Fall Season Promises a Potpourri of Films

Summer seems to have flown by, and, with fall approaching, it is once more time to examine some upcoming films of interest.  Movie critic Emanuel Levy points out that more films than usual of special interest to Jewish audiences are opening this autumn, and they show a growing trend he considers particularly encouraging.

“We’re beginning to see a different kind of image of the Jewish characters in films,” Levy said. “We are seeing stories about Jews who are not merely victims anymore, and I think that’s very positive.”

Avoiding the stereotype was very important to German filmmaker Dani Levy (no relation to the critic) when he conceived “My Führer,” a pointed satire on Hitler and the Nazi elite, opening in Los Angeles Oct. 2. According to Dani Levy, some have objected to the film’s comedic tone.

“Some people, who didn’t see the film, were against it because they felt that a comedy about the Nazis is also a comedy about the victims,” he observed. “They thought that if there is a comedy about National Socialism, it makes the history harmless and takes the suffering out of it. I totally disagree.”

The story takes place in December 1944, as Germany is on the verge of losing the war. Hitler (Helge Schneider) is so depressed that he can hardly get out of bed.  His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), decides that some coaching by the Führer’s former acting teacher will give Hitler renewed motivation for a speech on New Year’s Day in which he hopes to inspire the public to continue the fight. The teacher, Adolph Grünbaum (Ulrich Mühe), who is Jewish and imprisoned at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, quickly agrees, insisting that his family come with him. 

What follows is a biting look at the Third Reich, as characters pass each other saying “Heil Hitler!” to the point of absurdity, while Grünbaum takes his pupil through a series of relaxation exercises that eventually cause Hitler to tearfully reveal the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. When the big day arrives, a makeup artist accidentally cuts off half of Hitler’s moustache, and the enraged leader loses his voice from shouting. Grünbaum, placed under the stage to deliver the oration while Hitler lip syncs and gestures wildly, suddenly deviates from the script.

Part of the inspiration for Dani Levy’s scenario came from the autobiography of the man who actually was Adolph Hitler’s acting coach.

“He was not a Jew,” the filmmaker said, “but he was a former German actor and opera singer. He traveled with Hitler at the beginning of Hitler’s ‘career,’ coaching him in expression, breathing, articulation, using his voice, gesturing and mimicry.  He wrote a book that is kind of boring, but I really liked the idea that almost nobody knows that Adolph had an acting teacher.”

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Levy, who has been living in Berlin for 30 years, was also motivated to make the film because his family had to flee from Germany to Switzerland when his mother was 11 years old in order to escape the Nazis.

“Now I live in Berlin as a Jew, and I like living here.  But I never raised my voice to interfere with the way Germans deal with their history, and I had this need to present my own vision of this time period.  I felt it would be very healthy for me, and it turned out to be extremely satisfying, because I could play out something in a way that, two generations before me, my family and the other Jews who were destroyed could not do. It was some kind of revenge that I felt was important for me.”

As for the controversy, Levy said he is not particularly bothered by it. “The discussion was not actually as harsh as I expected. People criticized the film, but they were not cruel.  It was not as if they were attacking me. It was very controversial, but I was prepared for that.”

If Dani Levy was prepared for criticism, French filmmaker Anne Fontaine seems unaware of articles that took exception to her film, “Coco Before Chanel,” which begins its Los Angeles run Sept. 25, because of what has been omitted. 

The movie deals with the early life of Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou), who is left in an orphanage by her father. It then traces her progress from singing and dancing in a cabaret, where she acquires the nickname “Coco,” through her liaisons with the wealthy Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her great love, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). Capel lends her the money to open a millinery shop, which she follows with several boutiques, creating unique fashions that emphasize simplicity and free women from the confines of corsets. As her reputation spreads, she gains worldwide fame and success.

Fontaine, who is also an actress, recalls that she was 20 years old when she became fascinated with Coco Chanel after meeting the woman who was Chanel’s assistant during the last 15 years of the designer’s life. The director was particularly struck by what she termed the independent spirit that led Chanel to build an economic empire at a time when such a venture was virtually impossible for a woman. 

“During this period, she was very modern.  Maybe at the end she was not, but, earlier in her life, she was like a feminist, even if she didn’t have that ideology. She liberated women’s bodies, and, in the way she had relationships with these two men, Balsan and Capel, you see the beginning of one of the most powerful businesswomen of the 20th century,” Fontaine said.

