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FILM REVIEWS

The Jerusalem Film Festival
July 10-19, 2003


Brief Reviews by Rochelle G. Saidel

Among the some 200 films from around the world screened at the twentieth Jerusalem Film Festival from July 10-19, 2003, I viewed 24. Short reviews follow on films related to the theme of women and the Holocaust, the Holocaust in general, and women’s lives.

Women and the Holocaust
The Journey
Secret Lives: Hidden Children and their Rescuers During World War II
My 100 Children
La Petite Prairie aux Bouleaux

Other Aspects of the Holocaust
Max
Facing Window
Gebürtig
Out of the Forest
Permission to Remember
Undying Love: True Stories of Courage and Faith
Resisting Paradise
Epstein’s Night

Women’s Lives
Nina’s Tragedies
Sima Vaknin Witch
Whale Rider
Respiro

The Journey (Germany 2002, Gerd Haag, Christoph Busch). This excellent feature film about two sisters during the Holocaust is based on Ida Fink’s autobiographical novel by the same name. In an unusual story, the two sisters, ages 18 and 20, survive by working in a labor camp, escaping, and serving in private homes in Germany. The film begins in Poland in the fall of 1942, when the sisters use false papers to flee the approaching German forces. They are able to stay together and help each other survive throughout their journey. The film, based on a real but incredible saga, deals with the will to survive and overcome all odds, despite hunger, fear, loneliness, and slave labor. The actresses are young Polish women, with a German actress playing the role of Ida. After the film there was a question and answer period with the filmmaker, and Ida Fink and her sister also attended. As portrayed in the film, Ida still looks blond and “Aryan” and her sister looks dark and Jewish, a problem that haunted her throughout the Holocaust. Highly recommended

Secret Lives: Hidden Children and their Rescuers During World War II (USA 2002, Aviva Slesin, Toby Appleton Pearl). This moving documentary film examines the complicated relationships between some rescued children and their rescuers in Poland, Holland, and Belgium. Slesin herself was nine months old when she was smuggled out of a Lithuanian ghetto and given to a gentile family, and her background was behind her exploration of the strong emotional bonds between rescuers and rescued. She examines the trauma of separation from rescuers after the war, as well as reunions between the some of the rescued children and their rescuers many years later. This complicated issue is handled in a finely woven film that is poignant without becoming overly sentimental. Highly recommended.

My 100 Children (Israel 2003, Mosh Danon, Amalia Margolin, Oshra Schwartz, and Einat Glazer-Zarbin). This straightforward documentary film tells the stories of ten of the 100 Jewish orphans who Lena Kuchler rescued in Poland after the Holocaust. Kuchler discovered in the Krakow Jewish Community center dozens of survivor children between the ages of 3 and 15, and she assumed the responsibility for rehabilitating them in a group home or orphanage in Zakopane, Poland. Inspired by the teachings of Janus Korczack, she slowly brought them back to life. After anti-Semitic attacks, she spirited her children out of Poland in 1949 and took them on a perilous trip to Israel. The children were placed in the Schiller Kibbutz, and only then did Kuchler marry and have a child of her own at age 47. The children’s stories and their testimonials about Kuchler’s incredible and generally unknown work are an important part of Holocaust history. Highly recommended.

La Petite Prairie aux Bouleaux (France/Germany/Poland 2002, Bénédicte Lesage, Ariel Ashkenazi, Alain Sarde, Jean-Pierre Sergent, Elisabeth D. Prasetyo and Mareline Loridan-Ivens). This feature film is based on the life of co-director Loridan-Ivens, an Auschwitz survivor who spoke at the screening. The French title of the film is “A Birch Tree Meadow” in English and “Birkenau” in German. The main character, Myriam (played brilliantly by Anou Aimée), is a survivor and journalist-film director who returns to Paris for a reunion of survivors. From there she takes a trip to Krakow and returns to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Myriam’s memories unfold and her facial expressions convey her struggle with her painful memories of the past. Part of the story is told through Myriam’s chance meeting at the camp with the grandson of a Nazi camp official, and I found this somewhat contrived (although perhaps it happened). Myriam’s encounter with herself at the camp is much more powerful and haunting. Her experiences with Krakow’s efforts to host Jewish tourists are another aspect of the film. The film won the Jerusalem Municipality prize for the best feature film in the category of the Jewish experience. Recommended.

