Tag Archives: Holocaust

The Book Thief

bookthiefThe Book Thief (2013) is a beautiful if flawed adaptation of the 2005 young adult novel with the same title. It looks at life in Nazi Germany through the eyes of a young German girl. Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) has lost her mother as the film begins; her mother is a communist, presumably taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel is adopted by the working-class Hubermanns (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) who become progressively poorer as the war drags on. Her adopted father, Hans, is in trouble for not joining the Nazi Party, and he has a penchant for sticking up for the underdog. Rosa, his wife, appears to be a stingier sort of person, but shows her true colors when the son of an old friend of Hans’, a Jew, appears starving at their door.

The film follows this threesome through the war, and it surprises in ways that I will not spoil with this commentary. There is nothing in the film I would not show a middle-schooler. (For more about the film’s suitability for children, see its entry at www.kids-in-mind.com.)

The book and film take their name from Liesel, who takes a book she cannot even read at the beginning of the film, and who continually acquires books through questionable or dangerous means.

Commentary

The Book Thief offers us a chance to ponder what was going on with ordinary Germans during the Holocaust years. It takes us inside the home of a couple who feel sympathy for communists and Jews, but who are poorly equipped to take a heroic stand against Nazism. It takes us into the schoolyard, where young Liesel faces the full range of her neighbors’ loyalties and inclinations, from Franz, an enthusiastic Nazi and bully, to Rudy, who idolizes Jesse Owens and cannot understand why he must keep that enthusiasm quiet. It introduces us to the neighbors, some who disapprove of the Hubermanns’ unwillingness to join the Nazi Party and others who seem to silently agree with them that the world has lost its mind.

In this setting, every small act may have outsize consequences. I understand that some reviewers found the film “boring,” but I found the film to have a growing, needling tension. First there is the ordinary calm of a schoolroom, but with Nazi flags and Hitler’s photo, there’s an edge to it. Then with each plot development the Hubermann family seems more vulnerable, between Han’s penchant for showing his humanity at the wrong moment to Liesel’s dangerous book acquisitions. Since I had not read the book, I was on the edge of my seat every moment, afraid that they were about to be exposed.

I understand that the role of Max, the Jew in the basement, is much smaller in the film than in the book. He is still a compelling figure, a gifted teacher who encourages Liesel’s passion for words while trapped in a cold, damp basement.

The Book Thief is a film about transcendence: the power of love to transcend a horrible situation and about the power of a good narrative to transcend an ugly present.  In bare outline, Liesel’s childhood was horrible, one terrible loss after another. As told in the film, however, she is very much a loved child and able to survive her losses partly because of her passion for a good story.

Questions for Discussion

1. Given her motivation (and just what was that motivation?) what did you think of Liesel’s borrowing or stealing books from the Bürgermeister’s house? What was she risking by taking the books? Was it worth it?

2. What was your initial impression of Rosa? Did your impression change, and if so, at what point in the story? Why?

3. What books would you be willing to steal, if it were the only way to get them? Under what circumstances would you consider it justifiable to steal books?

4. In this film, a number of “ordinary people” face ethical challenges. What would you do (or have you done) in these situations:

  • Someone hungry and desperate asks you for help. You fear they may bring disaster on your home.
  • You desperately want something that belongs to someone else.
  • Someone you believe to be innocent is handled violently by police.
  • Someone you love has a secret, and they won’t tell you what it is.

5. Is it true that love can transcend even a situation like Liesel’s, or is this film ultimately foolish and sentimental for suggesting it?

 

 

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A Film Unfinished

A Film Unfinished (2010) (Hebrew title: שתיקת הארכיון Shtikat haArkhion) is a documentary about an unfinished Nazi film shot in the Warsaw ghetto in May, 1942, two months before its inhabitants were shipped to Treblinka to be murdered. While an edited version of the film (titled, Das Ghetto) has been known since it was discovered at the end of the war, in 1998 East German archivists found an additional reel of outtakes.

Israeli director Yael Hersonski uses the newly discovered 30 minutes of film along with interviews with survivors of the ghetto and one of the cameramen who worked on the fim to make sense of the original footage and to raise questions about film as evidence.  Where the original Nazi film appeared to show wealthy Jews ignoring beggars and stepping over dead bodies to enter restaurants and clubs, the outtakes show them being forced to participate in staged meals in a fake restaurant for the purpose of the propaganda film.  Starving Jews stare at the cameras while a cringing young woman is forced to pose with a beggar.

The filmmaker has done a sensitive job of showing us the power of the editor to shape the image we see on the screen, and to influence our understanding of that image.  The Nazi film footage creates a certain picture of Jewish life in the ghetto.  But we see the outtakes, and we watch survivors as they screen the film and react to it. Their reactions provide both a blunt commentary on the Nazi film itself (“We would have eaten a flower!”)  and a sense of the emotions that the actors in the film were forced to cover up.

There was a controversy about the marketing of this film.  It was given an R rating by the MPAA over the protests of the distributor.  It is not as graphic as some of the film footage on display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and the distributor felt that it did not merit the R. Parents considering watching the film with children should be aware that it contains images of starving people, of brutal behavior, and of dead bodies.

