Tag Archives: Drama

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:

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Body and Soul

BodyandSoulBody and Soul (1947) is most famous as a boxing film: cinematographer James Wong Howe had been a Golden Gloves boxer himself, and filmed the fight scenes in the ring, on roller skates, creating film that would set the bar for boxing films for decades ahead, notably Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  It is the story of a young Jewish man, Charlie Davis (played by John Garfield) East Side son of a candy store operator, who has a talent for “nothing much but boxing.”  His father dies when a Mob bombing of the speakeasy next door destroys his shop. Charlie is a “wild” boy but a good one, and will not fight against his mother’s wishes until Mama (played by Anne Revere) is left without the means to support herself.  A pivotal moment:

Charlie: Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn. I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!
Mama: I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.
Charlie: You need MONEY to buy a gun!

Money becomes the be-all and end-all of Charlie’s life.  He is successful as a fighter, but to be in championship fights, he needs to cozy up to the men who run the big fights, and not incidentally fix the big fights.  He insists to his best friend (played by Joseph Pevney) that it doesn’t matter if “they” want to buy his arm — after all it’s Charlie’s arm to sell, if he wants to.  He makes lots of money, and he spends lots of money, and eventually he is told by the crooked promoter who “owns” him that he must throw a fight.

The film was a special project of actor John Garfield, who searched for years for the right screenplay for a boxing film.  The screenplay for Body and Soul, by Abraham Polonsky, was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Garfield’s acting.  The film won the 1947 Oscar for Best Editing.

Commentary

The dialogue in the film barely mentions the fact that Charlie Davis is a Jew:  certainly the name isn’t Jewish.  However, there are dozens of clues that make it clear that Polonsky was thinking of a Jewish boxer when he made the film (and production notes included as an extra in the Region 1 DVD release confirm) that originally Garfield was interested in making a biopic of a Jewish boxer who had drug problems, preventing the script from being greenlighted in that form.  Even though the biopic fell through, the screenplay of Body and Soul mentions that Charlie is Jewish, and his mother is determined and vocal about Jewish values of education, of not wasting, of modesty (against ostentation), and family.

Anna Davis (Mama) is adamant that Charlie is going to get an education.  She and her husband may have been small-time merchants, living on the East Side, but she has big dreams for her son, all of which have more to do with education than with wealth.  She is furious at the idea of him as a boxer.  This tension between the generations is a frequent theme in American Jewish film, from The Jazz Singer in 1927 to The Chosen in 1982, to Crossing Delancey in 1988.  How are the old Jewish values of the “old country” going to translate to New York of the 20’s or the 80’s?

Note, too, that the men making money on Charlie are white:  Charlie is a Jew, the champ he unseats is African American, and his opponent in the big fight at the end is a Texas hillbilly.  (Remember, in 1947, Jews were not yet considered “white” — see Gentleman’s Agreement, below.)

The moralistic plot (which may seem a bit heavy-handed for modern audiences) is a parable on the dangers and seductions of money, spun out with rabbinical details.  Three friends warn Charlie of the dangers of his path:  his fiance, his friend Shorty, and his trainer, Ben.  He is so mesmerized by the cash that he cannot hear any of them.  Other friends, “evil companions” straight out of midrash, encourage him to remain obsessed with making and spending “dough”.

In a post-Madoff age, this old film takes on a new edge:  if you wonder how Bernie Madoff could have done what he did, look at the gleam in Charlie Davis’s eyes.

Double Feature

John Garfield co-starred in another film in the same year, Gentleman’s Agreement, which deals much more overtly with Jewish issues.  Both Body and Soul and Gentleman’s Agreement had casts and crew who were decimated by the Hollywood Blacklist of the McCarthy Era; in some cases, this was the last American film they would make for 20 years or more.

The Dybbuk

DybbukThe Dybbuk (1937) is perhaps the best-known Yiddish movie.  Filmed in Warsaw and in rural Poland before World War II, it is based on a play by Sholom Ansky.  It is a ghost story on two levels:  a classic folktale about love that extends beyond the grave, and a film made in and of a world that was about to be obliterated by the Nazi invaders.

Two men, dear friends, make an agreement on Hoshana Rabbah that their unborn children will marry, if one is a boy and the other a girl.  One man is lost at sea before his son is born.  The other is stricken with grief upon hearing that his wife has died giving birth to a girl.  The pledge is forgotten, but 18 years later, the young man and woman find that they are inexplicably drawn to one another.  The father has other plans for his daughter by now: he wants her to marry a rich man.  The tragedy proceeds on not entirely predictable lines.

