Spotlight on Jewish characters in fall films

Few films with an expressly Jewish theme or Jewish characters are to be found this fall, but there will be some choice subjects onscreen.

“Sleeping with the Fishes” follows the exploits of Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez), daughter of a Latina mother and a Jewish father. Alexis is at a crossroads in her life. Disillusioned and virtually penniless after her unfaithful husband dies, she is working on a phone sex line and as a walking advertisement for an eatery. The death of an aunt brings her back to her Brooklyn childhood home and her controlling, critical Latina mother (Tony-winning Priscilla Lopez); her mild-mannered, understanding Jewish father, a dentist (Tabor Feldman); and her outlandishly offbeat sister (Ana Ortiz). At first, Alexis is desperate to hide the fact that her life is in disarray.

Writer-director Nicole Gomez Fisher said she wrote the film at a time in her life when she felt as lost as her heroine and acknowledged that the story is semi-autobiographical. Her father, a retired dentist, is a Polish Jew from Brooklyn, and her mother, who worked as his hygienist, is a Puerto Rican Catholic who converted to Judaism. Fisher said she and her sister were brought up Jewish. 

“We went to temple, we did our High Holidays, we went to Hebrew school. I mean, we did everything that the other Jewish kids did. We’re Reform, so it wasn’t as strict. We’re not kosher; we didn’t keep a kosher home. That would have been almost next to impossible with my mother’s cooking skills, and the other thing is that my dad was a little more lenient as far as not pushing us to have a bat mitzvah, because we really didn’t have such a tight circle of friends from the temple.”   

In fact, Fisher said, she felt somewhat rejected by both cultures. “There was less acceptance of mixed couples back in the day,” she said, “and because of that, and because of the conversion of Catholicism to Judaism, a lot of the kids at temple didn’t really see my sister and myself as Jewish people. They didn’t feel that we came from the background that they came from.”  

She added, “And because my mom made a choice, don’t ask why, to not teach us Spanish, when we were around our Latino family, we really had, sort of, barriers and walls up, because they didn’t accept us either, in a way, because we didn’t speak the language — we didn’t know the culture. We grew up with a completely different upbringing from the rest of my family. So, my sister and I always felt really confused and sort of left behind and had to make our way with a smorgasbord of different kinds of friends. It was hard.”

Nevertheless, Fisher finds much in common in the Latino and Jewish traditions.  “The similarities, to me, are going back to the family ties. Both my parents, there’s such a bond within their families. It’s the culture; it’s the food; it’s the insanely over-opinionated parents. It’s just the closeness, almost to the point of suffocating, and, at the same time, there’s just so much love and unity, at least from my experience. On the flip side, the differences, although they weren’t brought up often, when it did come up, it was striking.”  

Fisher said she wants her audiences to feel as though they’ve heard a different voice. “And then, of course, I want audiences to walk out and just feel like, at the end of the day, we’re all the same. We all universally have the same problems, the same insecurities, the same issues with our parents, and, really, it’s up to us to make that choice to turn our lives around.”  

“Sleeping with the Fishes” will be released on DVD Oct. 7

A cat-and-mouse negotiation in a Paris hotel between Wehrmacht commander Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) and Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier) over the fate of the French capital as Germany faces defeat is the focal point of the film “Diplomacy.” The movie is adapted from a hit play staged in 2011, and though the particular meeting depicted in the story is fictional, it is based on historical fact. As the Allied forces were about to liberate Paris, Hitler actually ordered that, if defeat was inevitable, the city was to be completely destroyed, and the Germans had explosives planted at key sites for that purpose.

Niels Arestrup as Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz in “Diplomacy.” Photo: Jérôme Prébois

Filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff is quoted in the production notes as saying the general and the diplomat really did meet several times to discuss an exchange of German prisoners for French resistance fighters and, at one meeting, “There was also talk of the beauty of Paris and the danger of its impending destruction.”