Commentary

Watching this documentary, I was struck by the difference between an image on film and reality.  It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words” but this documentary makes clear that we have to be critical when we look at images.  When we see a film, we often feel as if we have been witness to something real, when in fact we have merely been invited to witness the dream of the filmmaker about an event.

Jewish tradition is very suspicious of images, and cautious even about the evidence given by a single eye-witness. In that tradition, Hersonski has assembled several different witnesses to testify:  several survivors, and the cameraman Willy Wist.  Hersonski is herself a witness at a remove:  her grandmother was a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto.

This is a powerful film that provides insight into many different aspects of the Holocaust.  It also raises important questions about the manipulation of perception.

Questions for Discussion

  • The Nazis intended Das Ghetto to be a propaganda film.  What was the message they were trying to convey?
  • According to An Unfinished Film, what did the Nazis do to create a film with that message?  What had to be cut out of the raw footage? What else had to be done to manipulate the image?
  • What is the difference between a documentary and a propaganda film?  How can a critical viewer tell one from the other?
  • Did this documentary leave you with any unanswered questions?

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)  Sometimes it is only with the help of a great film critic that I can really see a film.  I have loved this film since the first time I saw it, sitting in a movie theater in the Loop in Chicago.  I was aware of loving the whiz-bang, thrill-a-minute ride.  I loved the characters, and I loved the fun of it.  But I could not say why it was a film I was happy to see again and again.  It’s just now, after reading Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review, that I realized this film had been singing to my Jewish soul.

Ebert was writing partly in answer to Pauline Kael’s characterization of the film as “impersonal,” inferior to Steven Spielberg’s work before and after.  He points out that this film is deeply personal for Spielberg, that it is a young Jewish boy’s fantasy of the revenge exacted from Nazis who seek to “steal the heritage of the Jews and use it for their own victory.”

OK, enough of me stealing from Roger Ebert.  Click the link to his review.  Read it.  He does a wonderful job of unpacking the reasons that this is a film with genuine Jewish content stuffed into every crevice of a crackerjack fun ride.

Commentary

Serious Holocaust education is important and vital if we are not to forget.  However, anyone who has actually sat through all 9 1/2 hours of Shoah will tell you that getting a Holocaust education is heart-breaking and soul-wrenching.  If, after you have done your serious study, you find that you need an antidote, something to lift the heart a bit, Raiders of the Lost Ark might be just the ticket.

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is an engaging portrait of a gifted young woman who sacrificed everything for her people.  It’s hard to believe that this is the first documentary about her life. It’s almost harder to believe that Hollywood hasn’t made any kind of film about the life of Hannah Senesh, given its mixture of drama and pathos.

Senesh was a poet and diarist, a young Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930’s, only to return home to Hungary in 1944 as a Haganah volunteer to the British Royal Air Force. She and her small group parachuted into Europe, hoping to assist stranded British airmen and the Jews of Hungary. Their timing was terrible: days after they arrived at the Hungarian border, Germany occupied the country. Senesh was captured by Hungarian police and turned over to the Gestapo, who tortured and executed her in November of 1944.

In a twist that was certainly stranger than fiction, Hannah’s mother was imprisoned with her in Budapest for a time.  The Gestapo was determined to force Hannah to give them radio codes that would allow them to send misinformation to the partisans and to the British.  They arrested Mrs. Senesh and threatened to torture her to get her daughter to talk.  Amazingly, Mrs. Senesh managed to survive the war (nearly all of Hungarian Jewry was murdered) and she appears in the film.

Synagogue-goers in the U.S. may be familiar with Senesh’s poem, Eli, Eli [My God, My God] set to a melody by David Zahavi.

Filmmaker Roberta Grossman waves together photographs, interviews, archival footage and dramatic reenactments to tell Hannah’s story.  Scholars give just enough historical background for the viewer to understand exactly what this young woman was up against.

Commentary

The experience of Hungarian Jews was different from that of most of the Jews of Europe, in that as an ally to Germany, Hungary was not under the control of the Nazis until late in the war.  Suddenly, in 1944, all of Hungary’s Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps:  in the space of a few months, most of the community was destroyed.  Part of the power of this film is that it gives a very good picture of middle class Jewish Hungarian life before the war, as well as the darkest days of 1944.

It also conveys a particular kind of Zionist story, the story of a young Hungarian woman who immigrates to Palestine out of passion for the Jewish people and the Zionist project.  Had she not become a parachutist, Senesh would likely be a retired farmer in Israel, telling stories about her life on Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

This film is gentle enough for middle-schoolers to watch, but retains an emotional punch.  The mother-daughter relationship is presented with remarkably little sentimentality.  I got the sense of two strong Jewish women who, under extreme pressure, found they were stronger than they knew.

This is an excellent film for learning about Zionism and about the Holocaust. Large events in history are much more comprehensible when we view them through the lens of a particular life.  Hannah Senesh’s life is such a lens, and more.

