The Arty Semite

Guru of the Sexual Revolution

By Allen Ellenzweig

In “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich,” shown recently at the New York Jewish Film Festival, Austrian writer and director Antonin Svoboda presents us with a sobering but odd theatrical feature about the controversial analyst and sex philosopher Wilhelm Reich.

Reich, a Jewish refugee from Nazism who came to the United States in 1939, had worked with Freud in the 1920s and was a respected professional with a Marxist bent and a progressive attitude toward such fraught issues as adolescent sexuality, birth control, abortion, and women’s economic independence.

Svoboda’s film concentrates on the latter years of Reich’s life in the United States, in the mid-1950s, when his increasingly iconoclastic methods and theories — especially his belief in an unscientifically defined “cosmic energy” which he called “orgone” and his promotion of “orgone boxes” in which his patients sat alone for presumed health benefits — led to investigations by journalists and agents of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Yet what the film presents, in the person of actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, who has aged into a stout bear of a man with wispy blond hair and jowls, is a man committed to eccentric theories he knows make him both target and taboo.

At the same time, holed up with a devoted second wife who works by his side in a remote wooded retreat, and with a staff of young lab enthusiasts and acolytes, we see a figure of considerable personal charm and warmth. Reich seeks to help a local farmer suffering drought conditions with an invention to harness the weather, at the same time intruding into the man’s life by helping his wife overcome misdiagnosed infertility. Reich tenderly ministers to own adolescent son who sees his father as a hero; he welcomes the return of the adult daughter from his first marriage whose accent and manners set her slightly apart. In the fullness of her father’s embrace, despite years of estrangement, she becomes a colleague and his closest supporter.

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For Some Characters, Communism Is Never Over

By Allen Ellenzweig

A tale of adult children discovering the romantic mysteries of their parents’ past hardly presents new thematic territory. These discoveries are made after death thanks to the documentary evidence a parent leaves behind: letters, photographs, school reports, and war-related transcripts. Don’t a son and daughter in a sleepy farming community discover their mother’s hot and heavy affair with a passing photographer in “Bridges of Madison County”?

But this snooping around into the past has the benefit of additional historical weight in the hands of Diane Kurys, whose “For a Woman,” a fictionalized family memoir screening January 19 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, traces her Ukrainian Jewish parents’ early marriage after the war as they establish themselves as new French citizens in the city of Lyon. The narrative conceit of the film has two daughters in 1980 rummaging through their recently deceased mother’s effects, the younger one — a stand-in for Kurys — taking on the task of resolving the enigma of their parents’ long-ago divorce.

Suddenly, it is 1947. Michel and Léna set up house in the apartment above the tailoring shop Michel establishes, when the sudden reappearance of Jean, the younger brother Michel has been separated from since the boy’s youth, sets in motion a personal drama with political dimensions.

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Jew and Cardinal Both

By Allen Ellenzweig

Made as a film for the French-German television network, Arté, “The Jewish Cardinal,” screening January 20 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, nevertheless has the scope and sobriety of a feature film.

Without much of the bloat of the standard biopic, its focus is the period of French prelate Jean-Marie Aron Lustiger’s elevation through Church ranks, from being named Archbishop of Orléans in 1979, to his elevation as Archbishop of Paris in 1981 and Cardinal in 1983, all under the guidance of the new Polish Pope, Jean Paul II. But the screenplay, co-written by director Ilan Duran Cohen and Chantal Derudder, has more than career chronology on its mind.

Lustiger was born a French Jew of Polish immigrant stock, willingly converted to Christianity in the shelter of a Christian family during the war, and was quoted at the time of his elevation to Archbishop: “I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”

Duran Cohen and Derudder attempt the difficult task of presenting both the emotional toll his conversion had on his family — for this rely on several familial scenes and flashbacks — and the philosophical conundrum of maintaining a dual identity as Christian and Jew, relying here on several encounters with members of the Church hierarchy and the French Jewish community.

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Triumph and Tragedy of First Woman Rabbi

By Allen Ellenzweig

Diana Groó’s “poetic documentary” “Regina,” screening January 15 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, is constructed out of meager visual evidence. There is, after all, only one surviving photo of her subject, the Berlin-born Regina Jonas (1902-1944), who became the first ordained female rabbi. But if necessity is the mother of invention, then Groó’s method is to create a lyrical meditation on a life whose contours were barely known or remembered until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. The subsequent reunification of Germany allowed a rush of researchers and scholars to fill in important historical lacunae from musty archives.

