Back to the Fatherland


Conversations on a train

(2017) Documentary (First Run) Gil Levanon, Katharina Rohrer, Uri Ben Rehav, Lea Ron Peled, Guy Shahar, Dan Peled, Gidi Peled, Yochanan Tenzer, Katharina Maschek. Directed by Gil Levanon and Kat Rohrer

 

What is the purpose of a documentary? Is it to enlighten? To educate? To bring up a discussion and then let us make up our own minds? None of those are wrong but your answer might be different from someone else’s. Some go to a documentary to find answers while others go to better understand the questions.

The question that is raised here is why would a young Israeli move to Germany or Austria? For their grandparents who experienced the atrocities of the Nazis first hand, the very idea is abhorrent. Not only did those countries give rise to Nazism, the people who lived there wholesale turned their backs on the Jewish community as they were being obliterated. One grandfather puts it starkly: “The people were bad. They were always bad. They are bad still.”

The documentaries follow three families, two of whom have had members who have already moved to Austria and one whose granddaughter (who is one of the directors of the film, although that isn’t made clear initially) is contemplating a move to Germany. For some, the reason is purely financial; they are seeking better economic opportunities than they were able to find in Israel. One, Dan Peled, has issues with Israel politically. He is disturbed by their turn to the hard right and specifically with their policies regarding Palestinians. He regards Israel as “an apartheid state.”

Mostly, the movie is about conversations – some inter-generational with grandparents and their grandchildren, others are between the grandchildren as we get an interesting view of Israel that we in the States aren’t used to getting. Some of the grandchildren (who, I remind you, grew up in Israel) lament the “culture of victimhood” that they see Israel has become. They feel that this culture, which relies on the concept that Jews are hated everywhere except in Israel has kept Israel from growing as a nation and made it impossible for them to move on. I’ve never heard this expressed in quite this way and it is an interesting conversation to say the least. All of them are for the most part.

But the filmmakers rarely give much context and all we are left with is the opinions of the various people conversing. I have no doubt that these types of conversations take place in Jewish homes in Israel and throughout the world but context isn’t required in those households as much as it is needed in Gentile households.

The pacing is fairly languid and the idea of sending the grandparents to visit the places they fled after the war seemed a bit gimmicky and there wasn’t anything particularly revelatory about their visits. Some might well find the idea of watching this kind of boring and I would understand why, but I’m here to tell you that watching this movie does allow you some insight into how young Jews view modern Israel and the Holocaust. Personally, I don’t think finding insights into how other people perceive things ever to be anything less than worthwhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Very talky but the conversation is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers met while in college in New York City and discovered that they had a link in their backgrounds; Levanon who was from Israel is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor while Rohrer, who came from Austria, her late grandfather was what she termed a “super-Nazi” who helped carry out policy in Austria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bird Box

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Ask Dr. Ruth


Dr. Ruth peers out of a train window at her oncoming past.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/HuluDr. Ruth Westheimer, Pierre Lohu, Joel Westheimer, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Lee Salk, Greg Willenburg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Dallah “Marga” Miller, Shmil Boruchovitz, Betty Elam Brauner, Mina Westheimer, Maurice Tunick, Michael Leckie, Avi Einleger, Jeffrey Tabak, Susan Brown. Directed by Ryan White

 

For most of us, our first sexual experiences are great mysteries preceded by sheer terror followed by an absolute sense of wonder why on earth we had ever been scared of what was such a natural – and pleasurable – act. Generally before going in and learning by doing, our knowledge of sex is woefully light.

Talking about sex just was not – and to a real extent is not – done. After all, who the hell are you going to ask? You really can’t talk to your parents or adult authority figures about it and your friends and peers know less than you do.

And then in the 80s came along Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4’7” dynamo who spoke frankly about masturbation, vaginas, dildos and gay sex in a charming German accent. She promoted good sex in ways that were frank, no-bullshit and direct. Yes, we would all blush like high school freshmen when she spoke of proper stimulation of the clitoris or about how tying up your partner wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She was one of the first proponents of sexual acceptance; there is no normal sexuality, just whatever turns you on and that’s your business and nobody else’s other than your sex partner.