Max (USA/UK/Canada/Germany 2002, Andras Hamori and Menno Meyjes). This feature film, starring John Cusack, was shown commercially in New York last winter. Max, an art gallery owner who lost an arm in World War I, makes the acquaintance of Adolf Hitler as a young discharged Austrian corporal and artist. Hitler joins the nascent anti-Semitic movement and gradually his political aspirations replace his interest in becoming a famous artist. Although some reviewers in the United States Jewish community thought that the film made Hitler seem too human, I did not sense this at all. I thought the film made him quite repugnant. The film could have been better, but was an interesting take on art and politics, Jews and anti-Semites, racism and its results.

Facing Window (La Finestra di Fronte) (Italy/UK/Turkey/Portugal 2003, Tilde Corsi, Gianni Romoli, Ferzan Ozpetek). This is a creative feature film that weaves a compelling story of past and present in Rome. Giovanna’s husband brings home an elderly gentleman who seems to have lost his memory, and she befriends him and tries to help him. Meanwhile she is having marital problems and is intrigued by her neighbor in the facing window. Eventually we learn that the elderly gentleman is a Holocaust survivor who was rounded up in Rome in 1943. Highly recommended.

Gebürtig (Austria 2002, Niki List, Georg Stefan Troller, Robert Schindel, and Kukas Stepanik, based on a novel by Schindel). This excellent film has a complicated plot that interweaves stories about a Jewish survivor, a non-Jewish victim of the Nazis, children of survivors, and the son of a high-level Nazi doctor. The Jewish survivor, Herman Gebürtig, is a successful musician, an Austrian survivor of Auschwitz who lives in New York. The film takes place during the late 1980’s. A Hollywood production company is filming Sea of Flames at Auschwitz, and the film within a film format worked especially well. The characters include Danny, son of survivors who is a Viennese standup comic, and the daughter of a leftist survivor. The clever and intricate plot includes a love story, beautiful cinematography, and polished acting. Highly recommended.

Out of the Forest (Israel 2003, Limor Pinhasov Ben Yosef and Yaron Kaftori Ben Yosef). This is a powerful documentary about the massacres at Ponar, outside of Vilna. The film is based on a diary of a local Polish resident, Kazimierz Sakowicz. He wrote down what he heard and saw, as some 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were shot and piled into pits in the Ponar forest. Sakowicz’s diary portrays an image of life in a quiet agricultural village, while mass murder is carried out in its backyard and the residents become collaborators. The film includes interviews with current residents of Ponar, as well as the stories of a few of the Jewish victims who survived. One particularly moving account is by Mordecai Zaidel, now a resident of Israel, who managed to escape in 1944 while being forced to exhume and burn the remains of victims. I met Zaidel and his family at the screening, and told him that was my grandfather’s name before the “Z” became and “S” at Ellis Island.

Permission to Remember (Israel 2003, Assaf Amir, Yael Shavit-Anu Banu Productions, Yael Kipper Zaretzky and Ronen Zaretzky). Unfortunately this documentary film was supposed to have English subtitles but the version shown was in Hebrew, Russian, and Ukrainian. Basically, Moshe Margalit and other survivors from the city of Ludmir in the Ukraine discovered that a Ukrainian named Stefan Wrzemczuk had received “Righteous Among the Nations” status at Yad Vashem. Margalit is convinced that Wrzemczuk’s story that his family hid 50 Jews is false. Only 85 of the city’s 22,000 Jews survived and not one of them heard of the man’s story or was saved by him. Margalit and his friends collected testimonies and presented facts to Yad Vashem to confront the institution with its mistake, but clerks there waved them off.