The Dybbuk is striking in its cinematography and its (for its time) unusual film techniques. Set in the 19th century, it has an otherworldly feel.  While its “special effects” were simple, the filmmakers managed to produce a film that is both enchanting and spooky.

Some viewers may find it distracting that the film is in Yiddish and only some lines have subtitles.  The subtitles are artfully done, giving us just enough to follow what’s going on while allowing the music of Yiddish and the vivid body language of the actors to tell the story.  At first I found this kind of captioning frustrating (“what are they saying?”)  but eventually I came to appreciate the fact that I was watching the movie, not the titles at the bottom of the screen.

The Dybbuk records a place and a culture that were about to disappear.  Within seven years, most of the actors would find their way to the United States as refugees.  One of the actors, Ajzyk Samberg, would die in the Poniatowa concentration camp in 1943.  The cantor whose voice gives the synagogue services great power and veracity, Chazzan  Gershon Sirota, would die with his entire family in the Warsaw Ghetto in the same year.  Kazimierz, the little village in eastern Poland where much of the movie was made was declared officially “free of Jews” by the Nazis in 1942.  The villagers who served as extras in the film disappeared into the maw of the Holocaust.

On a happier note, the two romantic leads, Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana, married in real life and moved to the U.S.  Liebgold was interviewed shortly before his death for a NY Times article about the restoration and re-issue of the film in 1989.

Commentary

This is a film about that great Jewish topic, the power of words.  Two friends make a foolish pact in violation of Jewish law.  The rest of the film follows the unhappy results of those careless words.  Words are key, again and again:  it is by means of words that the young yeshiva student comes to ruin, discovering the secret codes (gematria) hidden in the names of his beloved, his father, and his own name.  The words of the wedding ceremony hold a power that is almost electric in the film.  The power of words is used for exorcism, for karet [excommunication], and for teaching via storytelling are all on display.

The film also gives a priceless opportunity to witness an authentic Hoshana Rabba service and to hear chazzanut by Cantor Sirota.  Whatever your feelings about ghost stories, this is a rare chance to visit a Hasidic rabbi’s court in the vanished world of prewar Polish Jewry.

Cast a Giant Shadow

MickeyMarcusCast a Giant Shadow (1966) is a fictionalized account of the story of David “Mickey” Marcus, a Jewish colonel in the U.S. Army who fought in the Israeli War of Independence. Before his involvement with the nascent State of Israel, he served in WWII in Europe, and was part of the occupation government in Berlin after the war.  Among other duties, he was involved in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.  Marcus grew up in Brooklyn, received a nominal Jewish education, and attended West Point.

David Ben Gurion named him aluf [general] of the Israeli Defense Forces, the first person to hold that title since Biblical times.  Marcus’s advice and participation was critical to Israeli success in the war, and he is remembered with great fondness in Israel.  He is also the only soldier buried at West Point who died fighting under a foreign flag.

Marcus is played by Kirk Douglas, and his son, Michael Douglas, had his first film role as a jeep driver.  Yul Brynner (who looks eerily like Moshe Dayan), Topol, Angie Dickenson, and Frank Sinatra also appear in the film.  John Wayne plays an unnamed American general.

Commentary

Col. Mickey Marcus was one of the “Machal” fighters (the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz La’aretz, “volunteers from outside Israel”).  This film tells his story, and along with it, gives one of the best screen depictions of some of the most famous aspects of the Israeli War of Independence.

Aside from a schlocky romance with a beautiful Israeli that Hollywood could not resist adding, the screenplay  is  largely in keeping with the only English-language biography of Marcus, Cast a Giant Shadow by Ted Berkman.   The rest of the story is fairly reliable, and the film was shot on location in many of the places where battles in the War of Independence were fought.  I recognized Latrun, and a particularly bad spot on the road to Jerusalem, as well as the famous “Burma Road.”  (These are all places you can visit in Israel today.)

Many of the details are accurate.    There were indeed busloads of refugees, many of them survivors of the death camps in Europe, who were handed guns at Latrun and sent in to fight.  Women served in combat and were among the truckdrivers who made up the convoys that traveled under fire carrying food and water to the Jews of Jerusalem.  The Israelis were so short on munitions that they resorted to many ruses to make the Arab armies believe they had more firepower than they really did.   The “Burma Road” really was that perilous, and it was cut by hand in record time.  As far as is known, Marcus did eventually die as portrayed in the film.

