When Paul Newman Came to Israel

Early documentaries filmed in Israel, the first Hollywood movie shot here, an opportunity to rediscover ‘Exodus’ – they are all part of a fascinating retrospective that reveals Israel through eyes of foreign film directors

Paul Newman in "Exodus."
Photo12 / Collection Cinema

To know what national pride is, you would have had to experience the fever that gripped Israel in 1959, when film director Otto Preminger and a cast headed by Paul Newman arrived in Israel to shoot “Exodus.” It was an almost naive pride, like the excitement two years earlier that had accompanied the opening of the Tel Aviv movie theater – a palace of unparalleled magnificence – and in 1958 the opening of the first supermarket in Tel Aviv. These events signaled the fulfillment of the Zionist dream and Israel’s transformation into a country like all others, and they allowed the social, political, economic and security situation to be ignored.

“Exodus,” based on Leon Uris’ bestseller, whose premiere even David Ben-Gurion attended, declaring it was the first movie he’d seen for 30 years, is part of a retrospective titled “Out Looking In: Israel in the eyes of Foreign Directors,” which opened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque this week and will continue at that venue and in cinematheques throughout Israel until the end of the month. The curator is Dr. Ariel Schweitzer, a film historian who lectures at Tel Aviv University and writes criticism for the influential French journal Cahiers du Cinéma.

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Taken together, the films offer an intelligent, diverse and rich overview of the way this place was portrayed in the cinema over the years – the retrospective straddles more than a century, from 1897 to 2006. One reason that makes it a valuable compilation is its mix of feature films and documentaries. How the other sees me is always fascinating. It’s especially intriguing in this land, because that gaze highlights the contours of historical ambivalence – ideological and political – and through the prism of the other, reflects it back on oneself.

Hope for coexistence

Heroism, sacrifice and victimization characterize the four feature films of the retrospective. The most interesting of them historically, and also because it is screened relatively rarely, is “Sabra,” a 1933 picture by the Polish director Aleksander Ford. Visually impressive, the film depicts a group of pioneers who settled on land purchased from Arabs who until then had lived on it. All the elements of the conflict between the Jews and the Arabs, which later morphed into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can be detected here.

Ford was an admired director whose later pictures include “The Eighth Day of the Week,” based on a book by Marek Hlasko (who spent a large part of his short, tormented life in Israel); “The First Circle,” adapted from the novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and “The Martytr,” which tells the story of Janusz Korczak, the Jewish doctor who accompanied the orphans he was caring for to a death camp during the Holocaust. In “Sabra” the conflict revolves around the meager water resources in Palestine during a serious drought. The Arabs are portrayed as cheats and savages. The orientalism they represent is pitted against the European origin of the pioneers, some of whom dream of returning to their continent of origin. But the film also signals a hope for coexistence, reflected in finding a well and in the relationship that is formed between two young people, an Arab woman and a Jewish pioneer. There is also a rare opportunity to see several of the great actors of the Habimah theater when they were young – among them Aharon Meskin, Hanna Rovina, Shimon Finkel, Raphael Klatchkin and Yehoshua Bertonov, who display the requisite pathos.

Kirk Douglas and Milly Vitale in “The Juggler,” the first Hollywood movie shot in Israel.
The Museum of the Art and History of Judaism, Paris

“The Juggler,” a 1953 film directed by Edward Dmytryk (“Mutiny on the Bounty,” “The Young Lions”), was the first Hollywood movie to be shot in Israel. The determination of its star, Kirk Doulas, got it made. Douglas plays a Holocaust survivor who had been a successful juggler in Germany and came to Israel in 1949, haunted by his memories and by guilt feelings. “The Juggler,” which did not do well commercially but is quite interesting, resembles a film noir about a Holocaust survivor who gets into trouble because in his mental state he is unable to distinguish between the representatives of the law in his new homeland and the Nazis.

Douglas also plays the lead role in Melville Shavelson’s 1966 film, “Cast a Giant Shadow.” It tells the story of an American army officer, Col. Mickey Marcus, who came to pre-state Israel in 1947 to assist the Haganah militia, took part in the War of Independence and paid with his life for his devotion to the Zionist vision.

