March 31, 2020

Jewish Comedy ‘Motti Wolkenbruch’ Is a Netflix Hit

Joel Basman and Noémie Schmidt in “The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

Mining Orthodox Jewish family life for comedy and romance, the Swiss import “The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch” is one of Netflix’s most popular new titles. 

Comically chronicling the title character’s love life, which he tries to keep secret from his overbearing, matchmaking mother, the movie originally was released as “Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey into the Arms of a Shiksa,” and it’s Switzerland’s Oscar entry for best international feature this year.

Joel Basman (“Land of Mine”) plays Mordechai “Motti” Wolkenbruch, a college student who endures a series of excruciating shidduchs arranged by his mama (Inge Maux) while clandestinely dating Laura (Noémie Schmidt), a non-Jewish classmate. The screenplay is by Thomas Meyer adapted from his novel, and is directed by Michael Steiner, who appeared at a Los Angeles Times-sponsored screening with Basman and Maux. 

Although he’s not Jewish, Steiner told the audience that he had lived in an Orthodox neighborhood in Zurich, where he was sometimes called upon to be a “Shabbos goy.” His research and preparation for the project included an extended pre-production period when the cast could learn their Hebrew and Yiddish lines and share Shabbat dinners. (Both languages and German are spoken in the film.) 

Sam Cohen, a former member of the Orthodox community, served as an adviser. “He was kind of the real Motti,” Steiner told the Journal later. “He was with us every day while shooting.” 

Basman was also helpful with the Hebrew language. His father is Israeli. 

“The mother-son conflict is not specifically Jewish. It’s a global topic.” —  Michael Steiner

The winner of the Swiss Film Prize for best actor, he recalled sweltering in a wool suit during the summer shoot, and the disapproving glances he’d sometimes get from the Orthodox locals. “On Shabbat you’re not allowed to work or ride a bicycle or smoke, and I’m standing around on my phone, smoking,” he said. “I waved, but they didn’t wave back.”

Steiner, who has known writer Meyer for over 20 years, endeavored to be true to his friend’s story. “He has a great imagination and a good eye for detail. I tried to visualize it the best that I can,” the director said, noting that the plot does diverge a bit in not using the book’s third act in favor of a more open-ended finale. His overall goal, he added, was “to shoot a tragicomedy that respects the religion and the culture the story is set in.”

Achieving the right comic tone “wasn’t always easy, but we rehearsed quite a lot before shooting to get it right,” he said. “I think we did the right thing. The film was the No. 1 movie in Switzerland last year.” 

Now, with the film achieving global popularity via streaming on Netflix, Steiner is not surprised that his very Jewish story has become universally relatable. “The mother-son conflict is not specifically Jewish,” he said. “It’s a global topic.”

Steiner’s next film is a distinct departure from “Motti Wolkenbruch.” It’s a hostage drama set in Pakistan, based on a true story. Basman also has several projects forthcoming, including “Adventures of a Mathematician,” in which he plays Edward Teller, a Hungarian Jew who participated in the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb.

“Motti” may have less gravitas than those subjects but Steiner thinks that it can have an impact nonetheless. “I am certain that giving a glimpse into the Orthodox Jewish world brings everything you see and feel a bit closer and helps to fight prejudices, no matter if it concerns religion, color or gender,” he said. For him, the takeaway message is a simple one: “Be tolerant, be loving and let people go their own way.”

“The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch” is streaming now on Netflix.