The Arty Semite

How Italy Saved Its Jews

By Allen Ellenzweig

The vagaries of international film distribution may produce the impression that the French have created a more significant body of work examining their nation’s moral failings under Nazi Occupation than any other European country. We have, for example, feature films like Louis Malle’s “Au revoir, les enfants,” Truffaut’s “Le Dernier Metro,” or Rose Bosch’s recent “La Rafle,” as well as magisterial documentaries like Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” and “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbi,” not to mention Claude Lanzmann’s singular “Shoah” and his recent, if problematic, “The Last of the Unjust.” It may be my lapse, but I can immediately think of no other European national cinema that has produced a documentary that takes its own Nazi period and examines it with the moral depth and complexity of “The Sorrow and the Pity” or “Hotel Terminus.” It could also be that significant works of that kind have simply not reached the international market.

With this in mind, it may be unfair to approach Oren Jacoby’s modest and nobly intended “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes” by the barometer of the best that has already been produced in another national context. “My Italian Secret” tells stories of bravery by ordinary Italians in saving their Jewish friends and neighbors; it does so by following several Jewish survivors who return to Italy in their late adulthood to revisit the scenes of their worst nightmares: hidden in terror, fleeing in desperation, separated from loved ones, saying final goodbyes without knowing they were final. But Jacoby also threads through his documentary the story of a uniquely self-effacing man, the ruggedly handsome Italian bicycling idol Gino Bartali, whose athletic success before the outbreak of war imposed on him the burden of being used as a paragon of Mussolini’s fascist ideology. This is a position from which Bartali shrank, preferring to keep his own counsel and avoid any apparent endorsement of Il Duce’s project.

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How Ziggy Gruber Became a 'Deli Man'

By Jordan Kutzik

Photo courtesy Cohen Media Group

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Like many other aspects of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, old-time Jewish delicacies are becoming harder and harder to find. In 1931 there were more than 2,500 delis and 150 kosher dairy restaurants in New York City alone; today there are only 21 delis left in the Big Apple. Erik Greenberg Anjou’s film “Deli Man,” which is now playing nationwide, explores the history of the American-Jewish deli and its precipitous decline through the men seeking to keep deli culture alive, chief among them “deli man” Ziggy Gruber.

Gruber, a 40-something New York Jew, has run Kenny and Ziggy’s Delicatessen in Houston, Texas for the past 15 years. Gruber grew up in the deli industry. “How did I start working in delis?” Gruber repeated the question during a telephone interview. “Well, when I was 8 my grandfather threw an apron at me and said ‘come with me. It’s time to make a living.’ And he taught me how to cook real heymishe (down-home) Yiddish food and work in the deli.”

Ziggy Gruber has an impeccable pedigree in the world of Jewish delis; his family is made up of three generations of “deli men.” His grandfather Max came to America from Budapest at age 16 and soon began working in Jewish restaurants. Together with his brother-in-laws Izzy and Morris Rappaport, Max opened the first deli on Broadway, the famous Rialto Deli in 1927. The restaurant was a huge success and they soon opened other popular delis, including Berger’s Delicatessen on 47th street, Wally’s Downtown and The Griddle on 16th street. Their delis attracted some of the biggest celebrities of the time, including Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.

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The French Comedy Too Controversial for America

By Andrew Lapin

The French comedy “Serial (Bad) Weddings” opens with a white Catholic couple grimacing in church as they marry off their eldest daughter to an Arab. In the second scene they grimace once again, as their second daughter marries a Jew.

Not hot-button enough yet? A third daughter then marries a Chinese man, and the film’s conflict is thrust into motion when the fourth daughter becomes engaged to an African. He’s Catholic, but still, the parents weep over losing their final shot to have a white Frenchman son-in-law. Soon the parents may not be the only ones with an uncomfortable look on their face: American audiences will join them.

At least, that’s the fear of international film marketers who have declined to release “Serial (Bad) Weddings” stateside, according to TF1 International, the movie’s distributor. Released in France last year under its original title, “Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu?” (literally, “What Have We Done To God?”), the movie grossed more than $104 million in its native country, becoming the highest grossing film of the year.

But speaking to French magazine Le Point last fall, TF1 Head of Sales Sabine Chemaly said agents in the U.S. and U.K. had deemed the film too politically incorrect for the English-speaking market. Some of the fear may have to do with the fact that another recent French culture-clash comedy, 2011’s “The Intouchables,” weathered charges of racism from several American media outlets following its release.