Although Groó’s documentary does not detail the manner of recovery of this extraordinary female figure in modern Jewish history, a 2004 article in Haaretz credits the archival work of Dr. Katharina von Kellenbach, “a researcher and lecturer in the department of philosophy and theology at … a small Christian college” who discovered in a “remote archive in East Berlin” an envelope containing a teaching certificate awarded to Jonas from the prestigious Berlin institute that “trained teachers of Judaic studies and Liberal rabbis.” Given to Jonas in 1930, it only certified that she could teach Judaic studies and Hebrew in the city’s Jewish community schools. Eventually, Von Kellenbach would also discover documents in the archive of the Theresienstadt ghetto that would enlarge and deepen the picture.

With merely the one formal portrait of Jonas in rabbinical robes, Groó nevertheless fashions a visual meditation on Jonas’s life and times. She uses old film footage panned over at hauntingly slow speeds. We see as in a dream the lively street life of the Berlin metropolis complemented by stills and clips of Berlin’s Jewish ghetto, its Jewish community schools and institutions, and Weimar-era nightlife.

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The Mischievous Life of Marcel Ophüls

By Allen Ellenzweig

The documentary “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — which received its American premiere January 8 at the New York Jewish Film Festival — is a significant change of pace for its director, Marcel Ophüls. Previously, Ophüls has given us magisterial inquiries into 20th century moral outrages, including his pre-eminent “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a disturbing exploration of French collaboration during the Nazi occupation, and “The Memory of Justice,” which examined the postwar world’s legal and ethical sense in the wake of the Nuremberg trials.

In “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — a terrible English title for what should have been a direct translation from the French, “A Traveler” — Ophüls is up to something decidedly more mischievous: He offers a self-portrait in late age, a memoir of youth, the tale of a family’s diaspora in the face of the Nazi menace, and a distinguished filmmaker’s tribute to his father, Max Ophüls, who himself had a legendary career in Germany, France and Hollywood, with films of dark romanticism including “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “The Earrings of Madame de,” and “Lola Montès.”

Using still photographs, clips from his father’s films and his own, and interview footage shot in various world capitals and resorts, Ophüls fils presents himself as a travel guide of his family’s enforced peregrinations, a self-styled failed roué whose adored wife has separated from him, and a filmmaker whose nearly two-decade retirement this film ends.

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From France to Odessa, With Love

By Allen Ellenzweig

It’s easy to see why “Friends From France” (“Les interdits”), a film about the freighted history of Jewish “refuseniks” in the Soviet Union, was chosen to open this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival. In the story’s foreground are two young Parisian Jews, Carole and Jérôme, on a group tour in Brezhnev-era Odessa. They are smuggling in contraband such as books and sweets while posing for their fellow French tourists as a newly engaged couple who just happen to be taking an eccentric rather than romantic trip. In fact, they are cousins, and they are struggling with their attraction to each other. Traipsing around to see the sights by day, and under cover by night as “friends from France,” they have arranged meetings with Soviet Jews living in dire circumstances and desperate to leave the country, with Israel as their goal.

While the young couple’s passing through customs to enter the USSR provides a moment of early suspense, it is their meeting with Viktor, an aging physicist whose wife and son managed to emigrate 10 years earlier, which provides Jérôme with a greater moral quandary than whether or not to bed Carole. While Carole’s commitment to the cause of Soviet Jewry seems pure, if naïve, Jérôme’s seems reflexive, something he may be doing to prove his manhood to his beautiful cousin or to himself. With large framed glasses and a head of thick curls, he has the look of an Ashkenazi nerd, and his dour countenance, combined with an evident chip on his shoulder, hardly endears him to the audience. For Carole, Jérôme’s goofiness may be the charm. Yet something in his intelligent gaze makes Jérôme a person in whom Viktor invests his faith.

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Two Views of Eichmann and Arendt

By Batya Ungar-Sargon

Crossposted from Batya Reads

Courtesy NYJFF

This year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, starting January 9, is heavy on the Holocaust. Two films, however, stand out in conversation with one another. “Hannah Arendt,” directed by Margarethe von Trotta, is a fictionalization of Arendt’s presence at the Eichmann trial. And a new documentary, “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” directed by Michael Prazan, attempts to retrieve the Eichmann trial from the clutches of Arendt’s highly controversial book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” and to reinterpret the event through a different lens.

Arendt famously saw in Eichmann not a monster, but a bureaucrat following orders. She derived the term “the banality of evil” from observing Eichmann and his reactions during the trial. While the prosecution attempted to portray him as a conniving anti-Semite — the force and form behind the Final Solution — Arendt saw Eichmann as a cog in the machine of the Third Reich. She derided the theatrical nature of the trial and was deeply critical of Ben Gurion’s attempts to turn a matter of justice into a platform for nation building. The prosecution insisted on calling survivor after survivor to testify to their suffering in Germany, Poland and France. As far as Arendt was concerned, the question of Nazi atrocities had nothing to do with whether or not Eichmann was guilty of orchestrating the Final Solution.