Suddenly she was a pop culture icon; authoring dozens of books, hosting a crazy popular radio show and a fixture on late night talk shows. She conversed regularly with Johnny, Conan, Letterman and Arsenio. She was everywhere for a certain amount of time, a kind of brilliant grandmotherly sort who talked about the things none of us would ever talk to our grandmothers about. And, despite fame and wealth, she chose to live in the same Washington Square apartment she’d lived in for decades. She lives there still.

This documentary looks at an amazing cultural phenomenon that was and is Dr. Ruth who is still going strong at 90 years old plus. White follows her around in the days leading to her 90th birthday as she goes on a voyage into her past; back to Frankfurt where she was born, and to Switzerland where her mother and grandmother sent her as part of the kindertransport program that got young Jewish children out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power. She was sent by herself to a Swiss orphanage where she shined shoes and did chores; she wasn’t allowed to attend school at the time. Her only learning came from a former boyfriend who would allow her to read his schoolbooks after dark.

Much of her early story is told through animations here where she is portrayed as a sad, melancholy little girl and of course she had good reason to. She voraciously corresponded with her parents until the letters ominously stopped coming. It wasn’t until recently that she discovered the fate of her parents and grandmother, whom she adored. White’s cameras witness her research and it is a very powerful moment indeed. The animations are beautiful but they are a bit tone-deaf when compared to the big picture.

After the war Ruth went to Israel where she was trained as a sniper (!) until an explosion put shrapnel into her legs. She eventually went to get an education in Paris before moving to New York City where she got a doctorate, despite not having completed high school. She married three times and raised kids. She volunteered to do a radio spot about sex therapy which proved to be wildly popular and thus the legend of Dr. Ruth was born.

Throughout the film we journey back with Dr. Ruth to places significant to her in her past, from Switzerland to Israel to New York. We see that even pushing 90 years old, she remains a force of nature – lecturing, writing and teaching a pair of college classes. She continues to preach the gospel of good sex with her charm unabated despite her years.

Although Dr. Ruth prefers to leave politics out of her message, her message is in many ways political in and of itself, advocating tolerance for lifestyles different than your own, equality for women in the bedroom (and by extension, everywhere else) and that what a woman does with her body is her own business and nobody else’s. Her granddaughter tries to get her to admit to being a feminist but when her grandmother does not, is somewhat taken aback and even a little bit hurt by it. The thing of the matter is that while Dr. Ruth doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she has had a massive effect on the feminist movement.

It’s interesting to me that Dr. Ruth is, in many ways, less in touch with her own emotions than she is with everyone else’s. She does play things very close to the vest and while she’s open and candid about many of the events of her life, we get a sense of distance from who she really is as a person. For the most part all we see is the public persona of the famed sex therapist and perhaps that’s enough, although I might have wished for more.

Still in all, this is a well-made, well-researched documentary on a public figure who really hasn’t gotten her due in many ways. Because she talked so candidly about sex, there was a tendency not to take her as seriously as her accomplishments merited – too many jokes on Carson and Letterman perhaps contributed to that. While the overall tone might be a little bit more worshipful than I would have liked, nonetheless this is a fairly thorough examination of one of the most important pop culture figures of the last thirty years. Besides all that, her energy, her pixie-like sense of humor and her sheer good will are very energizing even on a TV or movie screen; this is certainly a worthy tonic for those in need of a pick-me-up.

Orlando readers will have to drive out to the Cinematique in Daytona in order to see this on the big screen; readers in South Florida are more fortunate in that the film is playing in various places around the region including the Miami Dade College Tower Theater and the Living Room Theater at Florida Atlantic University. It is also available at the Movies of Delray Beach and the Movies of Lake Worth while in the Tampa area it can be seen at the Tampa Theater downtown and the Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota. It is also playing in several other theaters around the state – check your local listings. If you don’t live close to any of those theaters, you’ll just have to wait until June 1 when the film will debut on Hulu.