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10 Food Movies Everyone Should See

By Curt Schleier

While it may seem as though deli food is the only grub worthy of cinematic treatment, some foolish auteurs have tackled others. Here are some of the best food films ever, in our humble opinion.

1. The Hundred-Foot Journey (Lasse Hallström, 2014)

Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) is not pleased when Indian immigrants open a restaurant 100 feet across the road from her small Michelin-starred establishment. Did I really have to say more than Helen Mirren?

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'Deli Man' Pays Homage to Jewish Comfort Food

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy Cohen Media Group

For many Jews, much of their identity revolves around a bagel with shmear or a hot pastrami sandwich.

And in mid-20th-century America, there were plenty of places they could indulge their cultural-culinary passions. In 1931, New York City alone was home to over 1,500 kosher delicatessens.

Today, not so much. According to the new documentary “Deli Man,” there are only about 150 kosher delis in the entire U.S., and less than two dozen kosher and non-kosher delis within the five boroughs.

Filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou takes us on a mouthwatering journey from the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan to Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills with a stop at Manny’s in Chicago.

“Deli Man” is Greenberg Anjou’s third work on Jewish culture, including “The Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.” They were both top-notch, moving films, but this one — you should pardon the expression — is even more delicious.

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12 Sibling Teams That Changed Hollywood

By Curt Schleier

Getty Images

Nancy, Anne and — who was that other one? — oh yes, Steven Spielberg aren’t the only siblings in film. In fact, the list is longer than you might imagine.

1. Joel and Ethan Coen

If there’s one constant in the Coens’ collaboration, it’s the consistent high quality of their work: “Barton Fink,” “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “The Big Lebowski,” and, of course, their truly Jewish film, “A serious Man.” Another factor sets them apart: their work ethic. Since 1984’s “Blood Simple,” they’ve made over 20 films, in almost all cases, writing, editing, producing and directing themselves.

2. Auguste and Louis Lumière:

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Why Nancy Spielberg Made a Movie About the Israeli Air Force

By Curt Schleier

“Above and Beyond,” the documentary about the birth of the Israeli Air Force, started with an obituary. This according to the film’s executive producer, Nancy Spielberg.

Yes, for the record, she is one of those Spielbergs. Yet, despite her impressive credentials — she served as a consultant on the Oscar-winning documentary, “Chernobyl Heart,” and executive produced “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals” — she is probably not even the second or third most famous member of the clan.

There is, of course, older brother Steven. Sister Anne was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay of “Big.” And then there is Nancy’s daughter, Jessica Katz, a contestant on the Israeli version of “The Voice.”

“Above and Beyond” is about a small group of mostly American, mostly secular Jews who risked everything to sneak aircraft around worldwide embargoes into the newly founded State of Israel — and then fly those planes on missions against the massed armies of five Arab nations.

Czechoslovakia, in desperate need of U.S. dollars, sold Israel Messerschmitts from a German-built factory there — as well as German parachutes and uniforms. Other aircraft and parts were smuggled out of the U.S. and other countries.

Interestingly, one of the pilots was Milton Rubenfeld, the father of entertainer Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman, who talks about his dad in the film.

Spielberg spoke to the Forward about being from a “heymish” family, why the director she hired refused her calls, and what it was like growing up as a prop person for her older brother.

Curt Schleier: How did the film come about?

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An Outsider Among Montreal's Hasidim

By Michael Kaminer

In Quebec, the term “two solitudes” once described icy/cozy relations between the English and French. But in Maxime Giroux’s sublime “Felix and Meira,” which closes out this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, the phrase seems apt for the Hasidim and hipsters of Montreal’s happening Mile End neighborhood, coexisting without actually engaging.

The film’s title characters cross those lines — and many more — in Giroux’s wintry film, whose acute sense of place registers as strongly as his finely drawn characters. Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize Hadas Yaron, who plays the rebellious Orthodox wife Meira; in Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” another frum drama, she played another Orthodox woman facing difficult choices.

“Felix and Meira” won Best Canadian Feature honors at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival; it opens wide in May. The Forward caught up with director Giroux as he shuttled between meetings in Old Montreal.

Michael Kaminer: What kind of research did you do in Montreal’s Orthodox community, which seems highly insular?

