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Jews in the News: Three Films on the Holocaust: Three Generations

Jews in the News: Three Films on the Holocaust: Three Generations

Recently three outstanding pictures have come out that deal with the first, second and third generations of survivors of the Shoah.

The issues being dealt with in all three are memories of individuals and collective memory, as seen through the prism of the ever changing present. The present colors how memories are recalled from the past.  The subject of memory was dealt with brilliantly (aside from Proust) recently by  Asja Makarevic, the 20-something-year-old Manager of Sarajevo’s Talent Campus who lived through the siege of Sarajevo as a young girl.  Using two 45 minute films made before the Bosnian war and after by Bosnian director Namik Kabil who lived in Santa Monica, Calfornia during the war, she presents a discussion of the present handling of memories from the recent seige of Bosnia-Herzogovina by the Serbians which lasted from 1992 to 1995.  The films explore how the past overshadows the present and shapes the characters’ and the real individuals’ present life situation.  The immense impact of the past on their present lives also distorts their visions of the future.   In fact, there is no future perspective.  The characters and the real people show a great reluctance to discuss war experiences and it results in their denial of the atrocities of war.  Makarevic asks, How can the future be anticipated if there are still unresolved issues with the past? 

All our lives are shaped by the memories of the past and how we deal with those memories in our ever-changing present.  These 3 films reflect on the souls of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust as they do on every group of peoples today.  We are all victims, survivors and perpetrators, even those who only read of wars in the comfort of their homes as they read the news over coffee and breakfast.

A documentary competing for a Academy Award nomination as Best Documentary, The Flat by Arnon Goldfinger  will open in New York on October 19 and in Los Angeles on October 24 and will continue rolling out nationally.   It has sold to IFC for U.S., where Sundance Select will release it, Scandinavia and U.K.  It ran for six months theatrically in Germany and was Israel’s highest grossing theatrical documentary.  It has won the Ophir (the Israeli equivalent to the Academy Awards) for Best Documentary film for Art houses in Israel, The Best Documentary Directing Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Bavarian Film Award for Best Documentary, Best Documentary Editing  at Tribeca, Best Doc at the Israeli Documentary Forum and the David A. Stein Memorial Award at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.  International sales are by the German sales agent Salzgeber. 

The Flat tells the story of the grandson’s search for answers to the enigma of his grandparents.  “The flat on the third floor of a Bauhaus building in Tel Aviv was where my grandparents lived since they immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. Were it not for the view from the windows, one might have thought that the flat was in Berlin. When my grandmother passed away at the age of 98 we were called to the flat to clear out what was left. Objects, pictures, letters and documents awaited us, revealing traces of a troubled and unknown past.”

The film which begins with the emptying out of the flat develops into a riveting tale of the grandparents of the filmmaker, a story of their lifelong friendship with the Nazi ideologue who invented The Final Solution and was Adolf Eichman’s boss.  The filmmaker’s own mother never knew anything about the friendship, and the grandson must search for answers as to why and how they could remain friends after their 1933 trip with him to Jerusalem and their subsequent patriation in Israel as Zionists the same year.  After the war they renewed their friendship.  The Nazi’s own daughter knew only part of this story of deeply repressed family emotions on both sides of the enemy line.

My discussion with Arnon Goldfinger began with my question of why he never made another film after his 2000 theatrical doc The Comediant which like The Flat also won the Israeli Film Award.  No reason other than he has been busy teaching film at all of Israel’s film schools including the Sam Speigel School and currently Tel Aviv University film school where he received his own degree.  While I was not thrilled with the ending which seemed so unresolved, or with his mother who seemed too ignorant of her own parents’ lives, Arnon stressed that the main thing was that he started asking questions and as he went deeper and deeper, there grew a sort of understaning that there are unsolvabble mysteries in memories;  one cannot enter people’s hearts.  He paraphrased a phrase often heard on Israeli TV: “The present is happy now, the future is unpredictable; only the past keeps changing and changing.”  He also notes that,  “even if no one in our family will admit it whole-heartedly, the fact that we are descendants of German Jews has had a profound effect on shaping each of our personalities.  And yet, the topic of our roots was never an issue or a subject for much discussion in our daily life in Israel.  Quite the contrary, the old-worldness of our grandparents was always treated with a sense of cynicism….it was only after my grandmother’s death that I realized that the flat contained a treasure that could illuminate the present as well as the past.”

