An evergreen article resurfaces on Haaretz’s “most-read stories” list twice each year – and no, it’s not the latest criminal allegations against Israel’s prime minister (that happens three times annually).
“Holocaust movies: 20 of the best beyond ‘Schindler’s List’” was first published on the Haaretz website in April 2013, and has expanded over the years to include more and more films.
Even with 20 entries it’s a far from comprehensive list, with some glaring omissions (Claude Lanzmann’s definitive documentary “Shoah”; Louis Malle’s heartbreaking “Au Revoir les Enfants”; and Ed Zwick’s resistance thriller “Defiance,” to name but three). But what’s great about it is that it’s constantly evolving as more movies and documentaries come along that are worthy of our attention.
I just saw two more for Holocaust International Remembrance Day last week that are worth including: one a grueling – in the best sense, if that’s possible – Slovakian drama, the other a documentary about Adolf Hitler that’s far more entertaining than any film about the führer has any right to be.
“The Auschwitz Report” is Slovakia’s Oscar entry in this year’s best international feature film category (the shortlist of 15 will be announced next week). It’s based on the true story of how two Slovakian Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler, broke out of Auschwitz in April 1944 and fled Nazi-occupied Poland in order to reveal details about events in the death camp to the wider world.
The film will be released in U.S. cinemas later this year (coronavirus restrictions permitting), and where it truly excels is in recreating the everyday brutality of camp life for the inmates. There are no recognizable “Arbeit macht frei” gates here; just the ramshackle barracks where the detainees are confined when they’re not being worked to death.
And while it’s clear the film wasn’t made on the biggest of budgets, it makes impressive use of over 1,500 extras to help conjure up those hellish conditions.
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I don’t think I’ve ever felt so cold as when watching the Slovakian inmates from barrack No. 9 being forced to stand outside, shivering, in freezing conditions, steam rising from their mouths to form a collective cloud overhead, as the Nazi guards conduct a search for two missing Slovakian prisoners – Freddy Wetzler (Noel Czuczor) and “Valér” Vrba (Peter Ondrejicka).
It’s in these scenes and those focusing in the escape effort by the two men, reduced to literally crawling through snowy woodland as they try to muster the strength to complete their mission, where the film is at its most visceral and powerful.
Director Peter Bebjak makes strong use of handheld camera shots and oblique camera angles to discomfort and disorientate the viewer. There’s a beautiful “upside-down” image of a camp entrance from one of the escapees’ perspectives, which perfectly illustrates this FUBAR world.
Then there’s the orange lighting that saturates the nighttime camp scenes, reflecting both the hellish nature of existence there and the constantly blazing furnaces in the near-distance that we never see but which are unable to forget.
Where the film is less strong is in regard to the politics surrounding the actual death camp report and what happens after Freddy and Valér (SPOILER) deliver it to a Red Cross official, Warren (John Hannah).
While that could be seen as a missed opportunity – there were actually three separate accounts that comprised the final Auschwitz Report, which was published in English by the U.S. War Refugee Board in November 1944 – I prefer to see it as a reminder that there are still so many more Holocaust stories we need to tell.
‘The Meaning of Hitler’
“Forget about Auschwitz, it’s unimportant,” says British Holocaust denier David Irving in a hot mic moment while leading what might be termed an alternative Shoah tour in Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s illuminating, somewhat irreverent documentary “The Meaning of Hitler.”
Irving is one of many talking heads assembled here to discuss the cultural legacy of the world’s most infamous failed artist. Thankfully, the self-described historian is the only person here who will have you reaching for the mouthwash and hand sanitizer afterward (though some may experience a similar reaction to British author Martin Amis).
To offer an indication of how scattershot this documentary is, here are just some of the names featured: the late German journalist Sebastian Haffner, who penned the eponymous book this film is very loosely based upon; Prof. Deborah Lipstadt; The Beatles; Prof. Yehuda Bauer (the star of the show); PewDiePie; Prof. Saul Friedländer; and Adele. The latter is name-checked in a fascinating look at how a then-revolutionary microphone technique (since dubbed “the Hitler bottle”) allowed the Nazi leader to become such a powerful public speaker.
That almost-arbitrary approach is both entertaining and a little frustrating, as the film lacks any clear structure to address its fundamental question and so drifts somewhat toward the end.
There’s still much to admire, though, with highlights including U.S. Army art curator Sarah Forgey revealing some of the 600-plus pieces of Nazi art confiscated by the American army at the end of World War II; a visit to Hitler’s birthplace in Braunau am Inn, Austria, which one fascist poet laughably dubbed “the Bethlehem of the Third Reich”; and the tour guide who regales Irving’s group with a rendition of the song “Hitler has only got one ball.” That’s always a big hit with her “clients from Israel,” she smiles, not quite reading the room.
Crucially, the film’s seemingly light tone doesn’t hide its stark underlying message. As footage of far-right rallies in Europe and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville make clear, and as amplified by the warnings of Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and Polish historian Prof. Jan T. Gross – the trajectory of fascism is very much headed in the wrong direction in the 2020s.
