When Holocaust truth is stranger than fiction, do we need fiction?


At the age of 5, Moshe Tirosh’s main concern was keeping his younger sister quiet as they lived in isolation at a subterranean hideout under the feet of Nazi troops stationed at the zoo of occupied Warsaw.

His extraordinary account of surviving the Holocaust came back to me on Sunday, along with other amazing accounts from that period as I exited a screening of “Phoenix,” a new German film about the postwar years.

Set in the bombed-out streets of West Berlin, “Phoenix” tells the astonishing story of a young Jewish singer attempting to reclaim her life and husband after suffering, in a concentration camp, a gunshot wound to the face that rendered her unrecognizable. After successful reconstructive surgery, she locates her non-Jewish husband — who may have betrayed her to the Nazis — and attempts to re-enter his life without revealing her true identity.

Unlike Tirosh’s story, the plot of “Phoenix,” directed and co-authored by Christian Petzold, is fictional. Ignoring the limitations of plastic surgery in general and in the 1940s especially, it compromises its credibility on this and a number of other points to discuss its main theme: the effects of emotional, physical and even social trauma on one’s identity.

The film, which is of course hardly the first fictional film to deal with the Holocaust, conducts that discussion in a subtle, comprehensive and engaging manner, largely thanks to what many film critics have praised as excellent acting by the lead actors: Nina Hoss, Nina Kunzendorf and Ronald Zehrfeld.

But walking out of the film Sunday, my mind wondered back to the story of Tirosh and other eyewitnesses to real-life events during the Holocaust.

People like Johan Van Hulst, the 104-year-old wartime savior of dozens of Jewish children who fixed me a cup of coffee at his Amsterdam home before recounting his actions in fine detail. And my own grandmother, who fell through the Nazi death machine’s cracks thanks to a series of incredible twists of fate.

As these witnesses quickly disappear from our lives, I wonder about the merit of a fictional film about the genocide — itself subject to revisionism — with a plot so extravagant that it rivals the works of Pedro Almodovar and his Spanish stream of fancy.

Obsessed with documenting the Holocaust through testimonies, the journalist in me has reservations about films like “Phoenix” or “Ida,” a Polish, Oscar-winning production, whose fictional plots are almost realistic enough to pass for plausible in the sea of unlikely but authentic survival and rescue stories.

But another part of me is prepared to see slippage in accuracy in Europe’s ongoing debate about the Holocaust, if it comes with the deep reflection and observations about European societies and their Jews demonstrated in films like “Phoenix” and “Ida.”

Films of the Holocaust and non-Jews


Two documentary films, each touching the Holocaust era and celebrating the courage and devotion of non-Jews, are screening in Los Angeles.

The first is about Leopold Engleitner, bright-eyed and lucid at 107, who spent 11 years in and out of prisons and Nazi concentration camps, and, after a flight from Vienna to Los Angeles, is ready for his personal appearance tour.

He is the central figure in “Ladder in the Lions’ Den,” a tribute to the man and to the steadfastness of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Hitler regime.

Engleitner, born in 1905, was an Austrian peasant farmer in a small village near Salzburg when he joined a Jehovah’s Witness study group. He soon became a full member, accepting the movement’s belief in complete separation from secular governments, including refusal to salute the flag or serve in the army of any nation. 

He got his first taste of prison in 1934, under the authoritarian regime of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, and when the German troops marched in in 1938, Engleitner’s fate was sealed. He wouldn’t raise his right arm in the Hitler salute, and after refusing army service was shipped off to Buchenwald as the first in a series of concentration camps. 

There, some 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses were kept in separate barracks from Jewish prisoners, with whom, according to Engleitner, the Witnesses shared some of their food.

From time to time, the Nazis, badly in need of manpower, offered Engleitner his freedom if he would sign a document affirming his loyalty to the Third Reich.

His courageous refusal to do so is followed in the film by the tactless insertion of a Jewish inmate, who affirms, “I would have signed anything to get out.” This statement, just a few seconds long, is one of the few allusions to the extermination of the Jews. That omission may be hard to swallow, but seems pardonable given how many books and films have recorded the Jewish holocaust, and how few the fate of other groups.

All in all, according to the film’s postscript, there were 20,000 Witnesses in Germany and Austria before Hitler came to power, of whom 9,270 were imprisoned, 1,130 died and 310 were executed.

When Engleitner finally returned to his village, he was scorned by most of his neighbors as a coward for his refusal to serve in the army, and as a likely criminal given his imprisonment in concentration camps.

His story might have died with him, but for a chance meeting with Bernhard Rammerstorfer, a fellow Witness and later the executive producer and co-director of the film. Rammerstorfer persuaded the centenarian to tell of his experiences in a book titled “Unbroken Will,” (a title more apt than the movie’s) and then created the 39-minute documentary. 