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10 Movies for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Curt Schleier

It seems more than a little disturbing to talk about the Holocaust and good movies in one sentence, but the former has certainly inspired many of the latter. In fact, there is an embarrassment of riches. This is a good thing, because any effort to educate the world about the horrors of genocide is important.

There are so many choices that any list of Holocaust-related films will be incomplete. To leave some room for less-known movies, some obvious choices have purposely been left out. Among them, “The Diary of Anne Frank” (there are so many productions of the movie and play to name it here seems redundant) and “Life is Beautiful” (a little too light in its approach for my taste).

Here are those who made the list, starting with:

1. Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)

This is not only the best Holocaust film, but among the best movies I’ve ever seen. Images of the little girl in the red coat still haunt me. Nowhere have I seen the precarious nature of life better portrayed than in the scene where camp commander Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) randomly uses prisoners for target practice. John Williams’ score, played by Itzhak Perlman, is appropriately affective. Simply put: there is not a comma out of place anywhere.

I spoke to Spielberg at the time of the film’s release. He told me the rights to the book it was based on, Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s Ark,” had been purchased for him years earlier, but he did not feel he was mature enough to handle its emotional intensity. When he decided to make the film, he refused his normal fee. He said it would be “blood money.” All his earnings were used to fund the Spielberg Foundation, now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

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Argentina’s Very Jewish Oscar Nominee

By Diego Melamed

(JTA) — If Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales” (“Relatos Salvajes” in Spanish) wins an Academy Award on February 22 — it was nominated last week for Best Foreign Film — it will be Argentina’s third Oscar and the first for a film directed by an Argentine Jew.

The film, which combines humor, suspense and violence, consists of six independent segments, many featuring Jewish characters and details taken from Szifron’s life. The final segment revolves around a Jewish wedding, complete with klezmer music.

The film screened in prominent festivals, included Cannes, and, even before getting the Oscar nomination, broke Argentine box-office records, with more than 3.5 million tickets sold. The movie will be screened at the upcoming Sundance festival and will be released in the United States on Feb. 20. Szifron’s film career started in 2003, with “El Fondo del Mar” (“The Bottom of the Sea”), which starred the Jewish Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler. Szifron’s second film, “Tiempo de Valientes” (“Time of the Courageous”) is about a Jewish psychologist, Mariano Silverstein.

Szifron, 39, had already established himself as a popular TV writer/director before entering the film world. His series, “Los Simuladores” (“The Pretenders”) in 2002 won the Argentine equivalent of the Emmy, the Martin Fierro award for Best TV Series. And broadcasters in Chile, Spain, Mexico and Russia bought the rights to make their own versions of it.

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'I Think You're Totally Wrong' Goes to Hollywood

By Philip Eil

Photo courtesy Rabbit Bandini Productions

Capital punishment. Bungee jumping. Cormac McCarthy. Waterboarding. Jackson Pollock. “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Abortion. Rupert Murdoch. The Seattle Mariners. The war in Iraq. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Disneyland. Balding.

These are just few of the subjects David Shields and Caleb Powell cover in their new book, “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel.” Or, rather, it’s what they covered in 2011 when the two friends — Shields, a bestselling author of 16 books who teaches at the University of Washington, and Powell, a world-traveler-turned-stay-at-home dad who has published stories in a few literary magazines — headed to a cabin in the mountains of Washington State to verbally joust for four days.

The transcript of those conversations is the basis for the book — and the inspiration for a James Franco-directed film, starring Shields and Powell, scheduled for release later this year. “We can’t faux-argue like Siskel and Ebert,” Powell says as they discuss ground rules. “It’s staged, but it can’t be fake.”

“It’s an ancient form,” Shields says later. “Two white guys bullshitting… you can go all the way back to Plato’s dialogues with Socrates.”

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WATCH: Susan Sontag's Panned and Banned Israel Documentary

By Liam Hoare

In October and November 1973, during and shortly after the Yom Kippur War, Susan Sontag travelled to Israel to make a documentary film entitled “Promised Lands.” The movie constituted a mere coda in the recent HBO documentary about her life and work, “Regarding Susan Sontag”, which as Gabe Friedman noted in his review “leaves out a detailed discussion of her work.” Since “Promised Lands” is the principle testament by which Sontag’s view of Israel can be judged, it warrants re-watching.

