep in the Jewish-American psyche; I have listed it as a must-see.  It is an excellent way to experience the narrative of the foundation of the State of Israel as many American and Israeli Zionists understand it.

It reflects a time when many Israelis were thoroughgoing socialists, when the “black hat” orthodox of Eastern Europe were believed to be dying out, when tourism in the area was unthinkable, when no one at all was talking about “Greater Israel.”    Europe was interested in getting rid of the few Jews who had survived the Holocaust, and because no one else wanted them either, they were living in DP (displaced persons) camps.  There were three groups of Jews in Palestine at this point, the “Old Yishuv” Jews who had been in the land all along (and who do not figure into this film at all),  the Sabras (Jews born in Israel, whose parents or grandparents had settled there from Europe) and the new immigrants, mostly survivors of the Holocaust, who managed to get into the country despite the British blockade.

The film was a huge undertaking, one of the most elaborate of its time, and it is impressive but flawed.   Uris’s novel is simply too massive for a film adaptation; both plot and characters are truncated to make them fit.  As history, it has obvious flaws (starting with the fact that nearly all the characters are fictional, and the fictional characters crowd out the historical ones.)  Why, then, is it a must-see?  It is because if you want to understand why so many Jews feel passionate about the need for Israel, this film is a good place to begin.  It is also a must-see because it is a way to see the Land itself.

Many of the events in the film really happened:  there was a ship Exodus.  The King David Hotel was indeed bombed by the Irgun.  There was a prison break from the fortress of Acre.  And of course, there was a War of Independence immediately after partition in 1948.

Just don’t be in a hurry:  Exodus is one LONG film, 212 minutes.  Make yourself and a friend some popcorn, and settle in for a long evening, because after it is done, you’ll want to talk.

Double Feature

Watch Exodus before or after watching Gentleman’s Agreement.  They are set in exactly the same time period, one in Europe and the Middle East, the other in the United States.    Keep in mind as you watch that the attitudes in Gentleman’s Agreement were the attitudes of the U.S. State Department as it participated in the U.N. discussions so critical to events in Exodus.

Chariots of Fire

chariotsoffireChariots of Fire (1981) is a fictionalized account of the story of two British runners who participated in the 1924 Summer Olympics, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson)  and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross).  Both are men with something to prove which separates them from the “gentlemen athletes” on the rest of the British team.  In Liddell’s case, it was his evangelical Christianity; in Abrahams’ case, it was the fact that he was a Jew.

The film won 4 Oscars out of 7 nominations.  It was nominated for the Palm D’Or at Cannes, and won two other prizes.

Commentary

Chariots of Fire is one of those historical films that succeeds in conveying the emotions of a time, without necessarily getting every fact exactly right.  As a history of the 1924 Olympics, it gets things pretty badly scrambled, but its depiction of “polite” anti-Semitism is spot-on.  Abrahams is hailed as a sports hero, but the Cambridge establishment constantly frets over his “pushiness” and his lack of “gentlemanly” demeanor.

The film takes place in the period between the two World Wars before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.  It offers an opportunity to look at British upper-class attitudes towards British Jews, and particularly the attitude towards those Jews who presume to full participation in British society.  These attitudes would play a significant role in the British debate about Nazism a few years later, and a role as well in the Allied response to the Holocaust.

The film is a good springboard for discussion and has the added benefit of being child-friendly.

Question

What’s odd about the funeral at the end of the film?  If you spot it, what do you think about it?

Driving Miss Daisy

200px-Driving_Miss_Daisy_Driving Miss Daisy (1989) is an Oscar winning movie based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by by Alfred Uhry.  It recounts a 25-year relationship between an elderly Jewish woman (Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy) and an elderly African-American man (Houk, played by Morgan Freeman) in Atlanta, GA.  Their story begins uneasily, as Miss Daisy’s son (played by Dan Aykroyd) decides she can no longer drive her own car, and hires Houk to drive her.   Gradually they negotiate a working relationship which over time becomes a friendship.  The film spans the years from 1948 until 1973, years of tremendous social change in America.

Wikipedia notes that this was the last PG-rated film to receive the Best Picture Oscar (at this writing, in 2009).

Commentary

Some readers may be surprised that I list this film as a “must see” when I didn’t give that designation to Schindler’s List.  I list it because this is a movie that nearly anyone can watch without having nightmares about it, and at the same time it portrays anti-Semitism and racial prejudice in both their overt and their more subtle forms.

At one key point in the film, a Alabama state trooper comments to his partner out of earshot of Daisy and Houk that she is an “old Jew woman” being driven by an “old n—r man.”  The menace in that scene, and in a later scene of the Temple bombing in Atlanta make it clear that Daisy and Houk have more in common than may have been apparent at the outset.  Complicating the matter, though, is the fact that Daisy is very much a product of her time:  her own racist and classist inclinations are a barrier between the two almost to the end of the film.  The greatness of this film lies in its focus on the humanity of Houk and Daisy as they navigate their times and make discoveries about one another, without a need to sugarcoat Daisy.

This film also serves as a reminder that while some American Jews did indeed support the civil rights movement at great risk to themselves and their communities, that history of risk does not obviate the need, then and now, for each individual to examine his or her own attitudes and behavior, and to make teshuvah (a profound change) if need be.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Driving Miss Daisy is that it deals with all these very serious issues with a light hand and a great deal of humor.    A must see!