Its formulaic script and routine direction make it the least interesting of the four feature films in the retrospective. But this, too, was an epic-scale production, with cameo appearances by John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner and others.

However, the shooting of the film did not generate the same frenzy among the Israeli public as “Exodus.” One reason for that was that in the same year, “Judith,” directed by Daniel Mann (not included in the retrospective) was also filmed in Israel. In it, Sophia Loren plays a Holocaust survivor who walks around in the kibbutz wearing short shorts and sporting modish sunglasses. Israelis were far more thrilled by Loren, who shared her favorite recipes for pasta with the public, than by Kirk Douglas or Senta Berger, the Austrian actress who played the woman with whom the married Marcus falls in love during his stay in Israel.

The documentaries are more intriguing than the feature films, because the questions they raise address more piercingly the essence, identity and future of the country. In some of them, the documentation itself is the principal aspect. On Friday, viewers will have an opportunity to see the 10 minutes of film shot of Jerusalem, Jaffa and the Judean Desert by the photographer Alexandre Promio, who was sent to the region in 1897 by the fathers of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumière. Also being screened is “Lives of Jews in Palestine,” a film by Noah Sokolovsky, a Russian businessman, who premiered it at the 11th Jewish Congress, held in Vienna in 1913. “Lives” was long thought to be lost, until a copy turned up in France in 1998, and underwent restoration. 

While viewing early films, it is instructive to take note of what they documented and what they left out, whether Jews and Arabs, religious or secular Jews, and longtime residents or newcomers.

The other documentaries in the retrospective represent an engaging selection whose makers came to Israel in order to ask and explore, among them Claude Lanzmann, who in his first film, from 1973, “Israel, Why” – without a question mark, Lanzmann always insisted – set out to investigate the justification for the existence of the Jewish state. In 1974, immediately after the Yom Kippur War, Susan Sontag came to Israel to direct a film titled “Promised Lands,” a mosaic of her impressions gleaned from traveling around the country and visiting battlefields in Sinai. Sontag, who also conducted interviews with Israeli intellectuals, leaves open most of the questions about the country’s essence, identity and future. And there was also the Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in a captivating 1963 film, “Location Hunting in Palestine,” documented his attempt to find sites in Israel for his picture, “The Gospel According to Matthew.” He eventually concluded that the country was too modern for his purposes.

Through the window

Two more films act as the opening and the conclusion of this part of the retrospective. In 1960, Wim and Lia Van Leer invited the French director Chris Marker to make a documentary in Israel. The result, “Description of a Struggle” – in Hebrew, “Third Side of a Coin,” Hebrew narration written by the writer and literary critic Yaakov Malkin – is an untendentious impressionistic voyage across the country’s physical, human and ideological landscapes. In contrast to the peregrinations of Lanzmann, Sontag, Pasolini and Marker, the Belgian director Chantal Akerman chose, in her impressive 2006 film, “Down There,” to shoot the entire picture through a window of her Tel Aviv apartment. In the background she reads passages from her diary, in which she wonders about her Jewish identity and about the connection between the self and the other and between here and there.

Back to “Exodus.” Preminger’s film has a bad reputation in Israel, where it’s considered pro-Zionist kitsch. But it’s more interesting than people give it credit for. Conceptual and emotional ambivalence was the prime characteristic of Preminger’s work. It is seen in films such as “The Man with the Golden Arm,” “Advise and Consent” and “The Cardinal,” and also in one of his best pictures, “Anatomy of a Murder,” which preceded “Exodus” and also did well. Some of the young film critics in France and England found this ambivalence to be Preminger’s personal signature, and added him to the list of their favorite auteurs. For them, “Exodus” was an integral part of Preminger’s oeuvre.

The ambivalence exists in “Exodus,” too, though it is less transparent to us than in the director’s other films, because the picture is engaged with this place and its history. One of its wellsprings is the fact that at the center of the film there is a non-Jewish American woman, played by Eva Marie Saint, foreign to what unfolds in the picture and witness to it. It’s worth giving this movie another chance and perhaps discovering the ambivalence breaking through.