Upon its initial release in 1974, “Promised Lands” was panned by The New York Times. Israel’s “situation is just too factually complex to be treated as a tone poem,” Nora Sayre wrote, arguing that “the viewer almost has to function as an editor, since the selection of the footage is so haphazard.” The movie “won’t increase your understanding of Israel. Perhaps the latter should have been a book instead of a film,” the review concludes rather sniffily.

This judgment is fair in some senses. It is certainly true that “Promised Lands” won’t increase anyone’s factual understanding either of Israel itself or the wider conflict with its Arab neighbors. But it is not Sontag’s ambition to provide context and explanation for the Yom Kippur War. Rather, as Leon Wieseltier observed, “there are endless shots of desert (read: Nature) and corpses (read: History), and a host of cute juxtapositions of the old and the new which look like El Al’s TV commercials and which add nothing to our understanding of the situation.”

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A Holocaust Survivor's Confounding Choices

By Ronen Shnidman

When filmmaker Yael Reuveny sought backing in Israel and in Germany to make “Farewell, Herr Schwarz,” film people would ask her, why make another Holocaust film after so many have been made?

“The answer,” Reuveny told the Forward, “is that the movie is not about them [Holocaust survivors], it’s about now. It’s about who we are and how the Holocaust influenced who we are and what we want to be.”

“Farewell, Herr Schwarz” — which won the Best Documentary prize at last year’s Haifa International Film Festival, and premieres in New York January 9 — is an unusual Holocaust documentary. The film avoids the sweeping group characterizations seen in Hollywood Holocaust dramas like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” Instead, it captures the real complexities and difficult choices made by two individuals caught in turbulent times, and the impact of those choices on their descendants. Directed by Reuveny, a graduate of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, “Farewell, Herr Schwarz” casts a spotlight on the families of two deceased Holocaust survivors, brother and sister Feivke and Michla Schwarz, who reacted to the horrors of the war in very different ways.

Feivke and Michla, Reuveny’s great-uncle and maternal grandmother, were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust, and were supposed to reunite at the train station in Lodz after the war. For reasons that are never entirely clear, they never met again. But when Feivke’s son Uwe sought to reconnect with Michla, for some reason she rebuffed him.

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Looking at Ramat Gan From the Inside Out

By Anne Joseph

In a career that has spanned over 40 years, veteran Israeli filmmaker Ram Loevy has produced some of Israel’s most prominent and challenging television documentaries and features. Renowned for raising social and political issues, Loevy has addressed subjects such as class conflict, torture, the prison system and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His 1986 award winning drama, “Lehem,” (“Bread”) exposed the problems of unemployed, working-class Mizrahi Jews living on the country’s periphery. In 1993, Loevy received the prestigious Israel Prize in Communication, Radio and TV in recognition of his achievements. He is also Professor Emeritus at Tel Aviv University.

Yet Loevy’s latest documentary, “Let’s Assume, For a Moment, That God Exists,” is somewhat of a departure for him. Here, he has turned his camera’s attention to Ramat Gan in an attempt to provide “a collage of the place.” It is an affectionate, if slightly unconventional portrait of everyday life in the neighborhood in which he lives and it is, by his own admission, “a strange film… which has a strange name, which jumps from one item to another.”

Loevy — in London last month for the film’s screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival — explains that he made “Let’s Assume” because he had “come to an age [Loevy is 74] where you are questioning all your principles.” For him, this meant his artistic, filmic principles. This is no issue driven documentary, more a fly-on-the-wall observation where not much happens.

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10 Womance Movies To Watch on Christmas

By Curt Schleier

When Susanna Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz decided to write “Life Partners,” they used Nicole Holofcener’s “Walking and Talking” as their model. The 1996 indie is about two close friends, played by Anne Heche and Catherine Keener, and how their relationship changes as one is about to get married and the other struggles with single life in New York City.

There are plenty of other female buddy movies that are funny, sad and even suspenseful. Here are just a few:

1. Thelma & Louise (1991, Ridley Scott)

The man who gave us “Exodus: God and Kings” and Callie Khouri, the screenwriter behind the TV show “Nashville,” combined forces here for a top notch film about two women who decide to take a two-day vacation from their hum-drum lives. Thelma (Geena Davis) is married to an abusive control freak and Louise (Susan Sarandon), is a waitress. Things go from bad to worse, including a near-rape, a murder, a robbery, an exploding oil tanker and a cop taken prisoner. But on the plus side, they find empowerment. You probably know the ending. If you don’t, watch this movie.

