Tag Archives: Drama

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.

Advertisements

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?

Next Stop, Greenwich Village

There is a time in American life when we are just past adolescence, but not yet fully adult.  This is the time explored in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Paul Mazursky.   Set in Greenwich Village in 1953, it is not just a special time in a young man’s life, it is also a special time in the history of New York, when it was the epicenter of artistic ferment.  Greenwich Village attracted young men and women who wanted to break the rules and explore the world, and the protagonist, Larry Lapinsky (played by Lenny Baker) is just such a young man.  He wants to be an actor, and he works and studies to make his dream come true, while working a day job at a health food store.

Larry and his friends form a family of sorts, an assortment of characters, including early performances by Christopher Walken, Lois Smith, and Jeff Goldblum.  But Larry finds it difficult to leave his Brooklyn family behind, mostly because his mother, Faye, (played by Shelly Winters) keeps following him, dragging his father along to his apartment at inappropriate hours.

We see Larry through this transition in his life, right up until he comes to a truce with Mama and a new stage of life.   In the last frames of the film, he is walking down his old street in Brooklyn, munching on Mama’s strudel, saying goodbye to childhood, for real this time.

Commentary

Larry Lapinsky is not a “religious” Jew.  In the opening scene of the film, we see him take a yarmulke out of the bureau drawer as he is packing to leave home. He puts it on his head, looks in the mirror, shrugs, and drops it back into the drawer.  For him, religion is something that went with childhood:  he’s over all that now.

And yet for all that, this is a film about a young Jew in the transition from adolescent to man.  His mother is out of control, drives him crazy, and is the personification of the over-protective Jewish mother stereotype.  Shelley Winters is a force of nature, whining, screeching, cajoling, seducing, bribing, sulking, and flipping out:  she is a nightmare mom with whom her son is hopelessly entangled.  (Whatever you think of the stereotype, her performance is breathtaking.)

This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this film:  as Rabbi Brian Zimmerman pointed out in a comment elsewhere on this blog, many film directors and writers have been less than kind to Jewish mothers.  Faye is perhaps the worst of the mothers appearing in the films on this list, and yet in Winter’s capable hands, she holds an attraction for the audience, just as she does for Larry’s friends.

As those of youwho have read other commentaries in this blog know, I am interested and bothered by the depiction of Jewish women on screen.  For all the charms of this film (and most critics say it is Mazursky’s finest) the Jewish women in this film fall into unpleasant stereotypes a bit too easily.  Mama is a harridan, clingy and shameless in her manipulation.  Sarah, the girlfriend, can’t commit to anything.  Connie, played by Dori Brenner, the least developed of the Jewish women, is sweet and motherly: a bit too sweet and motherly, waiting patiently for someone to need her, and it is all too easy to see her as a younger version of Mama.

Double Features

Rabbi Zimmerman suggested a trilogy of films depicting Jewish mothers:  (1) Next Stop Greenwich Village, for the poisonous image of Mama, (2) Crossing Delancey, for the warm relationship of grandmother and granddaughter and (3) Kissing Jessica Stein, for an entirely new portrait of a Jewish mother in film.

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:

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.