Cinema in the time of war
The opening night of the 11th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, which will run from Saturday night through the following Friday, will be dedicated to the screening of the silent film "East and West," produced in Austria in 1923. The movie was directed by Sidney M. Goldin and Ivan Abramson, two of the most important artists in the history of Yiddish cinema. Goldin, who began directing films in 1912, was born in Russia in 1877 and died in New York in 1937; Abramson, who started directing in 1914, was born in Poland in 1868 and died in New York in 1934.
The screening of the film, which has English and Yiddish subtitles, will be accompanied by new music composed for it by Lemez Lovas of the British band Oy Va Voi, who collaborated with musicians Rohan Kriwaczek and Moshik Kop. According to the festival catalogue, the three musicians aim to provide music for the films of Goldin and Abramson that uses a wide range of styles, from electronic to klezmer, in order to both add another dimension to the comedy while at the same time paying tribute to the original.
The film presents the story of a Jewish gambler from New York, who goes to Galicia with his daughter to attend a family wedding. The completely Americanized daughter, who teaches the Jews of Galicia to dance the Shimmy (one of the most popular dances in the 1920s), is played by Molly Picon - a legend of the Yiddish theater and cinema. Picon also performed on Broadway in English-speaking productions (such as "Fiddler on the Roof") and in films such as "Come Blow Your Horn" alongside Frank Sinatra and "For Pete's Sake" with Barbra Streisand.
As in previous years, the festival will screen feature films and documentaries, long and short films, new movies and those from the past that deal with Jewish subjects, like the opening one.
One festival event will be dedicated to "The Diary of Anne Frank," with a discussion on the importance and implications of the diary, and a screening of the 1959 film by director George Stevens ("A Place in the Sun," "Giant"). The film was adapted from the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on Frank's diary, which was performed on Broadway with great success. The movie was also greatly admired, winning three Oscars (including one for supporting actress Shelley Winters).
Following a lengthy search for an unknown actress, a young non-Jewish New York model named Millie Perkins was selected for the starring role. The choice was controversial, but Perkins received favorable criticism for her performance, and she will attend the festival screening of her most famous film.
Stevens' version of the play by Goodrich and Hackett is easily accessible (it was also recently reported that Walt Disney Studios are planning to produce a new version by playwright and director David Mamet). On the other hand, a much rarer film will also be screened in Jerusalem; until now I wasn't aware of its existence, and I watched it with great interest.
The Russian film - "The Oppenheim Family" - was produced in 1938, based on the 1933 novel by German-Jewish writer Leon Feuchtwanger. It was produced in Russia and is in Russian, but its story takes place in Germany and describes the tragic story of a wealthy Jewish family in the wake of the Nazi rise to power.
In cinematic terms, the film, which was directed by Grigori Roshal, is nothing special. It is directed in a heavy and very clumsy realistic cinematic style. But as a historical phenomenon it is fascinating - both because it is an anti-Nazi film produced in Russia at that specific historical moment and because it deals with a Jewish family during that same historical moment. The film was produced shortly after Kristallnacht (which occurred on November 9, 1938) and Feuchtwanger's story, like Roshal's film, predicts it.
The choice of Feuchtwanger's novel as the basis for a Russian film is not surprising. The Jewish writer visited the Soviet Union in 1937 and in the wake of the visit published a book called "Moscow," in which he expressed his support for Stalin. Feuchtwanger left Germany in 1933 and moved to France; after the German invasion he succeeded in escaping to the United States.
A much newer and equally fascinating work to be shown at the festival is the Czech film "Protektor," which was produced this year. Czech cinema, like Czech culture in general, always has a tone of its own - which gently ranges from the comic to the melancholy. It seems only a Czech director could have made this movie, which is a kind of half-comic half-tragic fiction that takes place in 1930s Czechoslovakia.
The name of the film refers to Reinhard Heydrich, who in 1941 was appointed the protector of Bohemia and Moravia (which is what the Germans called the occupied areas of Czechoslovakia); the story of his assassination in 1942 serves as a kind of framework. The movie's title also refers to its hero, a radio broadcaster married to a Jewish film actress, who is starring in her first film just before the Germans invade her homeland. In order to protect his wife from expulsion, he collaborates with the Nazi occupier, who controls the radio station where he works; but this patriarchal protection becomes complicated when the woman begins to rebel against her husband's control over her, which parallels the Germans' control of the Czechs.
The unique quality of the film, the second directed by Marek Najbrt, stems from the sophistication with which the story is told, the delicate timing between various tones of speech and a distinct style; the latter proves it is possible to deal with the memory of the Second World War and the Holocaust not only in the realistic manner that has typified most of the films which have dealt with this topic. It would be a shame if this clever and sophisticated film is screened only in the context of the festival without being given broader exposure.
Incidentally, it's a shame that, alongside the Najbrt film, the festival isn't screening two additional and very different cinematic works that also deal with Heydrich's assassination, both produced in the United States the same year: "Hangmen Also Die!" directed by Fritz Lang (based on a story he wrote with Bertolt Brecht), and "Hitler's Madman" by Douglas Sirk.
A sophisticated script and style also characterize the Russian film "A Room and a Half," which was shown to an Israeli audience at the last film festival in Jerusalem. It's a good thing the present festival is providing another opportunity to see it. The film, which was directed by Andrey Khrzhanovsky, follows the life of poet Joseph Brodsky, who escaped from the Soviet Union, found refuge in the United States and eventually received a Nobel Prize. But Khrzhanovsky, most of whose work has been in animation, creates anything but a traditional cinematic biography. With the help of a wide variety of gimmicks, including scenes using animation, he creates a film that anchors Brodsky's life story in a large number of historical, cultural and artistic contexts. The result is clever and fascinating, and ranges skillfully between moments of satire and moments of pathos.