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Friday Film: Message in a Bottle to Gaza

By Allen Ellenzweig

I imagine a movie that is even-handed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will enrage people at the extremes. If so, the French produced film “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” screening January 22 and 23 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, could create a battle royale among American Jews, even though its provocations are measured.

With its tight structure and frequent use of voiceover, it’s not surprising that the film is adapted from a literary source. But I would not have guessed that author Valerie Zanetti — who also co-wrote the film script with director Thierry Binisti — intended her original novel as a work of young adult fiction. While its main characters — an Israeli teenager of French origin named Tal and a young Gazan named Naim — come perilously close to stock figures, they gain in complexity as their predicaments with family, friends and social environments gather texture and nuance. Yet the story never descends into a predictable tale of love across boundaries of ethnicity, religion and class. Rather, it builds as an epistolary friendship set within a political context.

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Friday Film: End of Days for French Bachelorhood

By Allen Ellenzweig

Even Chekhov thought he was writing comedies, but the bracing first feature by writer and director Katia Lewkowicz, “Bachelor Days Are Over,” billed as a comedy in the current New York Jewish Film Festival, would serve audience expectations better if it had been given an English title closer to its original French one: “Pourquoi tu pleures?” (“Why are you crying?“). The film is a rueful portrait of Arnaud (nicknamed Cui-Cui), a man-child passing several errant days before his wedding in a state of existential angst after he beds a gal he meets at his bachelor party night-on-the-town, and begins to question his choice of bride, Anna, who has done a short-lived disappearing act of her own.

In scenes that have the sweet-sour perfume of “The Hangover” mixed with Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” Cui-Cui goes drinking and carousing with his buddies, plans a reception with the input of his manic older sister, and roams aimlessly through his last free days. He meets his fiancee’s extended non-French speaking family, touches base with his needy yet still beautiful widowed mother, and deals with a real estate agent who interrupts his most recent sexcapade with an unscheduled visit. Then his apartment floods. The chaos of his daily life, familial demands, and memories of a father who first abandoned the family and then died, all send the sober (if not necessarily sensible) Arnaud into a state of paralysis.

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Friday Film: Stalking Grace

By Tahneer Oksman

Karl Bissinger

In a 2007 obituary for Grace Paley published in the New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that “Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness.” Lilly Rivlin’s recent documentary, “Grace Paley: Collected Shorts,” screening March 27 at the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival, brings together a chorus of voices from friends, family and colleagues to Paley herself, to convey a powerful portrait of an artist, poet, teacher and political figure whose depictions of the everyday lives of women had, and continue to have, a deep and powerful impact.

Paley was born in 1922 to Russian parents who were “kid socialists,” as she calls them in one of many interviews interspersed throughout the film. She explains that her parents “were part of a generation of Russians who hoped they could be Russian.” Of course, in Russia at the time, they were seen primarily as Jews, a legacy that Paley examines throughout her oeuvre. Her stories, poems, and essays continually explore questions of identity, and through her writing we witness an author attempting to account for diversity even as she celebrates the mundane but meaningful rituals and experiences that people share: spats between loved ones, the humor of everyday life, the solace and beauty that can be found in art and literature and language.

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Friday Film: For Battered Women, Justice Is a Long Time Coming

By Schuyler Velasco

Joshua Safran, Deborah Peagler and Nadia Costa in ‘Crime After Crime.’

There are upwards of 180,000 women incarcerated in U.S prisons today. Of those, an estimated 80% are victims of rape, assault, incest, and other forms of sexual and domestic violence. Considering what a closeted problem this sort of abuse is in many communities, it wouldn’t be shocking if the true percentage were actually higher. Responding to that overwhelming statistic, California passed a law in 2002 to allow the reopening of cases of convicted domestic abuse victims, with the circumstances of their suffering allowable as evidence. The California law was the first, and is still the only, one of its kind in the United States.

Thus the jumping-off point for “Crime After Crime,” the surprisingly intimate documentary from director Yoav Potash, screening January 23 to 29 at the Sundance Film Festival and on January 27 at the New York Jewish Film Festival. The film follows the case of Deborah Peagler, an inmate serving a life sentence for conspiracy to murder her boyfriend in 1983.

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Friday Film: Cartoons for Stalin

By Paul Hiebert

Although it may seem odd to hear a man who drew caricatures for a living talk about what it felt like to live through the horrors of the former Soviet Union, this is exactly what happens in the documentary “Stalin Thought of You.”

