Staged for the 22nd time, the annual New York Jewish Film Festival featured 45 films and shorts. The program presented a global perspective on the Jewish experience with a large number of productions devoted to the Holocaust and its aftermath. The 2013 festival included contemporary Israeli productions, avant garde films from the thirties, restored films, documentaries, several biopics as well as some titles focusing on the arts.
Several productions dominated the program, including the powerful documentary THE TRIAL OF ADOLF EICHMANN, France 2011, (Michael Prazan), the biopic HANNAH ARENDT (Margarethe von Trotta, Germany, 2012) with Arendt superbly enacted by Barbara Sukowa, and Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir’s CABARET BERLIN – THE WILD SCENE, (Germany, France 2010), an extraordinary narrative of Weimar’s passage into the Third Reich as seen reflected in its cabaret scene. Prazan offers a level headed view of Eichmann with a step by step account of his capture and trial, the media and social context of his prosecution and punishment; and review of the controversies surrounding the trial. Eichmann is documented through his self-presentation at the trial leaving it up to the viewer to form an interpretation. Von Trotta presents Arendt over a four year period in her life with an emphasis on her New Yorker reporting of the Eichmann trial. As a philosopher and political theoretician her controversial coverage of Eichmann as a soulless bureaucrat executing orders caused a major scandal. Rather than following the popular and readily accepted view of Eichmann as a deranged monster, Arendt considered him as reflecting the banality of evil, a position for which plausible evidence exists. Facilitating the murder of millions Eichmann was evil but normal. Psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn provides in his Nuremberg Interviews related insights. He suggests on the basis of lengthy interviews of 33 high ranking defendants and witnesses, the leadership of the Third Reich, that only Rudolf Hess and possibly Hans Frank were mentally ill. Most of the others were well educated family men with above average intelligence. Possibly the best film in this year’s selection is Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir’s CABARET BERLIN – THE WILD SCENE. No matter which perspective one has, be it popular culture, sophisticated storytelling, or understanding of the link between politics and socio-economic contexts, this film is a master piece as indicated by numerous awards. The film makers are weaving a tremendous amount of material drawn from feature films, archives, recording of songs, and news footage and turn thirty years of coverage into a coherent narrative structure. Biting commentaries, satirical statements and witty cabaret songs predict the Nazi disaster to come. CABARET BERLIN includes elucidating statements about the class structure, the rise of a society wedded to the surface and narcissism, the degradation caused by industrial society, the disappearance of the individual, and the apparent naiveté of self styled elites and the political leadership. Battles between Brown shirts and the Red Front dominate the street. There is no center to hold German society together and after Hitler’s rise to power most of the Jewish artists, who had shaped the cabaret , artistic and intellectual scene are exiled, tortured or killed; be it Benjamin, Dix, the Manns, Brecht, Lenya and many others. The film reflects an incredible research and documentation job and is inspired by thinkers like Adorno, Tucholsky and Toller. This production is a must see film not only for those interested in the culture and politics of the Weimar republic but also anyone dealing with large amounts of material and the need of weaving hundreds of segments into a coherent meaningful structure, though CABARET BERLIN will be a difficult act to follow.
Neil Barsky’ biopic KOCH (U.S. 2012) on the famed former Mayor Ed Koch is a lengthy collection of selections from archival material. It shows the rise and fall of Koch and provides interesting insights into the crises Koch surmounted and his achievements. They range from overcoming a subway strike to creating public housing, response to numerous race issues, conflicted encounters with the Afro American community, and Koch’s reaction to the AIDS epidemic. In spite of the discovery of news and documentary material rarely seen before this biopic is troubled by a weak coherent narrative structure. Viewers will wonder about the outcomes of his initiatives and, more importantly, the forces motivating Koch. Somehow it seems that the film was rushed to completion, that film makers did not have the time or patience to cull surplus images and establish clearer connections. THE ART OF SPIEGELMAN by Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck (France, 2010) provides a succinct and intimate portrait of the famed creator of MAUS, the classic comic about his parents’ survival of the holocaust. Here we find the reflexive statements by Art Spiegelman completely missing from the comments of Koch in his biopic. Through Spiegelman’s accounts we are faced with his childhood memories, suffering, raw emotions, and creative drives. He has the need of “reinventing his art for each drawing” and is motivated by “the muse… [of] disasters, small or large”. He lived with parents who were `camp survivors and interviewed his father whose experience provided the back bone for Spiegelman’s unsentimental classic holocaust story MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE (1986). In this graphic comics novel he depicts murderous Nazis as cats, persecuted Jews as mice and non-Jewish Poles as pigs from the thirties to the 1945 end of the holocaust. As Spiegelman puts it, he is scared of having nothing else to do, yet he is reborn on each of the pages he draws, though he needed a decade to escape the shadow of MAUS. Spiegelman mentions that he refused to be drawn into the ‘holokitsch’ of popular culture of the 80s. This film is a superb biographical learning experience.
Oma (Regina Karolinski) and Bella (Bella Katz) by Alexa Karolinski, Germany U.S., 2011) is a touching humanistic depiction of the everyday life of two close friends who survived the camps, and decided to stay in Germany and live together in Berlin. Oma and Bella are queried by the film maker, a grandchild, and prefer to keep mostly silent about the past so as not to have to relive it, but provide spontaneous revealing comments. Survival in camps was possible for the strongest only and after liberation the Soviet commander allowed for two days to take revenge. And the dreadful past breaks through in dreams. Oma recalling her dream of seeing as a child her father who had hung himself with a smile on his face since he escaped falling into the hands of the Nazis. Oma and Bella share the problems of adjusting to the normal life and their attempts to recapture the formative years of their youth which were stolen by the Nazis. Both friends share a sense of humor and are more at ease talking about the food they love than about the past. Oma and Bella are two amazing strong personalities who started new families replacing their own lost ones and are able to celebrate life.
Based on a true story, SUSKIND by Rudolf Van Den Berg (Netherlands, 2012) is an appealing feature film about the moral issues of being a member of the Jewish Council in occupied Holland not knowing about the Judenrat’s function to deliver countless people to the Nazis. Once the protagonist learns that he has facilitated the deportation of 40 000 Dutch Jews he saves many children from the death transports. Yet he cannot prevent his wife and child from being placed on a transport and he joins them in their passage to their certain doom.
As the current edition demonstrates, the New York Jewish Festivals has retained its place as the premiere U.S. show case of Jewish and Israeli themed films on significant issues and concerns elucidating our understanding of the Jewish Experience