Tag Archives: Suspense

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.

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Munich

Munich (2005) is a fictionalized account of real events following the brutal murder of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.   Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized the assasination of 11 surviving men who had been involved in the murders, members of the Black September militant group.  Secret squads of  agents were assembled for the task.   The film, which producer/director Steven Spielberg describes as “historical fiction” simplifies the account considerably, telling the story of the assasinations mostly from the point of view of the leader of one of the squads, Avner, played by Eric Bana.  The film received good reviews and was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner & Eric Roth), Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn) and Best Original Score (Composed by John Williams).

The screenplay is based on the book,  Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by journalist George Jonas, which in turn was based on the story of Yuval Aviv, who claims to have been a Mossad agent.

The film begins as a conventional thriller but moves steadily into an examination of questions about justice, revenge, and the human costs of each.  Each of the men on the squad is changed by his experiences carrying out the orders.  Several of them eventually question the morality of the orders.  The film also includes several discussions Avner has concerning the nature of home and family:  with his fellows, with a young Palestinian leader about his own age, and with the father of the mysterious French informant who sells them the whereabouts of their quarry.

There were two sets of controversy surrounding the film’s content.  Some critics, including Zionist organizations and Leon Weiseltier of the New Republic, felt that the film erred in presenting terrorism and anti-terrorism as morally equivalent activities.  Other critics wrote that no such equivalency was made, rather that the film raises the issue of the toll that this sort of activity exacts on the individuals who carry it out and on the nation that sponsors it.

Other critics have argued that the film did not depict the events accurately enough, leaving out essential parts of the true story such as the Lillehammer Affair (in which an innocent man was assassinated in a case of mistaken identity.)  Israeli sources have suggested that the film’s depiction of the questioning and soul-searching of the agents is mere fiction and seriously misleading.

Note:  this film is extremely violent and not suitable for children or the sensitive.

Commentary

The film raises some of the complex questions that  bedevil the subject of a proper response to terrorism.  Tthe rabbis of old were very clear that the lex talonis (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) was not to be taken literally, and that justice is something that happens in a court, not by private revenge.   Civilized people seek justice under the law rather than revenge.  However, in 1972 the Israeli leaders believed that it was essential to retaliate for the murders of its athletes because the rest of the world seemed uninterested in pursuing justice in this case.  The Games continued, and in many parts of Europe, the Black Septemberists were portrayed as heroes, not as murderers.

I remember vividly watching the events of Munich unfold on our family TV when I was a teenager.  I recall being shocked that the Games simply continued after a mass murder, and that the Germans, indeed the world, seemed to feel that since many of the terrorists were dead, there was nothing for the police to do. I confess that I was glad later when I learned that the Israeli government decided to take action, although this film makes me wonder at the methods and the cost.   I believe it is important both to ask this sort of question and to remind myself, and my reader, that this film is a work of fiction.  The truth is I do not know how truthfully it depicts the decisions and actions of the real people.  It is useful for theoretical speculation, but it is not useful for passing judgment either on Golda Meir or, for that matter, on Yuval Aviv, the man upon whom the fictional character Avner is supposedly based.  For that, we need facts, not fiction.

At the end of the film, Avner says to Ephraim, his Mossad handler, “What did we accomplish?” pointing out that everyone they killed had been replaced by someone even more brutal.  Ephraim, played by Geoffrey Rush, gives a reply indicating that he thinks Avner’s question is naive. The question is left in the viewer’s lap:  is this necessary?  Is it right?  Is it really the best option?

One of the more interesting aspects of the film, to me, is the question raised by one of Avner’s team:  why didn’t they capture those guys, take them back to Israel, and put them on trial like Eichmann?  In Golda Meir’s speech early in the film there is a suggestion that the proper response to terror is more terror:  scare them so they won’t do this again.  Another reason given early in the film is that it is much easier to kill them than to kidnap them.

Has anyone ever come up with a truly effective response to terrorism, one that does not simply breed more terrorists?

Questions for Discussion

1.  Has a work of fiction ever shaped your understanding of a historical event?  Is it responsible for a filmmaker or novelist to “fictionalize” an account of a historical event?  Does the artist have any responsibility to let viewers  know which parts of the film or novel are fiction?  Does the viewer or reader have any responsibility to search out the facts?