But, as pointed out by such journalists as Ingrid Sischy in TIME 100 and Sophie Taylor in The First Post, Chanel also had a relationship with Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage during the German occupation of France during World War II. Fontaine’s film ends some years short of that time period.

Taylor also cites the book, “1940-1945 Années Érotiques,” in which French historian Patrick Buisson refers to Chanel and other luminaries who had liaisons with Germans as “horizontal collaborators.” When France was liberated in 1944, Chanel was arrested and charged with war crimes, but was soon released.  She then spent years living in Switzerland with von Dincklage, until her return in the mid 1950s.

Fontaine maintains that though Chanel may have made a very bad decision during the war, she was not anti-Semitic.

“Of course, people can think so, and it’s very understandable to think that she should not have had this episode. She was not politically correct, that’s true, but it’s not like somebody who did very bad things during the war. That’s not true. You can’t say that.  I have read all the biographies about her, and she had dark sides in her, of course, but it’s for that reason that she’s interesting.”

The director stressed she never intended to depict all of Chanel’s life.

“I think the many parts of her life are very interesting. She was a very ambiguous person, very complex, and had a very complex life.It was this period that I wanted to depict, and another director can depict another period. But in Europe, there was no controversy.  They understood that I made a choice.”

There is no disputing the controversy surrounding the subject of another film, this one a documentary. “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” will screen in Los Angeles on Nov. 20 and shows Sarah and Emily Kunstler exploring the life and work of the flamboyant civil rights attorney, their father.  The two were born in the late 1970s, when Kunstler was almost 60 and his most famous cases were behind him. These included his battle for desegregation alongside Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the defense of the Chicago Eight, the young men who disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to protest the Vietnam War. He also represented the inmates who took over the Attica Prison and defended members of the American Indian Movement when they defied the government at Wounded Knee.

According to Emily Kunstler, she and her sister learned about their father’s hallmark cases from the stories he told them, though those stories changed slightly throughout the years.  She said it wasn’t until they started making this film that they were able to separate fact from fiction.

“Our relationship with our father was suspended the day that he died, when we were teenagers. This film was a way for us to go back into the archival footage, to rewind the tape and get the answers that we wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. We never had the opportunity to have an adult relationship with him, so this film afforded us that opportunity.”

It also gave them a chance to come to terms with some of the difficulties they experienced as they watched their father, later in his career, take on such notorious and reviled clients as a Mafia boss, a teenager accused of taking part in the gang rape of a jogger (the defendant was ultimately exonerated after years in prison), a terrorist on trial for the first bombing of the World Trade Center and the Islamic fundamentalist charged with the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane. 

“We grew up afraid,” said Sarah Kunstler, who is also an attorney. “You see in the film how Emily was afraid that the FBI was tapping our phones all the time. There was a very real fear of people sending us threats in the mail and sending us things in the mail that could hurt us.

“There were definitely times when we weren’t allowed to leave our house,” she added, “and we were angry about that.  We were upset that we were put in that position, but I now think they’re small sacrifices.”

From Emily Kunstler’s perspective, those sacrifices turned out to be quite valuable because they allowed their father to make a larger contribution. “This film is really a process of working through our doubts. It helped Sarah and me be proud of him and proud of our legacy in a way we were never able to do in the past.”

Though Kunstler was from an assimilated German Jewish family and didn’t impart much about Judaism to his children, they feel that devoting his life to making a difference by going out into the world to speak the truth and fight for justice very much reflected Jewish values.

The same might be said of architectural photographer Julius Shulman, according to filmmaker Eric Bricker, whose documentary, “Visual Acoustics,” will be released Oct. 16. The work was conceived as a tribute to the artistry and humanity of Shulman, who was still working almost until his recent death, at 98.

Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the documentary features interviews with key figures from Shulman’s life. It also highlights many of the distinctive photographs through which Shulman popularized the Modernist movement in design and helped further the careers of such architects as Rudolph Shindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner, among numerous others.

When he first saw Shulman’s images, Bricker found them astounding.

“I wanted to see the photographs on a big screen. I thought they were worthy of big screen real estate, and I wanted people to get to know Julius.”

Bricker was particularly impressed by what he described as Shulman’s authenticity and love of life, even as his health declined.

“I never once heard Julius complain.  He was definitely an individual who was able to create his own reality, and I found that very inspiring. I think what allowed him to do that was his concern for the environment and his connectedness with nature.”

