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Can There Be Jewish Stories Without Jewish Characters?

Can There Be Jewish Stories Without Jewish Characters?

At Tablet, J. Hoberman takes a close look at “The Immigrant” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” two recent movies that, while engaging with Jewish themes and histories, either lack Jewish characters or feature protagonists who are explicitly non-Tribal.

Although “The Immigrant” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” project an Old Country nostalgia that Jews might feel, while acknowledging a sense of transience or displacement that Jews could remember, Jewish subjectivity is displaced. “The Immigrant” has its designated Jewish characters (the cops call them “kikes”), a category that does not include the title character, who is forced into prostitution, as many Jewish women were, on the Lower East Side. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has a protagonist who seems far too established to be Jewish and yet in his rootless cosmopolitanism might well be a crypto-Jew — the movie, according to Anderson, was inspired by the writings of the best-selling Austrian-Jewish author Stefan Zweig, who committed suicide in exile.

As I wrote about “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson wraps the movie’s core themes in a layer of bright aestheticism, like the pastry-covered hammer Ralph Fiennes’ character uses to escape from a prison where he’s dressed in what looks a lot like a concentration camp uniform. And James Gray drew on his Jewish family’s history for “The Immigrant,” even though Marion Cotillard’s newly arrived Pole is explicitly identified as Catholic. 

Hoberman notes that “The Immigrant” “can be readily imagined as silent movie”; in fact, both Gray and Anderson draw on the stories and style of movies made by Jewish writers and directors produced in system and for audiences that would not permit them to speak the word “Jew” aloud. In Anderson’s case, making Fiennes’ fugitive from fascism explicitly Jewish rather than fellow-traveling mishpocha would have tied “Grand Budapest” too closely to the Holocaust, which exists only by allusion in the film’s fanciful alternate history. And in “The Immigrant,” as Hoberman notes, the “key themes — martyrdom, sin, redemption, and forgiveness — are amplified by making Ewa a devout Catholic, and her ethnicity usefully complicates the movie’s romantic equation.” Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno and Jeremy Renner’s Orlando, at least, are presented as Jewish brothers, with Phoenix’s pimp incarnating the negative characteristics of a pimp and a swindler, while Renner’s fair-haired magician represents aspiration and assimilation. (Hoberman notes that his real name, Emil Weiss, echoes Houdini’s offstage moniker.) 

The comparison would probably incense Hoberman, but it strikes me that Anderson and Gray are working in parallel with Joel and Ethan Coen, whose films have been embedded with characters and concerns that, though rarely explicitly Jewish, nonetheless have special resonance when considered in the light of their Orthodox background. Hoberman is right, of course, to wish for versions of these stories in which Jewishness is text as well as subtext, and in the implication that those versions can exist happily alongside more a more metaphorical approach.

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