The two men wrote biographies in the 1950s, yet, the director pointed out, “As they include personal testimonies where each man seeks to make his role look good, or in the case of the general, to clear his own name, one has to take them with a grain of salt.”

For the film, Schlöndorff has created the device of a hidden tunnel, supposedly built by Napoleon III so he and his mistress could rendezvous in secret, by means of which he has Nordling appear suddenly in the general’s office.

As the diplomatic game proceeds, Nordling tries to appeal to what he hopes are aspects of the general’s better nature. But then it is revealed that the families of Nazi officers are virtual hostages in Germany to ensure that Hitler’s orders are obeyed to the letter.

At one point, Choltitz asks if he should sacrifice his child, whom he loves, to save French children.  The story then has Nordling use trickery to persuade the German to surrender and to spare Paris, which is, historically, exactly what the Nazi commander did. 

“The consul wanted to put an end to the war,” Schlöndorff said. “According to him, anything goes to achieve his aim and, by the way, the diplomats’ methods are hardly less noxious than those of the military authorities, although admittedly they are not as lethal. Therefore my purpose was to pay tribute to the courage, dedication and craft of this successful diplomat, the real hero of the film. He is the embodiment of human values which go beyond state laws.”

“Diplomacy” opens Nov. 7.

Another World War II movie, “The Imitation Game,” is the tale of British cryptologist, college professor and mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who deciphered a seemingly unbreakable German code, aiding his country and the Allied cause immeasurably.

The film is leavened with flashbacks to 1927, when the shy, awkward Turing is an unhappy teenage student at a boys’ boarding school. His life is made miserable by bullying classmates, but is eventually brightened by an appealing, charismatic older boy and their mutual attraction. The older boy introduces Turing to cryptography, a process of writing in code, allowing them to communicate in private and keep their forbidden love a secret, until the boy dies of bovine tuberculosis.

Flash forward to 1939. Turing, still socially inept and isolated, is recruited by the Secret Government Code and Cypher School to join a team housed at Bletchley Park, and is charged with breaking Germany’s Enigma code. After writing to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Turing is appointed to head the team, which comes to include a young woman with whom he forges a close friendship.  Working alone, Turing builds a complex, huge contraption, a kind of primitive computer, but the Germans change the code every day, and so neither he nor the other team members have any success.

Suddenly, an accidental comment by a young woman working as a low-level decoder gives Turing the key to cracking the Enigma, thereby exposing the Nazi war strategies.

It is now 1952, and the police have come to Turing’s house after receiving reports of a possible robbery.  Further investigation reveals the fact that he is gay, a crime at the time in England, and Turing chooses a form of chemical castration over a prison term. Two years later, his faculties impaired by the treatment, he commits suicide.

Teddy Schwarzman, one of the film’s producers, said Turing’s life and accomplishments were the primary factors that motivated him to take on this project. “Turing not only cracked the seemingly impossible German Enigma code, saving millions of lives, but he also created the foundation for the modern computer. I found it fascinating that this man had such an enormous impact on our society, and yet, so few of us knew of him.”

The producer added, “Despite the prominence of computers in our daily lives, how many of us focus on the roots of computer science? Sure, many of us remember the beginning of the personal computer — the Commodore, the Apple II — but not many of us look past those, [and] if they did, they would find Alan Turing.

 Schwarzman said that there was no way to avoid the tragedy in this film.

“Turing’s prosecution, and that of so many other gay men, was terribly unjust, and all the more sad in Turing’s case for his death at age 41. That said, Turing left behind an incredible, powerful and positive legacy, and we are all indebted.

“Hopefully,” he added, “this film reinforces what we all accept today: that it’s OK to be different, to not conform, and to hopefully have enough strength and self-belief to tackle the impossible. You never know, you may just succeed.”

“The Imitation Game” opens Nov. 21.