The filmmaker also felt a special kinship with Shulman, because they both came from a Russian Jewish heritage.

“You could see that in many ways he was a product of that culture,” Bricker said, “for example, in how important education was to him, which I think is part of Jewish culture. Every now and then he would throw out a Yiddish word, and, for me, that was a treat. I would understand it, and it would take me back to my connection with my grandfather.”

Audiences will be taken back to the early 1960s with the British film, “An Education,” scheduled to be in theaters Oct. 9. This is a coming-of-age story in which 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a stellar student being primed for Oxford, falls in love with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a magnetic man some 15 years her senior who introduces her to the glamorous world of nightclubs, concerts, art auctions, and weekend getaways. 

He even charms her ultra-conventional parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), heading off any reservations they might have because he is Jewish and older than their daughter.

Jenny’s thirst for the fast life threatens to seduce her away from her scholastic goals, but, when she discovers David’s devastating secret, she gets an education in life for which she was totally unprepared.

The film takes place just two or three years before England’s 1960s cultural revolution.  Screenwriter Nick Hornby explained that England was somewhat behind America’s cultural upheaval because the British had gone through the fifties quite differently from the Americans.

“We were completely cleaned out by the war. America got rich from the war. There was that image of the American teenager in the 1950s with the car, and the girl, and the beach.

“English teenagers were still waiting in the rain by a bus stop. It really wasn’t until The Beatles did their own version of Elvis Presley that England started to change, culturally. We still had food rationing into the 1950s.”

Hornby adapted the screenplay from an autobiographical article by journalist Lynn Barber.  The fact that Barber’s youthful lover was Jewish gave Hornby the chance to depict what he called the casual anti-Semitism of the period.

“I remember my own grandmother making anti-Semitic remarks. It’s not until you’re a teenager that you start to pick up on this stuff and start to challenge it. In the film the anti-Semitism belongs to a world that Jenny rejects. Her father reflexively uses certain terms, and he’s embarrassed to be caught using them. Even Jenny’s headmistress (Emma Thompson) has these sentiments. This is the world Jenny wants to escape. This is the old Britain.”

For director Lone Scherfig, being Jewish gives the character of David a fragility and a sense of being an outsider. Though he turns out to be deceitful and manipulative, Scherfig, who is Danish, doesn’t consider him a sociopath.

“David is someone who wants the life you can have if you don’t have an education,” said Scherfig. “I felt the film wouldn’t work if I didn’t defend him. I always thought of this as a film about a girl, but it’s also a portrait of a man, and I think he is by far the most interesting character.”

From Britain on the cusp, we move to “Amreeka,” (the Arabic term for America), a story of the immigrant experience and the clash of generations. Muna (Nisreen Faour) and her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), emigrate from the West Bank to a small town in Illinois. Muna has two degrees but can only find work in a fast food restaurant, while Fadi faces the prejudice of fellow students at his high school. The two are befriended by the school’s Jewish principal as they struggle to fit in with an unfamiliar culture.

Writer-director Cherien Dabis drew on the experiences of her own Palestinian Jordanian family, who lived in Ohio during the first Gulf War and received death threats.

“This is a sweet film,” critic Emanuel Levy said. “There are not many films made by Palestinians, and there are not many films about Palestinians. This one is by a female director and centers on a female character, which happens even less frequently.”

He continued, “The film adds to a growing body of films which can be called ‘border films,’ and which reflect the changing geography of the world. That makes it particularly relevant.”

“Amreeka” comes out Sept. 4 and marks Dabis’ filmmaking debut.

Also making her debut as a writer and director is Israeli-born, Harvard educated actress Natalie Portman, one of 11 directors to craft a variety of interconnected vignettes for the Oct. 16 release, “New York, I Love You.” The project follows the movie, “Paris, Je t’aime” (2006), as part of a series of films focused on “cities of love.” Portman’s segment concerns a white child (Taylor Geare) playing with her black “manny,” or male nanny (Carlos Acosta). When the day ends and he brings the child back to her mother (Jacinda Barrett), according to the press notes, “he reveals in a literal leap of passion that skin-deep appearances are not always what they seem.”

Portman also appears in a vignette, directed by Mira Nair, as a Chasidic bride-to-be negotiating with an Indian diamond merchant (Irrfan Khan).  In another segment, an elderly, Jewish couple (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) in Brooklyn walk slowly toward the boardwalk, presenting a picture of love in the twilight years.

See you at the movies!