2. 9 to 5 (1980, Colin Higgins)

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A 'Third Wheel' With a Twist

By Curt Schleier

Two’s company. Three’s a crowd.

That aphorism is at the center of Susanna Fogel’s debut as a movie-hyphenate. She both co-wrote (with Joni Lefkowitz) and directed “Life Partners,” which opened this month to much critical praise.

The movie is about two women, Paige (Gillian Jacobs) and Sasha (Leighton Meester), co-dependent friends since childhood, and what happens to their relationship when one falls in love. Cinema buffs may see similarities to the 1996 indie “Walking and Talking” (which inspired Fogel and Lefkowitz), but there is a key difference.

Here Sasha is gay. In many ways the relationship between these two women mirrors the one between Fogel and Lefkowitz, almost. In the film, Paige meets Tim (Adam Brody), a dermatologist who momentarily disrupts the ladies’ relationship. In real life it was Lefkowitz who found love and Fogel who was on the outside looking in.

She spoke to the Forward about finding success as a writer and being a neurotic Jew.

Curt Schleier: How did the two of you meet?

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8 Biblical Movies To Watch Instead of 'Exodus'

By Curt Schleier

It isn’t as though the Lord said, “Go out and make motion pictures of my stories.” And yet, that seems to be what’s happening.

Both the Old and New Testaments have provided source material for dozens upon dozens of films, some better — and some more controversial — than others. Here are 8 of the best, from “The Bible” to “The Bible.”

1. The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966, John Huston)

A retelling of the first 22 chapters of Genesis, from creation to Abraham and Isaac, “The Bible” was supposed to be the first in a series of biblical films, but despite the numerous awards it received and its financial success, there were no sequels.

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Never Too Old to Dance

By Curt Schleier

The banging you hear in the background? That’s the drumbeat for an Oscar nomination for Gena Rowlands. Rowlands stars in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” a movie about the impact an elderly south Florida widow and a much younger gay dance instructor have on each other’s lives.

Rowlands plays Lilly Harrison, the former wife of a conservative Southern Baptist minister. Cheyenne Jackson is Michael Minetti, a former Broadway hoofer reduced to teaching old ladies to dance.

The film is based on a play by Richard Alfieri and is directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, who also directed the original stage productions in New York and Los Angeles.

Seidelman, who is also an Emmy-wining television director, spoke to the Forward about how he switches from one medium to another, his famous Yiddish uncle, and being held captive in a Lebanese refugee camp.

Curt Schleier: You are a multi-hyphenate director, working in TV, theater and film. Is it easy to switch between various media?

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9 Palestinian Films Everyone Should See

By Anne Joseph

What constitutes a Palestinian film is a matter of huge debate. Some argue it is determined by the identity of the filmmaker, or by the film’s narrative. Others suggest it is production-led, and therefore depends on the financial institutions or individuals that back it.

Palestinian national cinema is a relatively young cinema, and it is unique in that it exists in the absence of statehood. This issue has led to controversy, as the Academy Award nominated film, “Divine Intervention” (see below) demonstrates. Here are 9 Palestinian films that can help you get up to speed on the best of the still-young tradition.

1. Wedding in Galilee (Michel Khleifi, 1987)

This was the first major Palestinian feature film made by an “insider,” and helped demonstrate the possibility of a Palestinian national cinema.

Despite being under curfew, a Palestinian mayor wants to celebrate his son’s wedding with a traditional ceremony. The Israeli military governor who rules the Palestinian village initially refuses, as he fears a political demonstration. Eventually he permits the celebration on condition he be allowed to attend.

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Can a Palestinian Movie Take Israeli Money?

By Anne Joseph

“The war against Gaza finished and the war against me finished,” said Suha Arraf, referring to the controversy that had taken place during the summer over her directorial debut film, “Villa Touma.”

At the Venice Film Festival, the Haifa-based Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker and screenwriter had categorized her film as Palestinian — not an issue per se — but the fact that a significant portion of the film’s production budget had come from Israeli public funds made it a matter for debate.

Arraf’s decision provoked considerable dispute among members of the Israeli film industry as well as from Limor Livnat, Israel’s Minister of Culture.

Although Arraf had put in her own money and additional investment had come from Germany, other Israeli state institutions, including Mifal HaPayis (Israel’s national lottery) and the Ministry of Economy, had also provided funds.

In November, an Israeli Economy Ministry committee ruled that she would have to return the funding she had received from the ministry.

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