Credits include co-producer A. Ferenc Gutai, actors portraying Engleitner and others as young men, and Frederic Fuss, an Angeleno, as the English-language narrator. There are some rough edges to the documentary, pointing to a slim budget and the inexperience of the filmmakers, but it is a story well worth telling.

As Fuss noted in an interview, “The film shows the difference that one man can make.”

“Ladder in the Lions’ Den” will screen daily Nov. 9-15 at 12:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino, with Engleitner scheduled to be in attendance.

 

A second film centers on Gyongyi Mago, a Catholic high school teacher in the Hungarian town of Kalocsa, who, through sheer conviction and persistence, wills her largely indifferent community to resurrect and honor the memory of its murdered and exiled Jewish citizens.

Her story and that of an extinguished but once content and assimilated Jewish community, are documented by veteran Los Angeles filmmaker Gabor Kalman in the full-length feature “There Was Once…”

Kalman is both the creator of and a participant in the film, which is told with affection but not sentimentality, while also warning that the anti-Semitism and fascism pervading much of Hungarian society in the 1930s and ’40s remains a constant today.

Born in Kalocsa 78 years ago, Kalman received an e-mail from Mago in 2008 asking for his help in her research on the once 600-strong Jewish community in his birthplace. The effervescent teacher had found Kalman’s name on the “Jaross List,” compiled by a local official who conscientiously put down the names of all Jewish residents slated for extermination.

Kalman was so impressed by Mago’s project and dedication that he flew to Hungary, rounded up a camera crew and started interviewing elderly Christian residents who still remembered their former Jewish neighbors. He followed up by talking to a handful of the town’s Jewish survivors and their descendants now living in Canada, the United States and Israel.

The camera follows Mago as she exhorts and mobilizes her high school class to bear witness to the lives and fate of the town’s Jews, scours church archives for the history of the first Jews to settle in Kalocsa, and explains to those who wonder why a Catholic should care about dead Jews, “I have always felt for those who were humiliated.”

She then persuades the powerful local archbishop and the town’s mayor to back her plan to put on a commemorative ceremony in 2009, exactly 65 years to the day that the Holocaust caught up with Hungary’s Jews.

The ceremony, attended by seven survivors and their children and grandchildren, is the moving highlight of the film. In stark contrast are scenes of Hungarian Nazis in uniform, demonstrating a few blocks away.

The film is marked by thorough research, moments of high drama, and innovative cinematography and graphics. For example, in one Jewish grade school picture, five survivors are highlighted, while the 10 victims remain in dark shadows.

Kalman and his parents survived the war, largely in hiding. Gabor participated in the abortive 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet occupiers, and then immigrated to the United States.

After graduation from UC Berkeley and Stanford, Kalman established himself as an award-winning documentary filmmaker and teacher at USC, Occidental College and currently at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. 

“There Was Once…” will screen as part of the local Hungarian Film Festival on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 Theatre in North Hollywood.

Tickets are $6 per person and can be purchased in advance by phoning Laemmle Theatres at (310) 478-3836 or the Hungarian Film Festival at (818) 564-4228. 


For more information about “Ladder in the Lions’ Den,” visit unbrokenwill.com.

For more information about “There Was Once…,” visit  therewasoncefilm.com.

‘Superman’ Director Lives Out His Dream


“Whether you’re an immigrant or you’re born in the heartland, at some point we all feel like an alien.”

Those are not the words of an immigration rights attorney but rather of filmmaker Bryan Singer, whose last three films, the first two editions of “X-Men” and the upcoming “Superman Returns,” which opens on June 28 nationwide, all present parables on the current state of xenophobia pervading this country.

Of the famed Man of Steel, first introduced to comic book readers in the 1930s, Singer said, “He’s kind of the ultimate immigrant. He comes from a foreign place, adapts to the value system and has a special relationship with his heritage.”

Singer sees Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — two Jews who were sons of immigrants — as a Judeo-Christian hero, part Moses, part Jesus. Like Moses, Superman is the boy dispatched down the metaphoric river to be discovered in the cornfields, if not the reeds, of the Midwest. Like Jesus, he has a kind of doubling with his father, voiced in the new film as in the 1978 “Superman” by the late Marlon Brando, who says, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”

If Superman first entered popular culture when the Nazis were beginning to assert their power in Germany, he “never cleared up the problems in Europe,” Singer said. “He handled small problems; he served by example.”

Over the decades, however, through numerous incarnations in comic strips, animated shorts, television shows and films, Superman began tackling worldwide catastrophes, as he does in Singer’s new film, though he does not rescue Jews per se.

