September 18, 2019

Jaglom’s ‘Train’ Ride Into Love and Hatred

One of the more pervasive fantasies of Jewish boys and young men growing up amidst the anti-Semitism of Europe and the United States in the first half of the last century ran as follows:

He would meet a beautiful blonde — a gentile, an Aryan, a shiksa — who fell hard for him but enlivened her comments with a compendium of anti-Semitic clichés, topped by the boast that she could smell a Jew a mile away. Our hero would never reveal his own heritage until the climactic moment, dramatically and physically, when during an ardent bedroom scene the boy tells the panting girl that he is a Jew.

Actor Kirk Douglas recalled a very similar scenario in his 1988 autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son.” However, Henry Jaglom does him one better in his film “Train to Zakopané.”

Jaglom, a triple threat as actor, writer and director, didn’t have to invent the script. It was passed to him by his father, Simon (Semyon) Jaglom.

In 1928, Semyon was a young businessman, traveling through Poland by train. Sharing the compartment with him was Katia, an attractive Polish army nurse, her female friend and a Catholic priest.

Katia, portrayed by Tanna Frederick, Jaglom’s favorite actress and wife, is obviously taken with Semyon (Mike Falkow), a sharply dressed young businessman, who is given to bowing and kissing a lady’s hand by way of introduction.

As the foursome get to know one another, the chatter flows easily, focusing first on the changes wrought by World War I, though punctuated by Katia’s favorite topic, the greed, slyness and all-around evilness of Jews.

Semyon occasionally tries to defend his (secret) co-religionists, but without much success. The priest chimes in that he can’t forgive the Jews for “rejecting our Lord,” and adds that “good Jews are the exception, not the rule.”

The two-hour movie draws a comparison between the almost universal, open and deeply-rooted anti-Semitism of the first half of the last century and the less open and respectable form it generally takes today.

Nevertheless, Katia and Semyon keep getting closer over wine and dinner at the train’s buffet while marveling at the star-lit sky as the train hurls through the rural Polish countryside toward the winter sport resort of Zakopané. Will passion triumph over prejudice? Will Semyon acknowledge his heritage? Will Katia see the errors of her ways and join a kibbutz?

“Train to Zakopané” draws a comparison between the deeply rooted anti-Semitism of the first half of the last century and the respectable form it generally takes today.

As writer and director, Henry Jaglom is not of the “aw, shucks, ma’am” school of cowboy dialogue. His characters talk volubly, which may overwhelm viewers at the beginning but adds depth as the plot accelerates toward its climax.

Jaglom is one of the more intriguing Hollywood personalities. His resume includes 21 films as director and writer, 11 as actor, and six theater productions as playwright. He is also one of the entertainment industry’s more controversial figures. Some critics laud him as one of Hollywood’s most original’s directors, while other assign him to the lowest level of his profession.

Born in London 80 years ago, his Russian-born father and German-born mother immigrated to America when he was a year old, beating the outbreak of World War II by a few months.

Though raised in a family strongly involved in Jewish causes and schooled in heavily Jewish Manhattan, Jaglom evinced little interest in his heritage until, at 21, he visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, for the first time.

Now he is in the midst of writing “The Third Stone on the Second Row — A Family Memoir and a Brief History of the Jewish People.” He has completed the first 500 pages and in a phone interview said that his Jewishness is evolving with each additional page.

“There is an endless fascination in being Jewish,” he said.

“Train to Zakopané” opens May 5 at Laemmle’s Monica in Santa Monica, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino. It opens May 11 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills.