November 21, 2018

Hungarian film fest comes to North Hollywood

The latest film festival to open in Los Angeles features a title about a Holocaust survivor who has erased all memories of his Jewishness. Another honors a Swiss diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews. There is also the documentary about the world’s first female rabbi, and another that tells the story of a fervently Orthodox Israeli who is also an honored avant-garde composer.

No, this is not a Jewish film fest but the 14th annual Hungarian Film Festival, which is joining its ancestral land in commemorating the horrors of 70 years ago, when German armies and home-grown fascists combined to wipe out the once-flourishing Jewish community of Hungary

The festival runs Nov. 14-20, with all screenings at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.

The program lists 12 features, seven documentaries, and several animated and short films.

Laszlo Kalman, the Hungarian consul general in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview that the commemorative events at home and abroad are fully supported by the government and parliament to honor those who perished in the Holocaust, as well as those courageous men and women who helped save Jewish lives.

Kalman acknowledged the guilt of the Arrow Cross fascist party, which in 1944 aided the Nazis’ Final Solution, as well as the existence of the current Jobbik Party, which he described as radical extremists with a strongly anti-Semitic outlook.

He also noted, “There is no more or no less anti-Semitism in Hungary than in the rest of Europe. … We have laws against hate speech for the media, all schools observe a Holocaust remembrance day, and there have been no physical attacks on Jews — [knock on] wood.”

Kalman credited Andrew Friedman, a leader of the local Hungarian Orthodox Jewish community, with introducing him to Los Angeles Jewish life.

The most challenging of the four Jewish movies appears to be “The Last Mentsch,” whose central character was born Menachem Teitelbaum in a small Hungarian town.

Mario Adorf in a still from “The Last Mentsch.”

After surviving Auschwitz and other camps, he moves to Germany, changes his name to Marcus Schwartz and decides to erase all traces of Jewishness within himself and his environment.

Now in his 80s and given to long, solitary walks, he comes across a Jewish cemetery, and a stone within him melts. He is now determined to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but first he has to prove to various by-the-book rabbis that he actually was born a Jew.

His quest makes for some aching comedy:

The concentration camp number tattooed on his arm is not enough.

Rabbi: “You first have to prove that you’re a Jew.”

Schwartz: “The Nazis were not so picky.”

Rabbi: “Do you speak Yiddish?”

Schwartz: “Eichmann spoke Yiddish. What does that prove?”

Finally, Schwartz decides he must return to his native village in Hungary, hoping he can find someone who knew his family and can attest to his Jewishness.

He starts looking for a car and driver to take him to his birthplace and somehow links up with Gul, a half-Turkish, half-German young woman who wrestles with her own identity problems.

They make an odd set of companions, with the girl driving the gruff old man to distraction with her chain smoking, constant cursing and blasting radio music.

The film, though mainly set in Hungary, was made in Germany, with German actors, and its German title is “Der Letzte Mentsch,” including the odd spelling of the word “mensch.”

Unlike the word’s Yiddish meaning, in German a mensch is not necessarily decent or virtuous, but just a human being, and the movie’s title is derived from one scene in the film.

Schwartz and an elderly Jewish lady appear before a panel of rabbis to plead his case. “Your book,” Schwartz tells the rabbis, “speaks of the first two humans. But what about us, pointing to himself and the woman, the last two humans?”

He delivers another bon mot, when he sighs and observes, “Being Jewish is an incurable disease.”

The leonine-headed German actor Mario Adorf is stunning as the world-weary Teitelbaum/Schwartz, and is ably complemented by Katherine Derr as the young girl. There is even a touch of Los Angeles in the role of a young man, sent by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, to film and interview Holocaust survivors in Hungary.

Pierre-Henry Salfati directed and co-wrote the movie.

There are three other films on Jewish themes: “Carl Lutz — The Forgotten Hero” documents the bravery of the wartime Swiss diplomat in Budapest, who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to save thousands of Jews. “Regina” is a documentary about Regina Jonas, who fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming the world’s first female rabbi while studying in Berlin in the 1930s. “The Hungarian Cube” is an Israeli film on composer Andre Hajdu, whose multifaceted personality is akin to a Hungarian Rubik’s Cube, revealing different colors at different turns and angles.