That does not mean that Superman lacks a Jewish pedigree.

As Michael Chabon suggested in his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Siegel and Shuster, in conceptualizing Superman, may very well have been inspired by the Golem, a mythic figure in Jewish folklore, who could be built from mud and clay, according to strict rabbinic instructions, and could vanquish all evil.

Yet “Superman Returns” never implies that its protagonist, played by Brandon Routh, is of any ethnicity other than Kryptonian. If he resembles any mythological creatures, they would seem to be Greek ones. Like Atlas, Superman lifts, if not the entire planet, a huge nefarious landmass, which he hurls into space. He also catches the ornamental globe that sits atop the Daily Planet Building, a structure modeled after the art deco former home of the New York Daily News. Of course, Superman’s strength is matched by his speed as he flies through the sky like Hermes, easing a plane carrying Lois Lane, played by Kate Bosworth, into an emergency landing on a ball field.

Superman may have been in drydock for five years, as we are told in the film, but unlike Roger Clemens, he doesn’t get the benefit of a trip to the minors. He must perform at a big league level from the start, although we do see flashbacks to his youth, when he runs through the cornfields and learns how to fly, a nice touch since Superman did not fly in his early comic strips.

The 40-year-old Singer calls “Superman Returns” a “dream project” and said “it was a fantasy of mine to have Kryptonian blood,” not surprising for a man who in the 1970s loved watching reruns of the “Superman” TV show starring George Reeves. But Singer did not read the comics as a child. To this day, he suffers from dyslexia, which still impedes his efforts at reading. He likes to read short stories, but he did not even know about the “X-Men” until he was assigned to direct the first movie of that franchise.

While “X-Men” and “X2,” which came out in 2000 and 2003, respectively, predate the current illegal immigration crisis, they, like all of Singer’s films, deal with the human capacity for evil and for persecuting outsiders, whoever they may be.

Like Superman, the mutants in the “X-Men” movies are not simply stand-ins for illegal immigrants. They are heroic, if in some cases demonic, fantasies of the other — the outsider in all of us.

As a gay, adopted, agnostic Jew, Singer has always been drawn to the otherness of these superheroes, though he chuckles when asked about a recent Los Angeles Times article that highlighted Superman’s gay appeal. “If you look at my career,” he said, “I’ve probably never made a more heterosexual movie before.”

None of his previous studio movies may have had an explicit gay theme to them, but “The Usual Suspects,” his 1995 breakthrough film, which received much buzz for its plot twists, subversion of the noir genre and brilliant ensemble cast, may be best remembered for the Oscar-winning performance of Kevin Spacey, essaying Verbal Kint, a criminal mastermind of dubious sexuality.

Singer followed that with 1998’s “Apt Pupil,” in which Brad Renfro plays a high school student obsessed with the Holocaust and with a former Nazi living in his neighborhood. The film featured some baroque horror touches, such as when Ian McKellen’s Nazi tries to stuff a cat in an oven, and Singer even framed a few longing looks between the 16-year-old boy and his Nazi mentor, cut next to a shot of the boy’s indifferent response to the sexual advances of his girlfriend.

Then came “X-Men” and “X2,” McCarthyite allegories that among other provocations featured McKellen, the Nazi in “Apt Pupil,” as a Holocaust survivor, who like Darth Vader has turned to the dark side.

“X2,” in particular, showed us non-Geneva-friendly torture taking place in prison cells that but for their high-tech gadgetry might remind one of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. There are also congressional and presidential calls for mandatory mutant registration, prescient in the wake of today’s immigration legislation proposals, and, of course, a teenage son coming out to his parents that he is a mutant, prompting the altogether familiar reply from his mother, “Can’t you just not be a mutant?”

While Singer wants as broad an audience as possible to enjoy the film, he particularly wants “older people and women to have an emotional experience,” he said. Unlike his past films, “Superman Returns” is, Singer said, “a romantic picture.”

It is also a film with a long and troubled past. Over the last decade, numerous actors and directors were attached to the film, whose budget, like its superhero, seemed to know no bounds. None of that history worried Singer, who got a chance to reshape the storyline and, indeed, has a story credit on the film. It also helped that he used some of his regular repertory of actors, such as Spacey, playing yet another notable villain: Lex Luthor.

Singer’s first real understanding of evil came when, as a boy of 9 or 10, he dressed up as a Nazi one day while playing a World War II game with his German neighbors in Princeton Junction, N.J. He came home wearing a swastika.

Singer’s mother admonished him, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when his junior high school teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, taught an entire unit in social studies on the Holocaust, that he gained a greater understanding as to why his mother had been so troubled. That class changed Singer’s “whole perception of what people are capable of anywhere,” he said.

