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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The Pianist (2002)


Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

(2002) True Wartime Drama (Focus) Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner, Joachim Paul Assbock, Roy Smiles, Daniel Caltagirone, John Bennett, Cyril Shaps, Andrew Tiernan, Nina Franoszek. Directed by Roman Polanski

Survival is relative. There are ordinary survival stories; making it through the work week, for example. We all make compromises, do what we must to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs. We relate to the extraordinary survival situations — such as the Holocaust — because of the little things we ourselves do to survive.

Pianist Wladislaw Szpilman (Brody) in pre-war Warsaw has a bright future; already a world-famous concert pianist, he is young, handsome, talented and outgoing. The world is his oyster.

Unfortunately, this oyster is tainted. Nazi Germany takes over Poland so quickly that Szpilman, busy in the studio for the past week and out of touch, has not read the papers and is so completely unaware that his country has been invaded that he doesn’t understand when he hears explosions and sees flying glass at the studio.

The situation deteriorates. As the rights of Jews become more and more restricted, eventually they are herded into the small area that would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The horrific becomes the everyday. People starve to death in the streets. Jews are pulled aside by Nazi officers at random and shot like animals. Then, the Ghetto is cleared, and things become even worse.

Through it all, Szpilman does what he must in order to survive. Relying mostly on the kindness of friends and admirers, he hides out after escaping the train to the death camps, and witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, the brutal Nazi suppression and eventually, the end of the war. Szpilman is not a fighter, although he wants to be more heroic. His bravery does not come in physical courage, fighting a ruthless enemy. His bravery is internal, facing starvation, loneliness and death. Throughout, the hope that he will again someday play his piano in front of a packed concert hall sustains him.

There have been many movies depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Although Szpilman is Jewish, this is not a Jewish story per se. Whether or not Szpilman is a devout man or not is never explored. This is one man’s story in a world gone completely insane. It is his muse more than his God that sustains Wladislaw Szpilman, and with everything taken away from him – his family, his friends, his home, his career – his muse cannot be, and that is where the triumph and the spirit of this movie lies.

Brody won an Oscar for his performance here, as did director Roman Polanski, himself a Polish Holocaust survivor. Brody’s Academy Award is richly deserved; his performance is subtle, nuanced and rarely out of control. There are many wonderful moments, most accomplished when Brody is alone without another actor to play off of, a notoriously difficult achievement. I will always remember the scene in which Szpilman is hiding in an apartment in which there is a piano, which he dares not play for fear he will be discovered. But play it he does, his hands several inches above the keys, playing music only Szpilman can hear, and by the expression of satisfaction on his face, it is enough. Kretschmann also is noteworthy for playing a sympathetic German officer.

The Pianist is wrenching at times in its unflinching look at the horrors of everyday life in occupied Poland, so the squeamish may want to have their finger on the fast-forward button. However, the triumphant story of a man defying impossible odds, and Brody’s classic performance make this a must-see on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-winning performance for the ages by Brody. Inspiring and uplifting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The brutality and horror of the Nazi reign is depicted without blinking so this may be upsetting to the sensitive sorts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence and occasional bad language, but the images of death and torture may be too much for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Brody is the youngest actor to date to win the Oscar – he was 29 at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an excellent feature on the real Szpilman with interviews with him and Polanski describing their own experiences during the occupation.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Bullet to the Head