I recommend this film to get a sense of what was going on in Israel immediately before and after the Declaration of Independence in 1948.  Just keep in mind that it’s fictionalized history:  if you are curious about particular details, then a little bit of research is required.

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.

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]?

The Ten Commandments

200px-10Command56The Ten Commandments (1956) was the last film that Cecil B. DeMille directed.  It is the most famous of the “Bible epic” genre, telling the story of Moses (played by Charlton Heston)  and the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt under Pharoah.

The film was actually a remake of a 1923 film, The Ten Commandments, also directed by Mr. Demille.  Both films feature the heroic style of acting favored in silent films.  The 1956 film was notable for its “cast of thousands,” for the location shots (parts of it were filmed in Egypt and the Sinai) and for its use of special effects, particularly the parting of the Red Sea.

The screenplay differs significantly from the account in Exodus, making use of various midrashic sources, the Qur’an, Josephus, and elsewhere. The film continues to be enormously popular, and has been parodied many times.

Commentary

“…and he looked just like Charlton Heston!” is the punchline of many a joke told by many a rabbi to liven up a sermon.  Despite the fact that the screenplay makes Hollywood chopped liver of the story in Exodus, this is another of the films that qualifies as a “must see,”  because it is a key part of popular Jewish culture.

Just be sure to actually READ Exodus sometime.  Also, take a look at the story of deliverance as told in the traditional Passover Haggadah.

Questions

If you were going to make a film about the deliverance from Egypt, would you use the screenplay of this movie, or the screenplay of  1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, or the story in the Haggadah, or the story as told in the biblical book of Exodus?  If you were going to use elements of each, which would you choose, and why?

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.

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”?

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is one of Woody Allen‘s best films, a thriller in which, as the film critic Roger Ebert wrote, the suspense is not about what will happen to people, but what decisions they will make.  The film consists of two stories, which meet only at the end.  In the first, a drama, a successful opthalmologist played by Martin Landau lives a charmed life:  he has financial success, a beautiful family, a happy marriage, and the esteem of his community.   He chooses to have an affair with a flight attendant, (Anjelica Huston) and when he decides to break off the affair, she becomes furious, threatening every good thing in his life.  He seeks advice about what to do:  from a patient who is a rabbi, and from his brother, a ne’er-do-well with Mob connections.  Each offers him his best suggestion, but the doctor has to choose.    In a parallel story, a comedy, a documentary filmmaker accepts a job making a film about his brother-in-law, a successful Hollywood producer (Alan Alda), in order to raise money for a film he is making about a philosopher.  The filmmaker is in a failing marriage, and he becomes infatuated with the associate producer, played by Mia Farrow.  He chooses to try to initiate an affair with her.

All the decisions of all the characters are played out by the end of the film.  We are left to consider the nature of good and of evil, of faith and skepticism, of love and hate.

Commentary

(NOTE:  there are spoilers in the commentary and questions.  Stop here if you do not want to know what choices the men make.) If I were to interview Woody Allen myself, there is one question I would love to ask him:  Did he write Crimes and Misdemeanors with Psalm 94 consciously in mind?  The question in this film is precisely that of the Psalmist when he asks, in Psalms 94:3 “How long will the wicked, Adonai, how long will the wicked be jubilant?”  I might be inclined to say no, this is just the eternal cry against the unjustness of life, except for verse 7, which says: “They say, ‘Adonai does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.'”  Again and again in the movie, the murdering opthalmologist quotes his father, who said, “God sees everything.”  And yet, by the end of the film, despite that, nothing bad has happened to the murderer.  Apparently there there will be no divine retribution for the sin of killing an inconvenient lover.

Allen’s vision of the world is utterly bleak.  He sees the bad guys getting away with their crimes, and the better man getting nothing.  However, the better man isn’t without his own sins:  he is simply an ineffectual bad guy.  As for the man of faith, the only truly good man in the film, he goes blind.

Questions

This is a great Jewish film because it engages with serious Jewish questions:  why be righteous?  What is the meaning of law?  Who sees most clearly, the blind rabbi or the guy who insists on “seeing the world as it really is”?  Is faith valuable, or is it merely self-deception?  Does faith make us stronger, or weaker?  What is Woody Allen saying in answer to these questions?  Do you agree or disagree with him?

Many of the characters in the film have an immature approach to faith; they go to childhood memories for their ideas about God.   The two exceptions — adults with mature approaches to faith —  are the philosopher and the rabbi, neither of which is a fully drawn character.  One of them dies a suicide, the other loses his eyesight.   What effect does this have on the discussion of the questions in the film?