At the end of a weekend in which my kids have been constantly nagging me about where their Jewish space laser is, I was grateful to Netflix for the delightful distraction of “The Dig.”
I’ll admit that when I saw the trailer for this British period drama starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, I assumed they’d found the script for it during some archaeological dig too. But I was delighted to be proved wrong by this charming, gentle film that’s a salve to the soul in these horrible times.
Mulligan may generate more headlines for her turn in the infinitely more provocative revenge drama “Promising Young Woman,” which was released earlier this month, but it would be a huge shame if her touching performance here were overlooked because of it.
She’s the wonderfully named Edith Pretty, the widower lady of the manor who calls in excavator and amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Fiennes, sporting a thick rural English accent) to examine her mounds – and if you think that’s the kind of cheap joke screenwriter Moira Buffini won’t stoop to in “The Dig,” you would be wrong.
Said mounds are a group of artificial banks of earth on the family grounds that Mrs. Pretty believes could contain hidden treasures – and if the name Sutton Hoo means anything to you, I will say no more.
Set on the eve of World War II and featuring the kind of sunlit landscapes that JMW Turner built his reputation on, this is one of those easy-on-the-eye, deceptively light historical dramas that British cinema has always excelled at. The most recent example in the genre was probably being 2018’s “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” but “The Dig” is much more moving.
It delves into issues of class (of course), education, the very meaning of history and legacy, enhanced by the restrained central performances of Mulligan and Fiennes. There’s also a lovely dynamic between Fiennes’ working-class “son of the soil” character and Edith’s exuberant young son, Robert (Archie Barnes).
I wasn’t such a fan of the insipid subplot involving Lily James and Ben Chaplin as a husband-and-wife team arriving to help the excavation, but found the soundtrack a perfect embodiment of the film’s merits: subtle and quietly hypnotic.
It’s worth noting that while the film is based on a true story, it’s actually an adaptation of the 2007 novel by John Preston about the events that took place at Sutton Hoo in the summer of 1939. The author’s previous book, “A Very English Scandal,” was turned into a fun series starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, and it doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict that Preston’s upcoming tome, “Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell,” which is released this week, will end up on our screens in the near future too.
When the start of a medical documentary feels like something out of a zombie movie, you know you’re in extraordinary times. (You also know you’re in extraordinary times when you watch a zombie movie for survival tips, not mindless escapism.) Yet that’s the atmosphere immediately created in this fly-on-the-wall documentary shot in four Wuhan hospitals during the 76 days of lockdown – January 23 to April 8 – in the central Chinese city last year.
It’s a powerful, disturbing watch. Yet the problem I had with it is contained in the film’s title: 76 days – which ignores the 54 days that preceded it when the Chinese authorities swiftly became aware of what they diagnosed as the novel coronavirus.
That’s why, from the moment we first see them, all of the doctors and nurses in “76 Days” are already clad head to toe in PPE and fully aware of the dangers of the virus’ human-to-human transmission – you know, that minor detail the Chinese withheld from the World Health Organization for precious days in January 2020.
Still, even if you may be furious about the actions of the Chinese government – and that’s without even considering the increasing speculation that the virus may have escaped from a lab – you can’t have anything but admiration for the frontline health workers you see in “76 Days.”
With no voice-over and few subtitle cards to aid the viewer, this movie basically throws you into the city’s hospitals during the height of the pandemic and let’s you see how they coped. It feels so raw, so real, you may find yourself instinctively reaching for a face mask at some points.
It’s not always easy to work out who’s who, since most of the patients are not referred to by name but just familial terms of affection like “Grandpa,” “Auntie” and “Papa.” But there are two heroic medical professionals you do get to follow: ICU head nurse Dr. Yang Li and Dr. Tian Dingyuan, who comes especially from Shanghai to assist in this time of crisis (yes, this man volunteered to work amid all the chaos.
There are plenty of heartrending scenes, such as when Dr. Yang meets the daughter of a deceased patient to hand over her mother’s personal items, but it’s the small details that really hit home: the cellphone of a recently deceased person with 31 unread messages; the barely conscious elderly woman tightly gripping a doctor’s hand as her condition deteriorates; the young couple waiting anxiously for the first glimpse of their baby daughter after they emerge from a COVID-19 ward; the otherworldly rustling of hazmat suits as medical staff sprint down corridors; the wailing sound of an ambulance siren echoing through the deserted streets of a city of 11 million people.
The fact that one of the directors of “76 Days” chose to remain anonymous speaks volumes about modern China and its emphasis on “stability” above all else as a way of preserving its rule. Yet despite the film’s exclusive focus on health care and complete absence of politics, this is still a remarkable achievement that will prove illuminating for future generations – assuming we ever get out of this mess, of course.
See it along with “Totally Under Control” – Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger’s breakdown of the Trump administration’s coronavirus failures – for a thoroughly depressing but vital double bill.
“The Dig” is out now on Netflix. “76 Days” is on VOD on Apple TV, Amazon, and other streaming services globally, and on Yes VOD, Hot VOD and Sting TV in Israel. “The Auschwitz Report” and “The Meaning of Hitler” will be released later this year.