Undying Love: True Stories of Courage and Faith (Canada 2003, Ina Fichman, and Helene Klodawski) was presented at the festival, but I had already seen it at its New York premier at Hebrew Union College. It tells the stories of seven couples of Holocaust survivors who married in the aftermath. Klodawki was inspired by her parents’ story. She used archival footage, classic Yiddish film, old photographs and reenactments of key scenes by young actors.

Resisting Paradise (USA/France 2003, Barbara Hammer) is an important documentary that I missed because of a conflict in scheduling with another film on the Holocaust. This examination of individual responsibility in times of political crisis deals with the French Mediterranean village of Cassis during World War II. It juxtaposes the stories of four French Resistance fighters with the lives of artists Bonnard and Matisse, who seemed to continue painting as usual despite the Nazi occupation. The film includes Walter Benjamin’s flight that led to his suicide, as well as an interview with Lisa Fittko, whose book tells how she helped others escape across the Pyrenees. I am including this film without seeing it because it received good reviews in the media, the filmmaker has an excellent reputation, and I believe it is very worthwhile.

Epstein’s Night (Germany 2002, Andreas Bareiss and Jens Urban). This is another film that seems highly worthwhile, but I had a scheduling conflict. Epstein returns to his apartment in Berlin after long years in jail. There are flashbacks to his childhood and to his friends in a concentration camp. There is also a flashback about SS officer Giesser in Birkenau. The most important part of the film deals with the circumstanced that resulted in Epstein’s time in jail. The film explores love, betrayal, faithfulness, forgiveness and lack of it.

Nina’s Tragedies (Israel 2003, Anat Assoulin and Savi Gabizon). The narrator of this feature film is 14-year-old Nadav, who is in love with his beautiful Aunt Nina. He tells us about his parents’ divorce, his dying father, and his eccentric mother. When Nina’s husband is killed, Nadav moves in with her so she will not be alone. He feels he is living the reality of his peeping Tom activities and sexual fantasies, but is soon disappointed when Nina has a new man in her life. The film, which is subtitled “A very sad comedy,” has great humor, plot twists, and pathos, and is developed with much imagination and creativity. The acting is excellent. Nina’s Tragedies won the Wolgin prize for the best Israeli feature film in the festival. Highly recommended.

Sima Vaknin Witch (Israel 2003, David Silber, Micky Tabinovitz, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery and Dror Shaul). While Nina’s Tragedies is universal enough to be enjoyed outside of Israel, the hilarious Sima Vaknin Witch is one big Israeli “in” joke. Every politically incorrect thought or statement in Israel finds its way into this satire of Israeli life and the conflicts between various ethnic and national groups. The main character, Sima, is of Moroccan extraction, and her Ashkenazi neighbors do not get along with her. After a fight about problems in the apartment building, Sima puts a curse on her neighbors and all of her dire predictions come true. Masses of people soon come to her for curses and blessings, and her son-in-law commercializes her powers. Sima becomes famous, with a radio program and television appearances. However, she decides to give it all up for love. I couldn’t stop laughing. This is a charming and entertaining movie that was the most fun of any movie in the festival.

Whale Rider (New Zealand 2002, John Barnett, Tim Sanders, Frank Hubner, and Niki Caro). This feature film with a feminist message is about a Maori girl whose loving grandfather refuses to allow her to be his heir as chief of the tribe. The more she tries to learn the skills taught to the boys, the more he rejects her. However, the more the grandfather resists, the more persistently the girl hones the skills. Eventually her day to prove her bravery and leadership arrives. The actress who plays the girl is wonderful (as are all of the actors), the scenery is exquisite, and the delightfully told story has a worthy moral. Highly recommended. Don’t miss it!

Respiro (Italy/France 2002, Domenico Procacci and Emanuele Crialese). This feature film takes place on the island of Lampedusa located west of Sicily. Grazia, a young mother of three is free-spirited and does not want to follow the traditional dull lifestyle of the community. Because of her erratic behavior, the family decides to send her to a mental institution. Instead of letting others decide her fate, she decides to disappear. There is definitely a feminist message here, but it is not easy to decipher. The scenery was magnificent and the acting excellent, but more than anything the film left the viewer confused.

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