Schindler’s List

schindlers-list-DVDcoverSchindler’s List (1993) is the most successful and famous of Holocaust films.  It is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, an Austrian Catholic businessman who preserved the lives of over 1,000 Jews by putting them to work in his factory and then using his influence and his fortune to keep them from the death camps.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is based on the book by Thomas Kenneally, and the film was directed by Steven Spielberg.  It is meticulously researched and produced, and the end product is a searing film that merits its “R” rating.  Liam Neeson stars as Schindler, Ben Kinglsey as Yitzhak Stern, his bookkeeper, and Ralph Fiennes portrays Amon Goeth, one of the most reprehensible and terrifying figures in film.  This is not a film for children, but it is a truly great film.  It won 7 Oscars out of 12 nominations in 1994.

Commentary

This film has been the beginning of a Holocaust education for many people around the world, simply because of its availability and popularity.  It is an excellent source, but I would approach it with some caution:  it is NOT suitable for children, or for someone who gets nightmares from upsetting films, and while it is a good beginning of a Holocaust education, it should not be the end of anyone’s education.

I have been told by more than one survivor that Spielberg put on film what audiences would stand:  the real historical events were more horrible than anything that should be available on film.  Moreover, while narrative tells us a great deal, we also need to talk about the circumstances that came together to create the events we call “the Holocaust.”  Good as it is, the film does not say enough about the events it covers to be the final word on the subject.

All of that said, I would have tagged this film a “Must see!” were it not for the difficult content.  See it if you can, and discuss it with others.

Double Feature

For a non-fiction treatment of the topic, and especially of the details of the death camps, the 9.5 hours of Shoah are incomparable but horrific.   (I am not suggesting that one watch these two films as an actual double feature, in one sitting — I fear  that it might lead to suicidal depression and despair!  “Double Feature” is just a way of signifying in this blog that two films are related.)

Fiddler on the Roof

fiddlerFiddler on the Roof (1971) is the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by the same name.  It is based on the story “Tevye the Milkman” by Sholom Aleichem, the most prolific Yiddish writer of his time.  The story is set in Anatevka,  a shtetl [village] in the Pale of Settlement of pre-revolutionary Russia, about 1910, with WWI on the horizon, although there are also details that seem to point to a time about 1883.   Topol stars as Tevye, the milkman who faces the problems of shtetl life:  finding husbands for his daughters, food for his family, and survival in the face of the crushing regime of the Czar.  One casting item of note:  the matchmaker is played by Molly Picon, one of the great actors of American Yiddish stage and cinema.

The film won three Oscars (Cinematography, Music, and Sound) out of eight nominations.

Commentary

Fiddler offers a somewhat fantasized version of the brutal life of the shtetl.  It is a touchstone for the American Jewish psyche and a prime example of laughing through tears, the hallmark of much Jewish humor.  It is also the most easily accessible introduction to the Yiddish world of Sholom Aleichem.

Most importantly, Tevye is a Jewish Everyman:  he suffers, but he endures.  His world  is crumbling:  even in the muddy shtetls of the Ukraine, modernity is changing things, changing attitudes, making history.  The old traditions are under pressure; the young people have new ideas.  Tevye is devoted to tradition, but he recognizes that some forces cannot be resisted.  In every age, the conflict between tradition and change has challenged Jews:  “what now?  How shall we maintain our traditions in this new place?” has been the cry in every age, beginning perhaps on the banks of the Nile, in Egypt.

Not to be missed!

Double Feature

There is another big American movie musical about the same period, Yentl.  It tells a story set in Eastern European shtetl and town life from a woman’s point of view.  If you choose to watch both, it’s fun to compare them.

Gentleman’s Agreement

gentlemans-agreement-DVDcoverGentleman’s Agreement (1947) was a groundbreaking film in its day, and it is still a powerful story about prejudice in America.  Moss Hart wrote the screenplay, based on Laura Z. Hobson‘s bestselling novel.  The movie stars Gregory Peck as a journalist assigned to write a series of magazine articles about anti-Semitism.   Searching for a “personal angle” on the story, he decides to pose as Jew, and soon discovers what it is to be on the receiving end of intolerance.

Darryl F. Zanuck produced it, and Elia Kazan directed.  In addition to Peck, the film stars Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Dean Stockwell, Celeste Holm, and June Havoc.  Gentleman’s Agreement won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Ms. Holm.

Commentary

The situation of American Jewry in the 21st century is without parallel in world history:  we are better integrated and more welcome in U.S. society than Jews have been in any other time and place.  This movie is a reminder that only sixty years ago, things were quite different.  It catalogs many of the ways, large and small, that it was tough to be Jewish in America.

There is a curious art-imitates-life element to the film, in that Daryl F. Zanuck, a gentile, felt very strongly about bringing Hobson’s novel to the screen as a major film because he believed it was important to speak out against the anti-Semitism in society.  The story goes that prominent Jews in Hollywood strongly discouraged him against making the film because they feared backlash.  In the movie, the boss who assigns the magazine article about anti-Semitism is a gentile who wants to raise consciousness about the subject, just as Zanuck did.

The film is remarkably current in its depiction of “soft” bigotry.  The journalist discovers in the course of his research that many well-meaning people hold him at arm’s length with protestations of innocence: ‘Some of my best friends…”  A true mensch watching this film must ask him or herself, “Is there anyone I patronize with behavior and words like those?”

Double Feature

Watch Gentleman’s Agreement before or after watching Exodus.  They are set in exactly the same time period, one in the Middle East, the other in the United States.    Keep in mind as you watch that the attitudes in Gentleman’s Agreement were the attitudes of the U.S. State Department as it participated in the U.N. discussions so critical to events in Exodus.

Video Bonus

You Tube has a vintage video summary of the film and its Oscar nominations and awards.