The important thing is to be seeking the truth.  His mother was trained not to ask her parents about the past.  Unconsciously she understood there would a lot of pain anad suffering if her parents began to talk of their experiences.  But in the course of the film, she underwent a process from disinterest to interest; she went twice to Berlin.  She could not express it but something moved within her.  And at the other end, Arnon is still in touch with the German daughter of the Nazi friends of his grandparents and she accepted the film when she saw it.  There is no resolution of the paradox of his parents’ friendship.  Arnon’s main motivation in making the film was to learn what happened, but that became less important than learning that the reason people did not talk of the Nazi experience was not a matter of fact but of emotion and if one does not ask, one will not know that emotional impact.  Emotional impact itself is a continuing process.  Goldfinger still cannot assess the film’s emotional impact on himself; it is a process that continues as must the discussion and questioning of the past;.  The impact is a continual process and the memories change shape as our present points of view change.

In Toronto I cited Margarethe Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt, (ISA: The Match Factory is screening it at AFM November 1, 9 am)  in my blog When Are Films Political: The Brave Films of Toronto International Film Festival).  She herself was a survivor who, during her coverage of Eichman’s trial in Jerusalem, found herself abandoned by many of her best friends in New York on account of her tough assessment of the nature of totalitarianism which includes victims and oppressors in a cycle of silence which in turn creates evil because no one speaks up to protest. Her implicating the Jews in this cycle caused outrage in the Jewish community.

Margarethe von Trotta, a filmmaker who is fearless in facing deeply philosophical and important issues, will be presented with the Leo Baeck Medal for this film which resonates profoundly in the tradition of Rabbi Leo Baeck and the Institute named in his honor.  As the last public representative of the Jewish Community of Germany under the Nazis, Leo Baeck worked to protect German Jews from persecution, helping many Jews emigrate and traveling widely to bring the plight of German Jews to international attention. He refused offers to save himself by emigrating and instead submitted to deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp rather than abandon his community. After the liberation, Baeck moved to London, but he continued to teach around the world, including in the United States, the nascent Federal Republic of Germany, and the State of Israel. Today, the work of the Leo Baeck Institute continues to reflect this commitment to dialogue. The annual Gala dinner will be held November 28 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

The third film, The Matchmaker (ISA and U.S. Distributor: Menamsha) is playing its 9th week in N.Y., played more than 9 weeks in L.A. and continues to open nationally as it earns prizes in festivals.  I loved this film with the old-fashioned love of good movies I used to feel before I “got in the business”, and yet it goes beyond the expected.  Kenneth Turan of L.A. Times gives it a sterling review for the same reasons, “more honest than formulaic, an offbeat look at an in-between, questioning time in Israeli history”.  

Director Avi Nesher is quoted as saying, “Like many Sabras, I had a very difficult time understanding and accepting that the European Jews, like my parents, were ever so hapless during wartime in Europe.

We Israelis were brought up as the ‘new Jews/ and the ‘super Jews’. Empathy toward Holocaust survivors was discouraged. Indeed, we are guilty of a great sin. Our parents suffered greatly ‘there’ and we offered no sympathy ‘here’.

I wrote and directed the film The Matchmaker as an homage to my parents. I believe that no matter what the question is, love is always the answer. The film focuses on love to ease survivors’ suffering. My parents used much love to create a life for my sister and me, and as sane a life as was possible for them under the circumstances. I find this hugely admirable and a true life lesson.”

These three films are so powerful in pointing out the complexities and even contradictions of people wherever the Shoah is in the spotlight.  Human nature, being what it is, creates many shades of gray and these shades, discussed in these three films, are as fascinating as art by Mark Rothko or Joseph Albers.  Watching these three films is not only important but is totally compelling.

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