“Superman Returns” is not directly about Nazis, and its diabolical antagonist is more over-the-top than menacing, yet Singer does not discount the possibility of future genocides.

“The German culture [at the time of the Holocaust] was extremely artistic, extremely sophisticated and extremely advanced,” he said, proving that “anywhere, any place, any century, it’s possible, and any person is capable of it.”

“Superman Returns” opens nationwide on June 28.

 

Two Dark Tales Illuminated at Sundance


Martin Scorsese has famously influenced a whole generation of American filmmakers, from Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino to Rob Weiss and Nick Gomez. But his influence is not limited to filmmakers in this country.

One who has channeled the Gotham-based auteur, albeit subconsciously, is Tony Krawitz, an Australian director, who specializes in short films. Krawitz’s most recent effort is “Jewboy,” a one-hour feature about Yuri, a Chasidic Jew, who comes back to Sydney, Australia, for his father’s funeral and has a crisis of more than just faith.

Although Krawitz says that he refrained from watching Scorsese’s films while making “Jewboy,” his lead character Yuri reminds one at times of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in “Mean Streets,” as well as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.”

Like Keitel’s Charlie, Yuri places his fingers over the flame of a burning candle. He wonders if God will really punish him, if the flame is truly eternal. He also wants to feel something, even if it’s pain. That is why he touches the fire, since his religion prohibits him from touching a woman, from even holding hands with any female other than a family member.

The provocative title of the film “reflects the mentality of the lead character, so marked is he by being an Orthodox Jew 24/7,” says Krawitz, speaking from Australia. “Jewboy” makes a powerful statement about the oppressiveness and sterility of this Orthodox environment. Smothered with extended family whose expectations are that he will follow his father by becoming a rabbi, Yuri sees a future of loveless marriage, platitudes uttered by friends, and constraint.

More than anything else, he wants to connect with other people, and not only figuratively. The tension in the film occurs whenever he wants to touch a woman. There is a moment early on when he and his Lubavitch girlfriend circle their fingers through powdery flour on a table, coming tantalizingly close to touching each other. They both shudder and smile secretly as they part from the exercise, an erotic fillip in their claustrophobic world.

Krawitz, 38, was born in South Africa but grew up in Bondi Beach, a neighborhood of Sydney with a large Chasidic presence. He remembers a high school classmate who told him that he would not be able to touch a woman until he got married. Although Krawitz considers himself a secular Jew, this early exposure to the Orthodox world led to a lifelong fascination with that community.

As a university student, Krawitz drove cabs and on occasion was called “Jewboy” by his fares. Yuri, too, becomes a cab driver, which leads him into Sydney’s demimonde of sleaze, a scaled-down version of the Times Square in “Taxi Driver.”

Ewen Leslie, who gives Yuri’s character a tremendous inner life, bears a physical resemblance to Travis Bickle. Both dark-haired ghosts of the city, Leslie, when he takes off his shirt, reveals a sinewy, bony physique that is very similar to De Niro’s in that film. And Yuri’s small, nondescript one-room apartment calls to mind Bickle’s lodgings.

Yuri’s awkwardness with women and his conflicted feelings about sex are yet another echo.

Tortured as he is by his religion’s restrictions, Yuri goes to extremes to honor them: carrying a drunk, cleavage-displaying rider out of a cab by wrapping her with his jacket; touching the window of a peep show gallery as the topless dancer performs for him; and finally reaches the precipice, holding back his arms as a sexy prostitute presses her breasts against his chest and then fellates him.

After this encounter, Yuri rushes through the neon underworld with what Krawitz terms a “strobe-light effect,” the increased speed and then slow-motion of the camera, evocative of the turmoil in the streets in “Chungking Express,” a film that Krawitz says did influence him. In this case, “messing with speed” mirrors the inner confusion Yuri is undergoing.

At the end of the film, he holds his grandmother’s hand as she, a concentration camp survivor, watches a tennis match and roots for Australia’s Mark Philippoussis.

“I have faith in him,” she says.

“Jewboy,” which was entered into Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, is Krawitz’s first film at Sundance. Although slightly less than an hour long, it will compete in the feature category.

Also competing at Sundance, in the documentary category, is “KZ,” perhaps “the first postmodern Holocaust movie,” says its director Rex Bloomstein. “It explores the subject in a different way.”

Certainly, there is more than an element of postmodern irony about a bunch of present-day, lederhosen-clad Austrian youth, singing roistering tunes about the concentration camp in Mauthausen and hoisting mugs at the very place where SS officers once clinked glasses of Schnapps after massacring their victims.