Enemies, A Love Story

Enemies, A Love Story (1989) is based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel of the same name.  It tells the tale of four Holocaust survivors whose stories are intertwined by ties of passion, guilt, and love.  Herman Broder (Ron Silver) was hidden in a barn in Poland by his Gentile house servant, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein) whom he married out of guilt and gratitude when the two immigrated to the United States.  Since that time, he has acquired a mistress, a Russian Jewish survivor named Masha (Lena Olin), who wants him to marry her, too.   Then his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston) the woman he believed died in a concentration camp in Europe, turns up in New York too, alive if not well, still mourning their two children who did not survive.

The story is structured as a farce, but it is a dark and melancholic comedy.  Herman writhes among the complications of his multiple lives.  He is a man devoid of hope:  he ricochets from woman to woman, trying to placate one while he is cheating on another.   He is faithless, and at the same time, horrified by the faithlessness of others. He is a man who is never fully alive, living bits of his life with different women.  Even his occupation – ghost writer for a fashionable rabbi – leaves him without any identity of his own.  Herman is a ghost.

We often say, glibly, that after a trauma a person is “never the same.”  Singer suggests to us that even after a horrible trauma, people do not really change all that much:  they may be fractured versions of their old selves, but all of their old flaws and quirks remain like ghosts.  Within a few minutes of meeting Herman again, Tamara (his first wife) recognizes that he married Yadwiga out of guilt and that he must also have a mistress somewhere.  Later in the film, she sits him down and says, “In America, they have a thing called a manager. That is what you need. I will be your manager, because you are incapable of making your decisions for yourself.”  He agrees – and in hindsight, the way that arrangement works out is predictable, too.

Paul Mazursky directed the film, and co-wrote the screenplay. (He also appearing in a cameo as Masha’s estranged husband. )  Enemies, A Love Story was nominated for three Academy Awards:  Huston and Olin were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Roger L. Simon and Mazursky were nominated for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Commentary

As with all of Singer’s stories, this is not a story about Judaism, but the characters are Jewish and it is set deep within Jewish history and tradition.   At one point, when Herman is attempting to return to Jewish observance, he sits and studies Talmud on Shemini Atzeret and fumes, “What good is the Talmud if there is nothing in there to tell you how to deal with three wives?”

He apparently had not looked at Tractate Ketubot, which has quite a bit of material on how to conduct polygamous marriages.  However, the Talmud  assumes that one is doing so in good faith, which is Herman’s problem.  Polygamy is described in Biblical narrative, although the only happy marriages mentioned in the Bible are monogamous.  In the Middle Ages, about the year 1000, Rabbi Gershom of Germany issued a takkanah [decree] forbidding polygamous marriage among European Jews, and that decree has had the force of law ever since.

But the multiple marriages are not Herman’s core problem; they are only a symptom of the problem.  Herman’s problem was correctly diagnosed by Tamara:  he cannot make a decision for himself, and as a result he is incapable of keeping a commitment.  His problem is faithlessness.  Just as he dabbles and struggles through the film with his commitment to Jewish observance, confusing his Polish wife who eventually converts to Judaism, he dabbles and struggles with his commitments to the women in his life.

Yadwiga is involved in a process of commitment in the film:  she becomes a Jew.  The progression of her engagement with Judaism is delicately portrayed.  Living with Norman for years, she has become fairly knowledgeable about household mitzvot [commandments]: she is appalled when he turns on an electric lamp on Shabbat.  In her upset, she swears at him using the names of Christian saints!  She struggles to learn the words of blessings.  Yet we have the sense, by the end of the film, that this has been a successful process of commitment:  she seems happy and relaxed as a Jewish mother.

By the end of the film, Herman has disappeared altogether; he remains only as handwriting on an envelope.  All that are left are the two women, Tamara and Yadwiga, who have formed an alliance reminiscent of Naomi and Ruth.  They are linked by a bond of love and commitment, and Yadwiga’s child soothes Tamara’s bitter soul.

Double Feature

Paul Mazursky also directed Next Stop Greenwich Village, about Jews in New York in a different era.  The other Hollywood film adaptation of an I.B. Singer story is Barbra Streisand’s Yentl.

Questions

1.  If Norman Broder came to you for advice before Tamara’s reappearance, how would you advise him?  Stay in his loveless marriage to Yadwiga?  Cut off the relationship with Masha?  Or end the marriage to Yadwiga and marry Masha?  What does he owe Yadwiga?  What does he owe Masha?

2.  If Norman Broder came to you for advice after Tamara’s reappearance, how would you advise him?  What does he owe Tamara?

3.  Norman and Yadwiga start out as an interfaith relationship.  Yadwiga converts to Judaism.  Tamara and other Jewish characters speak of Yadwiga as a shiksa [filth] early on in the film.  At the end of the film, how would you describe Tamara and Yadwiga’s relationship?  Can you imagine and describe the changes that must have taken place in Tamara’s perception of Yadwiga, and how those changes might have taken place?

The Pawnbroker

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

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

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

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

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

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