There is little advance information about our final World War II movie, “Fury,” which stars Jon Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf alongside Brad Pitt as Wardaddy, a battle-seasoned serviceman who leads one final push against the Nazis. The time is April 1945, and the war in Europe is nearing its end. With only a Sherman tank and a crew of five men, including an inexperienced soldier, Wardaddy takes his troops on a mission behind enemy lines that is fraught with danger.  

“Fury” opens Oct. 17.

The case of a journalist who wound up being persecuted for writing an exposé of sordid activities by our government is recreated in “Kill the Messenger,” based on the true story of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). In the 1990s, acting on a tip from the girlfriend of a convicted drug dealer, Webb keeps digging in an investigation that takes him as far away as a prison in Nicaragua. He is bent on uncovering a plot by the CIA during the previous decade, which allowed the importation of drugs for sale in this country in order to raise funds to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The contras were an alliance of factions aiming to overturn Nicaragua’s elected, left-leaning, Sandinista government. Webb writes a series of articles in 1996, titled “Dark Alliance,” detailing the CIA operation, which came about after Congress cut off funding for the rebels.

Jeremy Renner stars as dedicated reporter Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick / Focus Features

At first, the reporter is lauded for his exposé, but, after intense character assassination by the CIA, aspersions cast on his journalistic integrity by competitors and denials by some of his sources, the accuracy of his report is called into question. Webb ultimately becomes a pariah and never works for a newspaper again. In 2004, he is found dead. 

“Kill the Messenger” opens Oct. 10.

Other films of interest:

“The Good Lie”: The civil war in Sudan, which dates back to 1983, resulted in thousands of orphaned youngsters who came to be known as the Lost Boys. Children from various villages join together to reach a refugee camp after their homes are destroyed and their parents killed. Thirteen years later, 3,600 of these orphans, a group that now includes girls, are resettled in America and must learn to adjust to a totally unfamiliar culture in the modern world. Opens Nov. 7.

“Foxcatcher”: Wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic Gold medal winner, is invited by multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to live and train at his estate for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But du Pont is a psychopath who corrupts Schultz and ultimately murders Schultz’s brother. Based on real events. Opens Nov. 14.

“Rosewater”: Satirist and talk show host Jon Stewart makes his debut as a screenwriter-director with the film based on a memoir by BBC journalist Maziar Bahari. Bahari, born in Teheran, was living in London in 2009 when he went back to Iran to interview Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the main challenger facing the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After a protest erupted against Ahmadinejad’s victory announcement, the journalist sent film of the uprising to the BBC. He was then arrested, tortured and questioned for 118 days by a man calling himself, “Rosewater.” Later that year, Bahari’s wife headed a worldwide movement to free her husband, and the story was kept before the public through such venues as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” where the journalist appeared as a guest after being freed from prison on $300,000 bail. Opens Nov. 7. 

Salman Rushdie Q & A: there’s a fascination with death among suicide bombers

Salman Rushdie, 59, has spent many years thinking and writing about terrorism. In this interview with political author Erich Follath, which appeared last month in Der Spiegel and is reprinted here with permission, Rushdie reflects on why apparently normal young men turn to terror, the dangers of religion and whether the United States has turned into an authoritarian state. Rushdie divides his time between New York, London and Mumbai; he appears in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, as keynote speaker at the American Jewish Congress’ event, “Profiles in Courage: Voices of Muslim Reformers in the Modern World.”

Erich Follath: Mr. Rushdie, as an expert on terrorism you….
Salman Rushdie: What gives me that honor? I don’t see myself as such at all.

EF: Your book, “Fury,” with its description of an America threatened by terrorism and published in spring 2001, was seen by many as prophetic — as more or less anticipating 9/11. Your most recent novel, “Shalimar the Clown,” describes how a circus performer from Kashmir is transformed into a terrorist. And for almost a decade, your life was threatened by Iranian fanatics, with a price of $4 million on your head.

