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

The Samuel Project


here’s still a little bit of Barney Miller in Hal linden.

(2018) Family Drama (In8 Releasing) Hal Linden, Ryan Ochoa, Michael B. Silver, Mateo Arias, Ken Davitian, Phillippe Bowgen, Catherine Siggins, Pia Thrasher, Callie Gilbert, Malina Moye, Lilinda Camaisa, Robert Ochoa, Casey Nicholas Price, Anahid Avanesian, Ken Venzke, Lauro Rocha, Filippo Duelk, Patee Spurlock, Liza Lapira. Directed by Marc Fusco

Back in my day, they called it the “generation gap” – the increasingly difficulty between older generations and younger generations to communicate with each other and understand one another. These days that gap appears to be wider than ever with folks from my generation having a hard time with Millennials and Post-Millennials. I can only imagine that to my parent’s generation Millennials might as well be from Mars.

Eli (Ryan Ochoa) is a teen who is nearing graduation from his suburban San Diego high school. His passion is not girls nor sports but art. He loves to draw, particularly fantasy scenes not unlike heavy metal album covers. He wants to go to art school to his father’s (Silver) chagrin; basically art school is completely out of reach financially. In any case, there’s no money in it; Eli would be better served going to a community college, taking some business courses and with his Associate Degree in hand get himself some paper-pushing job that pays real money.

Eli is also tasked with visiting his grandfather who is essentially estranged from his son, Eli’s father. Grandpa Samuel (Linden) owns a neighborhood dry cleaning business and is more or less content with his life. He is friendly and outgoing but only with his customers; with his own family he tends to be close-mouthed about his past.

When his close friend Uma (Thrasher) arrives in town, very ill, he is thrilled to go see her and takes Eli along because he needs someone to drive him. Shortly after the visit, word reaches Samuel that Uma has passed away. When Eli asks about Uma, Samuel becomes very terse and refuses to talk about her.

At about that time Eli’s media teacher (Bowgen) assigns the class a project to do a multi-media presentation based on something in history that affects them directly. Eli realizes that his grandfather’s story would be perfect. The pot is sweetened that the best entries would be presented at a local competition where they would be seen by those in the business and in education. Eli’s future is suddenly riding on this project, but can he get his reluctant grandfather to talk?

This has a very family-friendly vibe and is meant to be something of a parable about the inability of various generations to connect and see each other as individuals. That’s not a message that has gone unsent by Hollywood films previously, but this one shows a good deal of charm in sending it.

The chief reason why that is so is the presence of Hal Linden. Best known for the cop sitcom Barney Miller, Linden has always been a gifted actor with seven Primetime Emmy nominations and Four Golden Globe nominations to prove it. He shows here that he still has it at 87 years of age; there is that eye twinkle that made Barney such a revered character. Linden’s charm and his ability to communicate so much with small gestures makes this performance well worth seeing for those of my generation and those who just like seeing a master at work.

His chemistry with Disney Kid Ochoa is rocky in places but it’s still there. Ochoa does better with Linden than he does with Arias who plays Kasim, Eli’s metalhead friend from school. Unfortunately, Kasim’s role is completely superfluous and his monosyllabic dialogue does nothing for the movie. The film would have been better off concentrating more on Eli’s relationship with Samuel – or perhaps with a prospective girlfriend, although the filmmakers didn’t choose to go that way.

The ending is definitely a heartstring-tugger even though you can see it coming a mile away. In fact the story is fairly rote throughout with plenty of family film clichés to spare but the cast is charming enough that one can overlook it – although not enough to prevent me from giving it only a mild recommendation. While it’s worth seeing because of Linden, the story around which Linden is given to perform isn’t sadly on par with his talents.

REASONS TO GO: Hal Linden is still a very good actor who has decent chemistry with Ochoa.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a fairly rote generation gap-type of film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some teen smoking and a few adult themes about the brutality of the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 87-year-old Linden recently won the lifetime achievement award at the Heartland Film Festival where this film was shown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Akeelah and the Bee
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Free Solo

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

Big Sonia


Big hearts can come in small packages.

(2017) Documentary (Argot) Sonia Warshawski, Regina Kort, Caroline Kennedy, Morrie Warshawski, SuEllen Fried, Debbie Warshawski, Marcie Sillman (voice), Chris Morris, Ehsan Javed, Rachel Black, Kollin Schechinger, Grace Lamar, Isabella Mangan, Leah Warshawski. Directed by Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski

 

After the events in Charlottesville and as we watch the rise of white nationalism and an emergence of racism in the wake of last year’s Presidential election, one has to wonder what Holocaust survivors must think, particularly those who came to the United States to heal, raise families and move forward with their lives. I can’t imagine how awful it must be for them to hear our president characterize those low-life scumbags as “fine people.”