But that’s just one example of irony. Bloomstein interviews present residents of Mauthausen, including a young, dark-skinned teenage girl, presumably of mixed ethnicity, who wears a T-shirt with the words “New York” running across it and says that living in Mauthausen “is a perfect dream.” In the background, her surly, silent boyfriend, arms folded, leans against a car, impatient for the interview to end.

Bloomstein also interviews older residents of the town who lived there during World War II, one of whom beams with pride over having been married to an SS officer.

“KZ,” an abbreviation for the Austrian name for concentration camp, “Konzentrationslager,” depicts not only the town’s residents, but also the tour guides and the tourists.

One tour guide, an intense young Austrian with a shaved head, speaks to the visitors in staccato tones. He has a defiance about him, so consumed is he with anger at his country and the town’s legacy. Another guide is an older middle-aged man, who admits that he has become an alcoholic after years of working at the camp.

For the first 15 minutes of the film, neither guide mentions the word Jews, because Mauthausen was not exclusively a Jewish concentration camp. It began as a labor camp and later admitted large numbers of Russians and Poles as well as Jews, who were not brought to the camp until 1944, according to the film.

Bloomstein, a 64-year-old resident of England, has made numerous television documentaries with Jewish themes, including the three-part series, “The Longest Hatred.” But “KZ” marks his first time at the helm of a documentary film.

He was making a TV documentary called “Liberation” when he noticed the beer drinking and singing taking place within yards of the former concentration camp. He was “haunted by the disjunction, the reality of people enjoying themselves, and then the reality over there” at the camp, and decided to make a film that would show “the interface of memory and history and the present.”

Using a hand-held camera, Bloomstein finds one man, standing next to a crematorium, who straightens out his trousers after his girlfriend tells him they’re rumpled; then, camera in hand, she takes a picture of him. Bloomstein finds another man visiting the camp, a swarthy fellow, who writes in a book of visitors’ comments that Israel should be ashamed at how it has treated the Palestinians and the Kurds. His daughter simply writes, “Peace.”

Unlike most Holocaust documentaries, this one, as its press materials proclaim, contains no archival footage, no survivor testimonials, no voice-over. Bloomstein points out that there is also “No music.”

He doesn’t want an artificial stimulus for people to feel sad. He wants the filmgoer to be one of the tourists and take in everything as if he were there — the gas chambers, the ovens, and the “Wailing Wall,” the wall in front of which Jews, left to die, stood naked for days in the snow and in the burning heat. For postmodern irony, this is about as gruesome as it gets.

For more information on the Sundance, visit

Stanley Kubrick’s Unrealized Vision


When Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999 during the post-production of his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” he left behind several pet projects he had been working on for decades. These included a science-fiction riff on “Pinocchio” (later finished by Steven Spielberg as “A.I.”), a historical biopic of the life of Napoleon and a Holocaust project with the working title “Aryan Papers.”

The recently released “Stanley Kubrick Archives,” an unwieldy coffee-table tome published by Taschen, sheds new light on the famously secretive director’s failed project. An essay by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and producer, details Kubrick’s longtime pursuit of the Holocaust as a subject for a film. Harlan writes of traveling to New York in 1976 to try and interest Isaac Bashevis Singer in contributing an original screenplay. What Kubrick sought from Singer was a “dramatic structure that compressed the complex and vast information into the story of an individual who represented the essence of this manmade hell.”

Singer, who—unlike many of his friends—was not a Holocaust survivor, gratefully declined, saying, “I don’t know the first thing” about the Holocaust.”

Kubrick shelved the project until 1991, when he read Louis Begley’s short novel, “Wartime Lies,” about a Jewish boy and his aunt who survive the war by snaking their way through Poland, pretending to be Catholics. Begley’s autobiographical tale so intrigued Kubrick that he was willing to shoot the project abroad—a dramatic decision for the director, who hadn’t left England for more than three decades. Kubrick got the go-ahead from Warner Bros.—which publicly announced the project as “Aryan Papers” (a reference to the documents required to escape deportation) in 1993—and he got fairly far along in the pre-production, hiring set and costume designers and casting several of the main roles. For the role of the boy’s aunt, Tanya, Kubrick considered Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman. However, preparations ceased when it became known that Spielberg had started working on “Schindler’s List.” Fearing competition, Kubrick shelved the project for a second and final time, and devoted his energies to “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Kubrick’s lifelong fascination with the Holocaust coexisted with extreme doubt as to whether any film could do justice to the subject. In 1980, he told the author Michael Herr that what he wanted most was to make a film about the Holocaust, “but good luck in putting all that into a two-hour movie.” Frederic Raphael, who co-authored the screenplay for “Eyes Wide Shut,” recalls Kubrick questioning whether a film truly can represent the Holocaust in its entirety. After Raphael suggested “Schindler’s List,” Kubrick replied, “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t. Anything else?”

