Tag Archives: Holocaust

Shanghai Ghetto

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

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

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

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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

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Everything is Illuminated

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

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

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

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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

Double Feature

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

Other Reviews

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

Au Revoir, Les Enfants

AuRevoirAu Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) is based on the childhood memories of the great French filmmaker, Louis Malle.  During World War II, he attended a Catholic boarding school in the countryside of France.  One day, the Gestapo raided the school and captured three Jewish students and a Jewish teacher, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz and died there.  The headmaster of the school was arrested for giving shelter to Jews; he died at Mauthausen.   (The headmaster, Pere Jacques de Jesus, was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations and memorialized at Yad Vashem in 1985.)  Malle was eleven years old when these events happened, and they haunted him.  Au Revoir, Les Enfants is the film he made to tell the emotional truth about that experience.

In the film, a pampered French boy, Julien,  has been sent to a religious boarding school in the countryside by his mother, who is worried that Paris has become too dangerous during the war.  There he becomes intrigued by a newcomer named Jean Bonnet, whom he gradually realizes is a Jew in hiding.  The two become close friends, and when the Gestapo raid the school, disaster strikes when Julien inadvertently gives Jean’s identity away.  As the headmaster is led away by the students, he calls back to them, “Au revoir, les enfants!”   [Goodbye, children!}

Commentary

This is among the most powerful of Holocaust films, even though we never see the camps and we only occasionally see a German soldier.  Rather, Malle shows us the terrible losses suffered, and the slow grinding pace at which they proceeded for many French Jews.  Julien misses his mother terribly, but she comes to visit at every school holiday.  Jean misses his mother, too; he carries her last letter with him all the time, but he has not heard from her in months and by the film’s end we realize he will never see her again.  The French boys in the film are normal boys, and they are busy having a childhood despite the fact that a war is in progress.  The Jewish children, however, have a terrible shadow over them; their awareness of that shadow colors even the small pleasures of life.

The film does an excellent job of showing the many different opinions about Jews among French Christians, from the most anti-Semitic bigot to the gentle headmaster.  It also has a brief but poignant investigation of the banality of evil.

The end of the film raises for us the guilt of the helpless bystander.  In real life, Malle did not betray a Jewish child, but his choice to make Julien accidentally betray Jean in the film is brilliant, because it throws a bright light on the guilt that the helpless real-life children felt, watching their friends led away by the Gestapo.   It makes it impossible for us to rationalize that Julien shouldn’t feel guilty; we are drawn into his misery.

Au Revoir, Les Enfants is a magnificent film, one of the finest ever made about the Holocaust.

Life is Beautiful

life is beautiful(0)Life is Beautiful (1997) is not a Holocaust movie, even though half of the film is set in a concentration camp.  Roberto Benigni, who co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film is one of the great comics of Italian cinema.  He has made a fable about the salvific powers of love and laughter.  The movie won the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor, and Best Music in 1999, as well as over 50 other awards.

Commentary

Many critics described the film as brilliant, but there were also dissenting voices:  Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chonicle wrote that it is an “ambitious film” but that in the end, “it doesn’t work.”  Charles Taylor of Salon.com flatly writes that the film is “in offensively poor taste.”

I agree with Charles Taylor; I found it more and more difficult to watch this film in its second half, which is set in a concentration camp.  The idea that everything in the camp could be explained away as a “game” is beyond my suspension of disbelief.  The “humor” and “love” in the film are portrayed with no regard for the countless families ripped apart and destroyed by the Nazi machinery of death.  I do not find Life is Beautiful funny, and most definitely not “beautiful.”

One other thing:  I can imagine that someone out there might think that this film is “Holocaust lite” and therefore suitable for children.  Even if you accept the sophisticated view of the film prize awarders, and see this as great comic cinema, it is not a film for learning about the Holocaust:  the Holocaust is incidental to it.   Please don’t take a child to it.

Black Book

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

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

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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”?

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.