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.

The Sundance Tribe


We were late for the movie because of Shabbat dinner. With fresh sectional challah imported from Zomick’s bakery in Long Island, N.Y., and kosher Cabernet Sauvignon brought from California, a few other traditional Jews gathered at our bicoastal condo for Friday night dinner just as the Sundance Festival was ticking away its last movies of the 2004 season.

We were not the most religious people at Sundance, by far. A high school classmate of mine, Donny Epstein, was also staying in Park City at a condo where people were actually shomer Shabbat; they weren’t rushing out to movies, Israeli-style, after the meal. Donny was in town showing "Paper Clips," a documentary he helped produce about a rural Tennessee middle school class trying to find a meaningful way to honor the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The mostly white fundamentalist students — many of whom had never seen a Jew — decided to collect one paper clip for each life lost in the Holocaust (Miramax had picked up the film prior to the festival).

But there weren’t many overtly "Jewish" films this year at Sundance. Nothing as in-your-face as last year’s "Hebrew Hammer," a spoof of blaxploitation movies with a semi-Chasid as a superhero. The Holocaust, always a popular theme with filmmakers and judges alike, was, to the best of my knowledge, as absent from the festival as it was from this year’s Oscar nominations and general films of interest. Has it been overdone? Has it become too mainstream for the indie circuit?

"The judges like dark or edgy films with a controversial subject," Israeli-born producer/distributor Udy Epstein told me, offhandedly dismissing his very popular documentary, "Word Wars," an homage to competitive Scrabble players. Epstein, who has lived in America for more than two decades, produced the sweet film, and didn’t think it had a chance at the competition because it was too vanilla a subject. Epstein’s company, 7th Art Releasing, had distributed the Academy Award-winning documentary, "The Long Way Home," a post-Holocaust film about the refugees stranded after liberation from the camps.

Israelis, of course, were everywhere at the festival. It was not uncommon to overhear Hebrew at a nearby table in the press room or at a restaurant or, for that matter, Israeli-accented English schmoozing up the people you schmooze up at Sundance.

A number of Israeli films made an appearance at the festival including "The Garden," Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash’s doc about a Palestinian and an Arab Israeli who live in the desolate section of Tel Aviv where young gay prostitutes and drug addicts gather; and "Nina’s Tragedies," a coming-of-age feature about life and love. (For more on Israeli and Palestinian films, see Tom Tugend’s Jan. 16, 2004 article about Sundance.)

There’s something inherent about Sundance and the film fest circuit that is suitable to Israelis. Always adept at improvising, scrambling, hyping themselves up and scraping their way to where they need to be, Israelis — who were not raised with the traditional linear career trade to which many Americans are accustomed (high school, college, graduate school, internships, jobs, partnerships) — do well at hustling. It reminds me of the Jews who founded the entertainment industry; barred from lily white establishments like advertising, and limited in entry to professional fields such as medical school, in the first half of the 20th century Jews did well in the no-rules jungle of what would become Hollywood.

Festivals like Sundance, I suppose, are meant to revive that anything-goes atmosphere that once dominated filmmaking, giving a shot to previous nobodies who have circumvented the traditional climb to the top, replacing it with that all-American dream of instant fame and success obtained by suddenly "being discovered."

At Sundance, you can make it in about 60 seconds. I was reminded of this when I contacted the publicist for Zach Braff’s incredible movie, "Garden State." By the time I called, the romantic comedy, which was written and directed by and featured the "Scrubs" star, had already been picked up in a historic combo deal by Miramax and Fox Searchlight. The publicist basically laughed at me; my little outlet was going to have to wait in line to talk to the hottest thing to emerge from the festival.

No matter; using my Jewish-slash-Israeli scrambling skills, that Friday night, post-Shabbat dinner, I made it into the final packed midnight showing of the movie; a "Lost in Translation"-kind of poignant but humorous drama. I got to hear the star of the moment talk about the process of making this movie, how he culled all the bizarre characters from growing up in New Jersey. But it wasn’t really a Jewish film. (For that, an audience member I spoke to suggested "Heir to an Execution," the Rosenberg documentary made by their granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol; she presents her personal search for her grandparents while refusing to dole out any conclusions about their guilt.)

One of the opening scenes of "Garden State" featured — from afar — a Jewish funeral, and then a shiva, but Andrew Largeman (Braff) is highly detached from it all. Later, when his love interest, Sam (Natalie Portman), says in surprise, "You’re really Jewish!" he shrugs it off; he’s not. It’s just something he is.