REASONS TO SEE: The energy and humor of Dr. Ruth are infectious. Some of the moments here are devastating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as frank sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt back in 1928; she started using her middle name Ruth following the war.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clara

Aida’s Secrets


Two brothers meet for the very first time.

(2016) Documentary (Music Box) Shep Shell, Izak Sagi, Aida Zasadsinska, Giora Sagi, Melanie Shell, Dr. Erik Somers, Alon Schwarz, Laurence Harris, Janice Rosen. Directed by Alon Schwarz and Shmaul Schwarz

 

The end of World War II found Europe in shambles. Millions of people were displaced, often their families scattered all over hell and gone. There are some parallels to the refugee crisis currently facing Europe and the Middle East.

Izak Sagi lived in Israel. As a young boy, he believed that his parents were his biological parents. When local kids taunt him by telling him that they are not, Izak confronts his parents who reluctantly admit that they aren’t. His biological mother is Aida, a beautiful blonde from Poland who now lived in Canada. Aida comes to visit and then returns several times afterwards. She is oddly reticent to tell Izak about his birth father whom she’ll only identify as a “good man.”

In 2013 when Izak is 67, he learns that he wasn’t an only child. It turns out that Aida had a son just ten months younger than Izak. His name is Shepsyl and he lives in Winnipeg (great choice!); he lived there with Aida’s ex-husband whom Shep (as he now calls himself) doesn’t have fond memories of – in fact, Greg had cut Shep completely out of his will when he died in 2008.

Izak is overjoyed to meet the brother he never knew he had; Shep is willing to meet but a little more cautious. Izak is a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy to begin with; Shep is a little bit more world-wary given his background. The two men have a joyful union at the Winnipeg Airport – I don’t know if “reunion” is the operative word since the two had been separated since Izak was three – but Izak is clearly over the moon and can’t stop calling Shep “brother.” It takes a little longer for Shep to warm up to Izak.

Still, the emotional reunions aren’t over yet. It turns out that Aida is still alive and at 89 years old living in a Montreal assisted living facility. Izak conducts Shep to the facility and for the first time in his memory, Shep has a mommy. He is hoping that Aida is happy to see him and she truly seems to be.

But there are some nagging questions and Aida isn’t very forthcoming about them. When asked directly, she claims she doesn’t remember or doesn’t wish to discuss the matter. Laurence Harris, the online genealogy researcher who helped Izak and his family find Shep, helps locate other relatives and friends of Aida who are equally vague. It seems that Aida has secrets that she’s not willing to part with, not even to set the hearts of her children to rest. However Laurence finds one more revelation that shocks both of the brothers.

Alon and Shmaul Schwarz are the nephews of Izak making their feature film debut and the story is so powerful and emotional that the somewhat prosaic style the brothers have in shooting the movie can be forgiving. I would have liked to have seen a more deft touch on the editing; it felt that certain scenes went on a bit too long, others felt rushed. At times that can be frustrating.

If you come to this film expecting every question to be answered neatly with a ribbon tied around it, you are going to be very disappointed. Aida died shortly after her first meeting with Shep – the film opens and concludes with footage from her funeral – and took with her to the grave the answers to many of the questions the two men really needed to know. Why did she seem to favor Izak over Shep? Why keep the brothers’ existence secret from each other but tell other family members who eventually spilled the beans? Who was the mysterious man in a photograph on a riverside beach that Aida identified as Izak’s father – but wasn’t her husband who appears in another photo on the same beach apparently taken on the same outing? Why did she and her husband divorce? Why was she so reluctant to talk about those events even though it would clearly ease the minds of her children to know these answers?

Some questions are never meant to be answered and the only people who can answer these questions are gone now. As frustrating as that is for the viewer, one can only imagine how frustrating it is for the two men who have to live the rest of their lives with those nagging questions hanging over their heads. However, they can take solace in knowing that their family circle has grown more than a little bit larger – and anyone will tell you that you can never have enough family love.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very powerful from an emotional standpoint. Izak and Shep are compelling subjects and very different men, understandably.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very much like a missed opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s themes are pretty adult and there’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp is now a military base and off-limits to the public.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sky and Ground
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Jane