2.  What do you think the Israeli government should have done in response to the murder of the Olympic team?  Why?

3.  What is the difference between justice and revenge?  Which term would you use to describe the events in this film?

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?

Pi

PiPi (1998) is a daring low-budget psychological thriller written and directed by Darren Aronofsky .  Max Cohen, a mathematical genius plagued with monumental headaches, lives locked in a small apartment in New York.  The apartment is filled with a supercomputer (“Euclid”) he has built himself.  Max (played by Sean Gullette) believes that the universe can be described with a single mathematical formula, if only he is clever and persistent enough to discern the formula.

Initially, Max examines the patterns in the stock market, and has enough success using his program to predict fluctuations there that he comes to the attention of a group of sinister, well-heeled Wall Street denizens.  Later, a group of Hasidic Jews in search of the Name of God convince him to look at Torah as a “string of numbers.”  Both groups view Max as a means to an end.

Meanwhile, Max’s headaches and his internal demons rage. Aronofsky uses an arsenal of electronic music, oddball film techniques, and high-contrast black and white photography to convey the wonder and misery of Max’s world.

As the British Channel 4 reviewer writes, the film is “disturbing, exhilarating, and sure to send anyone of conservative temperament scuttling from the room.”  Definitely NOT a film for children.

Commentary  (contains Spoilers)

The search for God has been a subject of art since the beginning of art.  This is a film about a man who uses his sacred language (mathematics) to try to approach the Divine Meaning behind Creation.  It is a Jewish film for our purposes here for three reasons:  (1) Max Cohen is an explicitly Jewish main character (2)  Max is both protected and threatened by a group of Hasidic Jews seeking to identify the Name of the Jewish God with gematria, and (3) the conclusion of the film is actually quite Jewish (although I’m interested in knowing if you think so, too.)

Max is a seeker after truth who has a teacher but no real friends.  The struggle with his teacher is interrupted in the middle of the film; Max is left to find his own way alone, pursued by people who want what he might find.  Max seeks what Paul Tillich, a Christian theologian, called the Ultimate Ground of Being:  a mathematical or numerical key to Everything.  The two groups who pursue him are also seeking access to their gods:  an unspecified Wall Street firm seeks Money (and Power) and a group of Hasidic Jews seek the Power of the Name of God. Max’s pursuit seems to be purer:  he is driven to seek the key, but we never have any sense of what he will do with it.  He is frantically attracted to it, and all of his life has been subsumed to that pursuit.

In the end, Max fails to capture the knowledge he seeks, and the end of the film was described as “disappointing” by many critics.  (What did they think, that the filmmaker had the Name of God and was going to give it to us?)  I was initially let down, too, but later began to wonder about it.

Max finally is overwhelmed by the pain and his madness, and takes a power drill to his own skull.  After that scene, the next we see is Max in the park, looking at the patterns in the trees, looking relaxed and happy.  A little girl comes by and asks him to solve a bit of arithmetic:  he declines, and smiles.

I am reminded of the tale of the four rabbis in Chagigah 14b (Babylonian Talmud.)

It is the cryptic story of four Sages who “entered pardes”. The Four sages were: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha Ben Abuyah, and Akiba ben Joseph. Exactly what “entering pardes” means is a mystery. Theories include that it is: mystical ascent, or esoteric interpretations of the Torah, or Paradise.  Whatever the reality behind the event, it was catastrophic for three of the rabbis. Ben Azzai “looked and died.” Ben Zoma “looked and lost his senses.” Ben Abuyah “cut the root,” and became known only as Acher, while Akiba alone emerged whole.

One interpretation of the story is that Ben Azzai was so captivated by what he saw he could not give it up and refused to return to his body. Ben Zoma became so immersed in the mysteries he had seen that he ceased to be able to function in life. Ben Abuyah saw Metatron, an angel.  Thinking he had seen another deity besides God, he declared “there are two powers in heaven” (he became a Gnostic) and turned against the Torah.  Only Akiba, the superb scholar, was able to peek into this reality and remain unscathed.

Questions

1.  What does seeking after the True Name of God have to do with Judaism?  Is it the same as, or different from, seeking the Truth?

2.  What did you think of the depiction of the Hasids in this film?

3.  Did Max fail, or did he succeed? How did you feel about the ending?  What does it say about efforts to understand the Truth behind the Universe?

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”?

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?