The scholar Geoffrey Cocks has written extensively about Kubrick’s fascination with the Nazi era. In numerous essays and a book, “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust,” he argues that the Holocaust serves as the “veiled benchmark of evil” in many of Kubrick’s films, specifically “The Shining.” According to Cocks, the failure to bring “Aryan Papers” to fruition had to do with a profound awareness of “the problem of how to do ethical and artistic justice to the depiction of the horror of mass extermination,” a problem that has—in one form or another—plagued all postwar artists. Unlike Harlan, who recalls Kubrick’s great enthusiasm for the project, Cocks quotes Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, as telling him that Kubrick was horribly depressed throughout his work on “Aryan Papers.”

The Holocaust was such a sensitive issue that Kubrick’s reaction took the form of approach and avoidance, Cocks argues. Though Kubrick never confronted the subject head-on—and the scant appearance of Nazis in his films take the form of parody (as in “Dr. Strangelove” and “Lolita”)—Cocks writes that “[a]s a Jew in a gentile world, Kubrick would use his position as an outsider with a deep sensitivity to social injustice to expose the dark underside of society.”

A quote from Kubrick on the connection between rape and Beethoven in “A Clockwork Orange” illustrates Cocks’s assertion: “[It] suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men, but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.”

Kubrick was a master at exploring the darker side of human nature, whether it was sexual obsession (“Lolita”) or the will to power (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) or human cruelty (“A Clockwork Orange”). It’s fascinating and terrifying to imagine what Kubrick’s Holocaust might have looked like.

Reprinted with permission from The Forward.
A.J. Goldmann is a writer living in New York.
 

Todd Solondz, Provoking Again


 

“People call me a provocateur,” filmmaker Todd Solondz said. “I’d say that’s fair.”

Peering out from his oversized thick green glasses, dressed in rose-colored pants, a nubbly gray sweater and yellow sneakers, Solondz looks the part of independent cinema’s presiding nerd incendiary. But in an interview to promote his new film, “Palindromes” — which skewers hypocrisy in both camps of the abortion debate — he insists his films do not shock for shock’s sake.

“There is a kind of prodding, a needling to wake people up from their complacency and smugness,” he said unemotionally. “As a filmmaker you need to do certain radical things to achieve that.”

Considered perhaps more radical than fellow filmmaking iconoclasts Neil LaBute and John Waters, Solondz’s grim satires have featured mocking and mordant takes on subjects such as pedophilia and sadistic interracial sex.

His excruciating 1996 comedy, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — about a geeky four-eyed preteen who strikingly resembles Solondz — (originally titled, “Faggots and Retards”) was a kind of anti-“Wonder Years” that dispelled myths about childhood sexuality. His award-winning 1998 film, “Happiness,” which included a nice suburban dad with a predilection for little boys, was so scandalous, the studio that financed the movie elected not to distribute it.

In 2001’s “Storytelling,” a New Jersey Holocaust refugee’s daughter mouths platitudes about the Shoah and solicits tzedakah while ignoring the plight of her Salvadoran maid. When the housekeeper gasses the family to death, it is in part punishment for “trivializing and exploiting the tragedy of the Holocaust,” Solondz said.

His new film, “Palindromes,” revisits the Jersey suburbs to pit Jewish liberal parents against born-again Christians (and a pedophile) in the great American abortion debate. Stuck in the middle is 13-year-old Aviva, who is played by eight different actors and who gets herself pregnant because “babies are love.” When her appalled mother (Ellen Barkin) forces her to have an abortion, she runs away and finds refuge with Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a perky fundamentalist Christian whose home is a sanctuary for disabled children — and murderous right-to-lifers.

Solondz, 45, whose nasal accent belies his own New Jersey roots, was raised in a kosher home but is now an atheist. He believes the film is neither anti-abortion nor for abortion rights.

“I wanted to look at the moral consequences and ramifications of what it means to take on one of these labels,” he said.

On the one hand, Barkin’s character seems to be “a sensible, progressive parent,” he said. “If she were given a form she would check off ‘anti-war,’ ‘pro-gun control,’ ‘pro-gay rights’ and all the correct liberal causes. And, yet, when confronted with this terrible reality of her pregnant 13-year-old daughter, she is pro-choice so long as she does the choosing.”

Mama Sunshine, meanwhile, virtuously takes in abandoned children while helping to kill abortion doctors.

Aviva is suspended between a “pro-choice family that gives her no choice and a pro-life family that kills,” Solondz said.