"No one I know goes to temple," he tells her, and that’s that for the Yiddishkayt in the film.

I guess that’s how it goes at Sundance: the shorts tackle topics like rape, incest, homophobia, the future; eerie bobsledding cartoons, spoofs of Korean salespeople, Indian schoolchildren playing as adults. The controversial, the experimental, the incomprehensible, and, if you’re lucky to make the right pics, you can see the powerful. Jews, it seems, are nowhere and everywhere, depending on how you look at it.

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.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Beware the Yiddish Culture Club’s karma chameleon. Dwindling membership may mean those who value the group but are slow to join may find themselves without it soon enough. Tonight, they sponsor a concert by Cantor Hershl Fox titled “Let Us Sing Yiddish.” Check it out. No more excuses.7:30 p.m. $5 (members), $8 (guests). 8339 W. Third St., Los Angeles. (310) 275-8455.

Sunday

The Yiddish are coming. All weekend long, it seems. In addition to Saturday’s concert, this weekend Adat Ari El hosts Yiddish playwright, conductor and general cultural authority Zalmen Mlotek. He’ll offer stories, a gathering for Yiddish speakers and a “khootenanny,” with accompaniment by Golden State Klezmer Band. You know you’ve always wanted to be able to say you’ve been to a “khootenanny.”Fri., Feb. 7-Sun., Feb. 9. 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 788-1679.

Monday

Skip out of work early today, prepare the sick excusesfor tomorrow morning and make the call to Papa John’s. Tonight, February Mondayscontinue with Star of the Month John Garfield on Turner Classic Movies. “TheBreaking Point,” “The Sea Wolf,” “Four Daughters,” “Daughters Courageous,” “FourWives” and “Between Two Worlds” play back to back till the wee hours of morning.It’s a commitment perhaps best reserved for die-hard fans of the Jewish toughguy. But you could always tape it. 5 p.m., Turner Classic Movies. www.turnerclassicmovies.com

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Tuesday

Sponsored by Istituto Italiano di Cultura (Italian Government Cultural Office), but nonetheless offered in English, is today’s talk at Cal State Long Beach on “Representations of the Holocaust in Italian Literature.” Speaker Stefania Lucamante gives a free lecture this afternoon. Extra credit for pronouncing her name correctly.4 p.m. Library West, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach. (310) 443-3250.

Wednesday

Improper Brit artist (and grandson of Sigmund) Lucian Freud had the sass to give hint of 5 o’clock shadow in his commissioned portrait painting of the Queen Mum. Fact is, his portraits are often unflattering. But while we don’t suggest sitting for him, we do recommend MOCA’s “Lucian Freud” retrospective, consisting of 115 of his works from six decades, and now on loan from the Tate Britain. Considered Britain’s greatest living realist painter, Freud also debuts his new portrait of David Hockney in this show.11 a.m.-5 pm. (Tuesday-Sunday), 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (Thursdays). Runs Feb. 9-May 25. $8 (adults), $5 (students and seniors), free (members, children under 12 and everyone on Thursday evenings, 5-8 p.m.). 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 626-6222.

Thursday

Opening this week at the Los Angeles Jewish Theatre is Richard Freedman’s play “Halevai.” It’s the stuff Harry Chapin songs are made of. The title means “if only” in Hebrew, and centers around the relationship between a father and son, and the “if only’s” the son is left to face after the death of his father.8 p.m. (Thursdays and Saturdays), 2 p.m. (Sundays). Runs Feb. 8-March 16. $14 (Thursdays), $20 (Saturdays and Sundays), $18 (seniors). 1528 Gordon St., Hollywood. (310) 967-1352.

Friday

To all the lovelorn and dejected on this, depressing ofall holidays, we say, “Chins up!” Personally, we’ve chosen to keep tellingourselves V-Day is just a stupid, capitalist-driven excuse for the masses toconsume chocolates and throw their happy little relationships in our faces. Butwe’re not having it. Our suggestion: Grab a pint — Ben and Jerry’s or Guinness,your choice — and hit the comic book store for an alternative kind of lovestory, on shelves today. “The Nine Loves of El Gato, Crime Mangler,” written andillustrated by Journal staff writer Michael Aushenker (and others), willdistract you from your own sorrows. You’ll be reminded that it could be worse –you could be a big, fat Mexican wrestler with a mask fetish and a distaste forbananas. $5. Available in comic book shops everywhere, or through www.elgatocomics.com