Sonia Warshawski is one of the dwindling number of concentration camp survivors living in the United States, in her case in the Kansas City area. 90 years old at the time of filming (she turned 92 this month), she continues to run her late husband’s (also a Holocaust survivor) tailor shop, the last remaining storefront in an otherwise deserted mall. It is her lifeblood, where she is able to interact with long-time customers, sew and help people dress with somewhat more panache. She’s the kind of gal who is fond of leopard prints and is unembarrassed by it – “(they) never go out of style” she crows at one point in this documentary. Still beautiful even in her 90s, she has a style and glamour all her own.

A somewhat recent development in her life has been her willingness to speak out about her experiences in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She had rarely spoken to her own children about the war, although they were aware that both their parents were haunted by their experiences (daughter Regina Kort speaks about John screaming in his sleep at night which is why she never hosted sleepovers at her own home). However when she heard about Holocaust deniers and American Nazis, she felt it was her duty to those who didn’t survive to speak about her experiences and share them with high school kids while she still could.

Even more recently Regina has been accompanying her mother on these speaking engagements, usually presenting a sobering preamble before her mother speaks. Displaying a family photograph of about 20 people, she points out an 11-year-old Sonia and her sister as the only two who survived. Sonia’s entire family was wiped out almost overnight. At 15, she witnessed her mother being herded into the gas chamber; she recalls vividly that the last act she saw her mother perform was to comfort a fellow prisoner headed for certain death. Afterwards, she would discover that the fertilizer she was spreading in the fields was the ashes of the victims that had come straight from the crematorium.

Speaking at a prison, hardened convicts describe her as “WAY tougher than (we are)” and reduced some of them to tears. One high school student, Caroline Kennedy (not JFK’s daughter) was so moved by her encounter with Sonia that after graduation she formed an organization to help inspire other students called Empower. Sonia has that effect on people.

Like many Holocaust survivors, family is of the utmost importance to Sonia and she has instilled that value in her children, her grandchildren (one of whom is co-director of the film) and even her great-grandchildren. Sonia makes homemade gefilte fish for Passover and Rosh Hashanah and seems to be surrounded by members of her family nearly all the time.

Her life isn’t without challenges though; the property owners of the mall are dithering whether to demolish the property and build condos or rebuild it. Either way, Sonia’s beloved tailor shop is in a state of flux in many ways. She’s survived so much worse however and it is clear that regardless of what happens she will survive this too.

This is absolutely a labor of love; yes, her granddaughter is one of the directors but it goes beyond that. Much of the film revolves around an NPR interview Sonia gave a few years ago with Marcie Sillman, but that’s only a framework. The centerpiece of the movie is Sonia herself.

Nearly everyone who encounters Sonia in the film becomes an admirer but the filmmakers manage to give the film a sense of balance. Sonia is no saint, but she’s pretty dang close. Some of the interviews with her children are heartbreaking, recalling how guilty they’d feel for giving their parents hell when they’d both lived through hell. Morrie, Sonia’s writer son, breaks down while reading a poem he wrote about his mother during a passage where he describes her whistling a tune her brother used to hum to her while they were hiding from the Nazis, an uncle who he would never meet. There are quite a few scenes of similar emotional power.

Buoyed by almost incongruously light animated sequences that show visually some of the most horrible moments from Sonia’s time in the camps, the movie isn’t a downer although it could well have been. Rather, this is uplifting that makes you want to cry and laugh and sing. You will want to take this woman in your arms and give her a hug and it might even give you a renewed determination to see the forces of racism and tolerance be made to slink back under the rocks they’ve crawled up from under. Those who shouted “We will not be replaced by Jews” should only be so lucky.

In any case, this is a movie that can change your life and I don’t say that lightly. It played the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival here in Orlando recently and has begun a brief theatrical run in New York, Los Angeles and Kansas City and hopefully other cities will show the film as well. This is certainly one of the year’s very best and I can’t recommend it enough.

REASONS TO GO: Sonia is a major inspiration. This is most definitely a labor of love. The pain she and her family feel isn’t kept hidden. A movie that makes you appreciate the things you have.
REASONS TO STAY: There is some repetition that goes on with Sonia’s presentations.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very adult themes regarding the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The diminutive Sonia stands at 4’8” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Despicable Me 3

Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

The Last Laugh


Springtime for Hitler.

Springtime for Hitler.

(2016) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, Alan Zweibel, Etgar Keret, Carl Reiner, Robert Clary, David Cross, Lisa Lampinelli, Jake Ehrenreich, Zdenka Fantlova, Jeffrey Ross, Susie Essman, Abraham Foxman, Roz Weinman, Malala Sagal. Directed by Ferne Pearlstein

 

Humor is an intensely personal subject; everyone’s idea of what is funny and what is inappropriate varies, sometimes to astonishing degrees. There are always taboo subjects that even comics shy away from, but not all of them. There are subjects that some comics tackle that make even other comics a little bit uncomfortable.