“Palindromes” begins with the Jewish funeral of “Dollhouse’s” heroine, Dawn Weiner, Aviva’s cousin, who has committed suicide. Solondz said he wasn’t happy about killing Weiner off; he had hoped to explore her adventures as a young woman but was thwarted when Heather Matarazzo, the actress who had portrayed Dawn, declined to resume the role.

Thus he turned to another source for inspiration for his latest film: the television news and in particular, the controversy over abortion. “This is the only country in the world where people bomb clinics and assassinate abortionists,” the director said.

Solondz was especially struck by a story about a Southern community that rallied around such an assassin.

“I began pondering what it means to perpetuate such an atrocity; what goes through one’s mind, and then I realized it’s profoundly human to think that one is basically a good person, fighting the good fight,” he said. “Narcissism and self-deception are our survival mechanisms, so I think this movie is very responsive to what’s going on out there.”

While Solondz’s new film has received mixed reviews, the filmmaker especially bristles at the charge, by one critic, that “Palindromes” has “no artistic interest beyond the limitless ugliness of humanity.”

“Life is so much more cruel than anything I could put in my movies,” said the director. “Just in terms of reading the newspaper every day, there are atrocities that people and governments commit that make it impossible for me in good conscience to celebrate the wonderfulness of mankind.”

Solondz’s pet peeve is the typical Hollywood film that features attractive protagonists behaving heroically.

“That kind of movie allows viewers to feel better about themselves,” said cinema’s nerd provocateur. “You will never get that from any of my films.”

“Palindromes” opens today in Los Angeles.

 

Polish Director Honors Legacy With Classic Tale


Before her Jewish father died in Polish police custody in 1961, director Agnieszka Holland saw the legendary 1937 Yiddish film, “The Dybbuk,” based on S. Ansky’s play. Decades later, she remembered the movie as she prepared to direct her first Polish film since she was exiled from that country in 1981.

“I wanted to help reestablish the bridge between Poles and Jews,” she said.

Holland (“Washington Square,” “The Secret Garden”) selected Ansky’s tale of possession and exorcism partly “because the mysticism is depicted as part of everyday life,” she said. “Usually when Polish directors tackle Jewish subjects, I feel a kind of irritation because it’s like a fairy tale. But I wanted to show Jewish life in a very realistic way. Realism establishes a direct emotional connection between the characters and the audience, so that even if you have no Jewish background, you can relate.”

Holland’s story is almost as dramatic as the film, which uses Ansky’s text almost verbatim. Her Jewish journalist father lost most of his family in the Holocaust, but was reticent to talk about it “because of his pain and survivor’s guilt,” she said. In 1961, he was arrested during an anti-Semitic purge and allegedly pushed out the window (his death was officially declared a suicide).

Although her mother was Catholic, the half-Jewish Holland, now 54, was rejected from every Polish film school. While she eventually attended the prestigious Prague Film Academy, she spent six weeks in a Czech prison for dissident activities.

Back in Poland in the 1970s, she was banned from the film business until she became a protégé of esteemed director Andrzej Wajda. When he offered to adopt her so she could drop her blackened family name, she declined.

“I wanted to be my father’s witness,” she said.

Holland continued to bear witness to her father — and to her family’s past — by making several Holocaust-themed films. In 1985, she directed “Angry Harvest,” about a Catholic farmer who shelters a Jewish woman during World War II. In 1991, she filmed “Europa, Europa,” based on the true story of a Jewish boy who posed as a member of the Hitler Youth.

She settled on “The Dybbuk” following her 1999 drama, “The Third Miracle,” starring Ed Harris as a beleaguered priest. “After touching on Catholic mysticism, I wanted to explore the Jewish side,” she said.

Ansky’s story of a kabbalist who possesses his beloved fit the bill; because her non-Jewish cast knew nothing about Judaism, Holland invited Poland’s chief rabbi to lecture to them about Chasidism. Her biggest challenge while directing the Polish TV movie: “Getting my actors to play real human beings, not clichéd ‘Jews’ with quaint accents and movements,” she said. “I wanted them to bring to the characters the same kinds of fears and passions experienced by contemporary people.”

Will she return to Jewish themes in her work?

“It will always be a possibility, because it’s always present in myself,” she said.

Holland’s “The Dybbuk” will screen at the Zeitgeist Festival Tuesday, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $4-$6. Holland will also be hosting a screening of Agnes Varda’s “Le Bonheur” on Friday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the “How Great Filmmakers Inspire Great Filmmakers” series; tickets are $6-$10. Both events take place at the Skirball. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.

Hollywood, History and the Holocaust


Two celebrations took place in Los Angeles recently, and "Max," a new film about the young Adolf Hitler, opens today.

In a peculiar way, all three events are related.

