Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival Breaks Away From Familiar Tales

This year's festival screens a selection of fascinating films, none more so than German drama 'Phoenix.'

Christian Schulz / Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival

I don’t know if it’s merely a coincidence or a growing trend, but two new movies represent the memory of the Holocaust in a manner that contrasts strongly with the direct and realistic way it has otherwise been depicted in recent years.

One of these movies is “Ida,” the well-reviewed movie by Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski that’s now showing in Israeli cinemas. The other is “Phoenix” by director Christian Petzold, who is one of Germany’s most respected contemporary directors. This film opens the 16th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Cinematheque on Tuesday night.

In Petzold’s movie, the memory of the Holocaust passes through a filter that amalgamates German Expressionist movies from the 1920s, film noir, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic “Vertigo” and the French thriller “Eyes without a Face” (1960) by Georges Franju. Also in the mix are stylistic elements reminiscent of the movies of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder that dealt with postwar Germany; and the classic Hollywood melodramas in which a woman in distress undergoes a facial transformation (of all these, Petzold’s movie reminded me most of George Cukor’s 1941 movie “A Woman’s Face,” with Joan Crawford playing a scarred woman who’s offered the chance of looking like a normal person).

“Phoenix” tells the story of Nelly Lenz (played by Nina Hoss, Petzold’s favored actress). She’s a Jewish nightclub singer and concentration-camp survivor whose face was totally disfigured after she was shot in the head. After Auschwitz, she returns to Berlin with two goals: To undergo a series of plastic surgeries that will restore her previous look; and to find her German husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who costarred with Hoss in Petzold’s previous movie, “Barbara”). He’s a pianist who may have been the one who informed on her to the Gestapo. The operations give her a look that somewhat resembles the one she had before. Although she has an opportunity to emigrate and go to Palestine, she prefers to stay in the postwar rubble of Berlin and continue searching for her husband.

When the two meet at the Phoenix nightclub in which he is performing, he doesn’t recognize her because he’s convinced his wife is dead. However, he covets Nelly’s family’s money and convinces her to pose as his wife. Thus, Nelly – whose identity is already shaky following her wartime ordeal and facial makeover – is now shaped by her husband into the woman she once was. She plays herself in the plot concocted by Johnny, with part of her role being that of a Holocaust survivor.

Does all this work cinematically? Not entirely. But it’s hard to disengage or take one’s eyes off the screen. Even if the result often repels, this movie adds another layer to the unfolding discourse between movies and the memory of the Holocaust.

All this and Sarah Silverman, too

This discourse is the most important one in post-World War II movies, and each added layer is significant. Petzold skillfully weaves together the different elements his movie is based on, such as identity and consolidation. He repeatedly uses Kurt Weill’s song “Speak Low,” written to accompany Ogden Nash’s lyrics to the 1943 musical “One Touch of Venus.” The choice of a Jewish composer who fled to the United States when the Nazis came to power in 1933 adds another layer of memory to this movie.

The Jewish Film Festival, which this year boasts U.S. comedian Sarah Silverman as its guest of honor, will feature some culinary events, as well as films in different categories. There will be new feature films, along with documentaries from different countries, all dealing with Jewish subjects. There will also be Israeli films, most of them documentaries. The festival will include the local premiere of Amos Gitai’s drama “Tsili,” based on Aharon Appelfeld’s novel “Tsili: The Story of a Life” (also known as “The Cloak and the Stripes”).

The festival, which runs until December 23, will also screen older films such as the restored “Samson and Delilah,” Cecil B. DeMille’s delightful yet kitschy historical epic from 1949, in which the muscular Victor Mature plays Samson, and the Jewish-born Hedy Lamarr – once considered the most beautiful woman in the world – plays the Philistine femme fatale Delilah.

Also being screened is “Unzere Kinder” (Our Children), the 1948 Polish drama by Natan Gross and Shaul Goskind. In it, orphaned Jewish children – all Holocaust survivors – watch Yiddish theater in a play performed by comedy duo Dzigan and Shumacher. This is a moving movie that offers a rare opportunity to see the Polish double act in action again.

Another film being screened is the war drama “Violins at the Ball” (1974), by French director Michel Drach. It features a movie within a movie and shows the attempts of a filmmaker to make a movie that will capture his memories as a Jewish child in German-occupied France. The movie stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Marie-José Nat (who was the director’s wife up to his death, aged 59, in 1990). It is a rather superficial and preening movie, but is still interesting in the context of the unfolding discourse between films and Holocaust remembrance.

Much more important is “Mr. Klein,” the exemplary 1976 movie by U.S. director Joseph Losey, who was forced into European exile during the McCarthy years in Hollywood. This is the best film to date dealing with the German occupation of France. Alain Delon, in one of his most powerful roles ever, plays an art dealer who exploits the distress of Jews for his own benefit. His life is shaken, broken even, when he is suspected of being Jewish due to his name (Jeanne Moreau also stars, and is excellent as always).

The festival will also feature a restored version of the 1960 documentary “Description d’un Combat” (The Depiction of a Struggle”), by the great French filmmaker Chris Marker. It was produced at the initiative of Wim Van Leer, with a script written by Ya’akov Malkin. Watching the film today is like taking a trip into the past, laced with nostalgia and, even more so, melancholy. The film’s dry, direct manner envelops us in the sensation of being in a dream that ultimately shatters.