Meet Boris Efimovich Efimov, a political cartoonist who witnessed every major event in the history of the Soviet Union — from the Russian Revolution to the collapse of the Berlin Wall — before he died at the age of 109, in 2008. In the film, which screened on January 12 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, Efimov appears as a small, fragile man with a robust personality. His prescription glasses are weighty, yet his attitude is buoyant. His wit and charm and ability to tell an endearing story all seem natural before the camera. Either that, or these qualities are the result of over ten decades of practice.

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Will Film's Nudity Keep Hasidim Away From 'Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish'?

By Jon Kalish

Courtesy Eve Annenberg

Tongues have been clicking in the Orthodox world about the U.S. debut of Eve Annenberg’s feature film “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” (which I previously wrote about for the Forward here), but the New York Jewish Film Festival screening on January 16 at Lincoln Center sold out quickly and the Hasidic dropouts-turned actors who star in the film expect a huge black hat turnout.

On the frum woman’s web site imamother.com someone who grew up in Boro Park with former Satmar beauty Malky Weisz, who plays Juliet, posted: “I think this film is going to create a huge chilull ha shem [desecration of G-d’s name], even though I have no inkling as to what the story line is.”

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Friday Film: Lou Reed's 'Red Sheep'

By Margaret Eby

For those accustomed to seeing Lou Reed as the snarling badass of the New York music scene, his first directorial effort, “Red Shirley,” will come as something of a shock. Far from touching on the trademark obsessions of his Velvet Underground days — sadomasochism and drugs, to be precise — the film is a loving, strenuously respectful portrait of his cousin, Shirley Novick, on the eve of her 100th birthday.

The documentary, which screens January 15 at the New York Jewish Film Festival and clocks in at a mere 28 minutes, is full of awkward angles and random shifts from color to black-and-white. It’s a clumsy effort, technically speaking, full of production flaws that are bizarre to the point of distraction, yet the story that Reed tells is charming enough that you can almost overlook the film’s defects.

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Friday Film: Directing and the Dirty War

By Paul Hiebert

A tragic event can provide a filmmaker with compelling material for a movie, but simply presenting calamity on the big screen doesn’t necessarily result in a good story. In director Fabian Hofman’s semi-autobiographical “I Miss You” (“Te Extraño”), which screened in November at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and will be shown on January 22 and 23 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, he comes close to making this mistake.

“I Miss You” is about a Jewish family coping with the disappearance of their eldest son, Adrian, during Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Fearing for the life of their second son, 15-year-old Javier, the parents send Javier to live with his aunt and uncle in Mexico until some degree of stability is restored back home. During his time away, Javier vacillates between despair over the needless loss of his brother and the impulse to join the remaining members of a resistance group, the Montoneros, to seek revenge.

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The Big Life of a Small Woman

By Maya Klausner

Tearful laughter, raunchy story telling, and punchy witticisms are not the typical ingredients one expects to find in a tribute to a late literary legend. Then again, Grace Paley and ‘typical’ never met.

Last Tuesday the Center for Jewish History and Jewish Women’s Archive paid homage to the poet, short story writer and political activist, who passed away in her Vermont home in August 2007. The evening consisted of a panel discussion with excerpts from Lilly Rivlin’s new film, “Grace Paley: Collected Shorts.” The film, which premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July, will be shown at a selection of upcoming festivals on the East Coast, including the New York Jewish Film Festival in January.

Inspired by Paley’s vast collection of short stories, Rivlin’s film tells the tale of a woman whom a colleague described as “a very small woman who was a giantess.” Rivlin, a writer and political activist herself, shared her experience creating the film: “The challenge about making a film about Grace Paley is that she was a political animal and I saw her everywhere, and the challenge was to make a film about someone who did it all.”

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Admiring Blum: A Great French Jewish Statesman Celebrated on Film

By Benjamin Ivry

Click for larger view

For visitors to the New York Jewish Film Festival, a must-see on January 18-20 is a new hour-length documentary, “Leon Blum: For All Mankind” about the French socialist politician.

Written by Blum’s grandson Antoine Malamoud and directed by University of Alabama Professor Jean Bodon, the film offers a mere sketch of an eventful life, and its English narration is geared to a public largely ignorant of Blum’s remarkable trajectory, as relatively little about him has been translated from the French.

Serge Berstein’s astute 2006 biography “Léon Blum” from Fayard Publishers recounts how Blum became a militant Socialist after the Dreyfus Affair, and despite antisemitic violence, carefully described in “Anti-Jewish France in 1936: the Attack on Léon Blum in the Legislature” (Éditions des Équateurs, 2006) he was elected Prime Minister as leader of the left-wing Popular Front. After the German invasion, Blum was sent to Buchenwald, from which camp he wrote touching letters home, collected in 2003 as “Letters from Buchenwald.”

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