The first celebration seems straightforward enough — at least on the surface. Sara and Charles Levin, who preferred not to give their real names, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in November, along with their three children, their spouses, their grandchildren and about 40 friends.

The guests, aside from sharing their affection and pleasure at being together for the anniversary, were silent about a central fact: Sara Levin and her husband are survivors. When Sara was 13, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Dr. Josef Mengele stood at the receiving line scrutinizing each person; some he sent directly to the gas chambers, others to the work force.

It is a story whose details Levin sometimes shares with schoolchildren and other visitors to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, where she volunteers three days a week as a docent. But it is a story she has never told her three children. She came close years ago when her oldest son, then 10, was watching a television drama about the Holocaust. "That could have been your mother," she told him, pointing to the screen; she was horrified when he burst into tears.

She and her husband decided never to tell the children a word about those dark teenage years in Europe. Instead, she recounts it in a low, calm understated voice to strangers — keeping the memory alive of those who survived, as well as of those who perished.

The second celebration is also a personal story, but in quite a different vein. On Dec. 5, the Shoah Foundation and founder Steven Spielberg celebrated the foundation’s eighth anniversary with a grand dinner that raised more than $500,000.

Today, Spielberg is both Hollywood’s most influential director and one of the city’s leading Jewish figures. It is no exaggeration to say that his film, "Schindler’s List," had a tremendous impact on his own life. He used the profits to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 which videotapes and preserves the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

The foundation also produces documentaries — eight thus far, including the Oscar-winning "The Last Days" (1998).

Ironically, Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List," along with other American portrayals, has turned out to be the most effective educational narratives produced about the Holocaust — even though the U.S. relationship was a distant one, while the European connection was far more direct and involved. Nevertheless, such American films as "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," and the television miniseries, "Holocaust," have been far more influential and have made a much deeper impact, here and abroad, than any European film.

"There is a sense, and the reception of Spielberg’s film confirms this, in which one thing doesn’t have reality in this culture until Hollywood says it does," Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor, told a television interviewer.

Years ago, Elie Wiesel registered his objections to the American films about the Holocaust: The experience had been too horrific, and television and movies only led to banality. He denounced the television miniseries, "Holocaust," as soap opera, but then was shocked to discover that a New York Times poll (later declared inaccurate) had shown that 22 percent of American adults had doubts about the genocide. Better to establish the Holocaust as a cultural fact in the American landscape than worry about trivializing it, he concluded.

But now we have a new film, "Max," which presents us with a portrait of Adolf Hitler as a young German war veteran struggling to become an artist in 1918, befriended by a fictitious Jewish art dealer, named Max Rothman.

Historians have objected to the portrait as being sympathetic because it concentrates on Hitler’s personal anguish as a young rejected artist, and not on the destruction he left behind in Europe, or the genocide that followed from his commands. "Max" seems to explain his subsequent behavior and, in the process, comes to rationalize it. Others have complained that the film only serves to distort history and to trivialize the past.

The process of changing Nazi history in films and television actually began some time ago in films and television. From Chaplin’s "The Great Dictator" to "Hogan’s Heroes," from Ernst Lubitsch’s "To Be or Not to Be" to "The Grey Zone," World War II and the Holocaust have been told almost solely from the point of view of the victors and the victims.

Now the story is beginning to shift once again, in a way that is disturbing, but perhaps inevitable. Films like "Max," and the planned CBS miniseries on Hitler’s life, will examine the Holocaust from the point of view of the perpetrators. We, the consumers of mass culture, undoubtedly will have to learn to live with this fact.

The cultural reality of our lives is that we must learn to come to terms with Sara Levin and the Shoah Foundation’s eyewitness tapes, no less than the dramatic Hollywood fictions that inevitably fight to replace history itself.


Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.

Incidental Intelligence


British actor Ben Kingsley has played a number of Jewish characters with such authenticity that questions frequently pop up about his possible Jewish background.

He was unforgettable as the accountant Yitzhak Stern in "Schindler’s List" and earlier had the title role in the TV movie "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story."

He portrayed a less inspiring Jewish figure, mobster Meyer Lansky, in "Bugsy" (1991) and will play father Otto Frank in the ABC miniseries "Anne Frank" (May 20-21).

Kingsley (born Krishna Banji, the son of an Indian physician and a British model and actress) phoned me this week from England to draw attention to a PBS reprise of "Schindler’s List," so I asked him about possible Jewish antecedents.

"I am not absolutely certain, but to the best of my knowledge, I am one-quarter Jewish on my mother’s side," he said. Then he added, with a touch of irritation, "It gets a little ludicrous to quantify such things. It’s liking counting chromosomes or measuring the shapes of noses."