SR: If you think that’s enough to qualify me as an expert on terrorism….

EF: While researching your books — and especially now after the recent near miss in London — you must be asking yourself: What makes apparently normal young men decide to blow themselves up?

SR: There are many reasons, and many different reasons, for the worldwide phenomenon of terrorism. In Kashmir, some people are joining the so-called resistance movements because they give them warm clothes and a meal. In London, last year’s attacks were still carried out by young Muslim men whose integration into society appeared to have failed. But now we are dealing with would-be terrorists from the middle of society. Young Muslims who have even enjoyed many aspects of the freedom that Western society offers them. It seems as though social discrimination no longer plays any role — it’s as though anyone could turn into a terrorist.

EF: Leading British Muslims have written a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair claiming that the growing willingness to engage in terrorism is due to [President] Bush’s and Blair’s policies in Iraq and in Lebanon. Are they completely wrong? Don’t the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the cynicism of Guantanamo contribute to extremism?

SR: I’m no friend of Tony Blair’s, and I consider the Middle East policies of the United States and the U.K. fatal. There are always reasons for criticism, also for outrage. But there’s one thing we must all be clear about: Terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate goals by some sort of illegitimate means. Whatever the murderers may be trying to achieve, creating a better world certainly isn’t one of their goals. Instead they are out to murder innocent people. If the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, for example, were to be miraculously solved from one day to the next, I believe we wouldn’t see any fewer attacks.

EF: And yet there must be reasons, or at least triggers, for this terrible willingness to wipe out the lives of others — and of oneself.

SR: Lenin once described terrorism as bourgeois adventurism. I think there, for once, he got things right. That’s exactly it. One must not negate the basic tenet of all morality — that individuals are themselves responsible for their actions. And the triggers seem to be individual, too.

Upbringing certainly plays a major role there, imparting a misconceived sense of mission, which pushes people toward “actions.” Added to that there is a herd mentality once you have become integrated in a group, and everyone continues to drive everyone else on and on into a forced situation. There’s the type of person who believes his action will make mankind listen to him and turn him into a historic figure. Then there’s the type who simply feels attracted to violence. And yes, I think glamour plays a role, too.

EF: Do you seriously mean that terrorism is glamorous?

SR: Yes. Terror is glamour — not only, but also. I am firmly convinced that there’s something like a fascination with death among suicide bombers. Many are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic that is inherent in these insane acts. The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other peoples’ lives. There’s one thing you mustn’t forget here: The victims terrorized by radical Muslims are mostly other Muslims.

EF: Of course there can be no justification for terrorism. But nevertheless, there are various different starting points. There is the violence of groups who are pursuing nationalist, one might say comprehensible, goals using every means at their disposal….

SR: …. And there are others, like Al Qaeda, which have taken up the cause of destroying the West and our entire way of life. This form of terrorism wraps itself up in the wrongs of this world in order to conceal its true motives — an attack on everything that ought to be sacred to us. It is not possible to discuss things with Osama bin Laden and his successors. You cannot conclude a peace treaty with them. They have to be fought with every available means.

EF: And with the other ones, the “nationalist terrorists,” should we engage in dialogue with them?

SR: That depends on whether they are prepared to renounce their terrorist struggle under a certain set of conditions. That appears to be showing at least initial signs of working with the Basques of ETA. I think we have Bin Laden to thank for that to no small extent — the Basque leaders didn’t want to be like him. And with the IRA, it was the loss of credibility among their own people, who no longer saw any point in fighting violently in the underground.
Remolding former terrorist organizations into political parties in the long term is at least not hopeless. It might work with those groups that are not primarily characterized by religious fanaticism — the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, for example, a group which virtually invented suicide bombings, have no religious background at all. They have clear objectives: an independent state.

EF: Should such a state be granted to a minority just because they are particularly ruthless? What about Shalimar, the hero of your latest novel, who murders for Kashmir? Should he determine the region’s future?