This new documentary by Ferne Pearlstein tackles the interesting subject of what is inappropriate material for comics, concentrating on one of the most horrible events in human history – the Holocaust. More than 70 years have passed since Nazi Germany surrendered but there are plenty who think that jokes about it – even by Jewish comics – are wildly inappropriate. Even Mel Brooks, whose cult classic The Producers dropped jaws when it was released in 1967, says that there is a difference between jokes about the Holocaust and jokes about the Nazis.

Much of the film is devoted to Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor who talks about cabaret shows in the camps used to keep the workers entertained and about the gallows humor employed by the prisoners to help make the days bearable. Other survivors of concentration camps take the opposite tack – the Holocaust was no laughing matter and that the prisoners couldn’t even crack a smile, let alone a joke.

I tend to side with Renee – humor is a mechanism that many humans use to cope with stress and what could be more stressful than living under the constant threat of death? Still, six million Jews and others died in the camps – can we joke about them without trivializing them, or upsetting those who lived in them?

These are the kind of questions that are brought up by various comedians of different eras – old school like Brooks and Carl Reiner, mid-school like David Steinberg and Gilbert Gottfried and more recent vintages like Lisa Lampinelli and David Cross. There are also writers like Alan Zweibel, Malala Sagal and Etgar Keret as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League which monitors anti-Semitism in the media. Foxman has some strong opinions as to what is appropriate and what is not, some of which you may agree with or disagree with. I think it’s a telling point that when Foxman pooh-poohs the argument that some comics make that the jokes keep the Holocaust from being forgotten; Sarah Silverman ripostes that if we haven’t forgotten the Holocaust why do genocides continue to this day?

To the filmmaker’s credit, no side seems to be given advantage other than that of the Survivors themselves and particularly Firestone. She is the emotional centerpiece of the film and some of the most moving moments take place as she remembers being separated from her sister whom she never saw again and having to deal with the death of her husband much later in life. Robert Clary, who played a French prisoner of war in the comedy Hogan’s Heroes used his real-life experience in the concentration camps for his character and reveals almost casually of 13 members of his family to be arrested, he was the only one left alive by the end of the war. How does one survive that? Clary doesn’t say and perhaps it’s better that we don’t know.

Towards the end of the film other taboo subjects are tackled such as 9-11 and use of the “N” word but almost in so casual a manner that they might better have not been mentioned at all. Clearly the Holocaust is the big subject here and thus it should have remained. I suspect the filmmakers were aware that there might be some backlash “what, only the Jews have suffered?” which is completely unfair. Nobody’s saying that these other subjects aren’t important and shouldn’t be handled delicately but quite frankly, I think the filmmakers would have been better served sticking to the subject that brought them to the dance, as it were and use it maybe as a gateway to other taboos. Perhaps that was what they were trying to do but quite frankly I think it was a case of trying to do too much. That’s really the only issue I had with the film.

There are, of course, plenty of jokes here and quite a few of them will get you laughing. One of my favorite bits is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number from the 1967 version of The Producers and the audience reaction shots which might be how some modern audiences in this era of political correctness might react to some of the humor here.

I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and comics, as Mel Brooks himself observes are the conscience of the country. They allow us to look at ourselves and how we react to things that are controversial and uncomfortable; restricting them with political correctness is an absolute abomination and one of the most things that as a liberal I’m most ashamed of my left-leaning friends. It is a healthy thing once in awhile to be outraged.

There is some thought-provoking stuff here and no ready answers. Like everything else, it’s all up to how you perceive things and what affects you. You may be offended by some of the jokes here – or you might laugh your tush off. Is there a line that cannot be crossed? I don’t know; maybe. Should only Jewish comics joke about the Holocaust or gay comics about AIDS or African-American comics about slavery and racism? There are those who think so; I do not. At the end of the day, we are all humans and if we believe that, truly believe that, then all experiences are shared experiences. While the Holocaust was aimed mainly at those of the Jewish faith, we can mourn the loss of these people because we believe we are all brothers and sisters; the loss of even a single Jew makes all of us less.

Sure, that’s a bit simplistic (and sorry this movie review has appeared to become a rant) but the message is that it’s harder to hate someone if you feel connected to them. If there were fewer divisions between us wouldn’t there be fewer reasons to hate? I’m not sure if that’s the message that these comedians are trying to send by joking about the Nazis or even the Holocaust but it’s a message that can be inferred and wouldn’t it be a better world indeed if we all looked at the world that way?

REASONS TO GO: The subject is truly thought-provoking. Some of the jokes are hysterical. There are a few moments that are heart-rending. Brooks is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: Segments on 9-11 and other taboo subjects seemed a bit rushed and didn’t add anything to the film overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find plenty of profanity, humor that some might find inappropriate and a few images that are unsettling.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Freedom to Marry