Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight

Jan

After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is now living in Brooklyn, completing research for her book on Fiddler on the Roof. Follow Jan's adventures on her Blog www.SecondCityTzivi.com.

Tzivi’s Spotlight

Tzivi reviews The German Doctor

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Most people accept the reality of the Holocaust as a historical fact in all its quantitative enormity. Most people accept the fact that approximately six million Jews were murdered all across Europe, and that a large proportion of these individual men, women, and children met their end by gas in one of several death camps. Most people accept all of this, but even today, seventy years later, some people do not. And in the decades immediately after World War II, many people all around the world simply refused to acknowledge what had happened.

The German Doctor is set in 1961 in Bariloche, a resort town on the Argentinian side of the Andes, just across the border from Chile. In this far away paradise, people don't pretend that what happened in Europe never happened, but they do deny its significance. There is a large German population in this town and the Germans in Bariloche are proudly German. They send their children to schools where the primary language is German, and they think the Allied victory was a trick. There is also an exclusive sanatorium on a secluded lake on the outskirts of town where people who need refuge can relax in the embrace of understanding, and people who want new identities can schedule plastic surgery procedures.

Into this mix comes a mysterious man, a german doctor. But Argentinian filmmaker Lucia Puenzo (who directed and also wrote the screenplay) plants clues from the very beginning leaving no doubt that this man is actually Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele ("the Angel of Death"), the monster who performed unspeakable experiments at Auschwitz and who often made personal decisions about who would "go left" and who would "go right" when new transports arrived.

Unlike Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele was never brought to justice, and in fact, the capture of Eichmann is a major plot thread. (Remember, The German Doctor is set in 1961, which is the year Eichmann was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires and taken to Israel for a public trial.) When Mengele finally died in Brazil, his body was exhumed and his identity was confirmed. Watching The German Doctor, his ability to elude the Israelis finally makes sense. He was protected by an ex-pat German community that considered him a hero.

The German Doctor is told from the point of view of a 12-year old girl named "Lilith" (Florencia Bado). Lilith is the daughter of a "Eva" (Natalia Oreiro) and "Enzo" (Diego Peretti). Eva was raised in one of the finest Bariloche hotels and she went to the German school. Then she married Enzo (Diego Peretti), a Spanish-speaking man with no ties of his own to German ethnic pride. When the film begins, Eva has convinced Enzo to return to Bariloche because her mother has just died and left ownership of the hotel to her. Enzo is not keen on this plan, but he has clearly had trouble supporting his growing family. Lilith is a middle child. She has an older brother and a younger brother, and Eva is now pregnant with twins. On a lonely Patagonia road on their way to Bariloche, they meet the german doctor. Eva takes to him immediately because he is handsome and obviously well to do. Enzo is wary but powerless to protest.

The doctor is equally fascinated by this family. Twins studies were one of Mengele's greatest interests (as students of the Holocaust know only too well). But his eye is on Lilith, a tiny girl with physical deficiencies who was born between two brothers who are "perfect specimens." The doctor convinces Enzo to let him stay in the hotel even though it is not quite ready yet. Enzo is reluctant but needs the money. Meanwhile others in town, those who had hoped to host this honored new guest, are miffed.

The plot itself is part thriller and part melodrama, but what holds it all together is a pitch perfect performance by Alex Brendermuhl, This Mengele is all he must be: enormously intelligent, icy cold, preternaturally astute, someone who had the charisma and connections required to become one of the greatest villains of the 20th Century.

In the "dog days" of August, it's hard to tell you to spend a summer night watching a movie about Josef Mengele. The newest films by Woody Allen and Lasse Halstrom are both charming. I have seen them, so I know.

But if you go to see The German Doctor, I can promise you that you will leave the theater with a greater understanding of the ineffable than you had when you entered. 

The German Doctor opens on Friday, August 15 at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph. For complete details, visit: www.siskelfilmcenter.org/german_doctor

The read my complete review of The German Doctor, visit: www.SecondCityTzivi.com/2014/04/the-german-doctor

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Tzivi reviews the new Killing Kasztner DVD

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In the midst of all our worries about Gaza comes the long-awaited DVD version of Gaylen Ross' fascinating documentary Killing Kasztner about a Hungarian man who was said to have "sold his soul to the Devil" because he negotiated with the Nazis to save Jewish lives.

"Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust have been recognized very late at Yad Vashem, and they're not recognized at all in America," Gaylen Ross told me, when I interviewed her in 2009 just before Killing Kasztner's first Chicago screening at the Music Box Theatre. "Many Jewish rescuers had no guns, but they were forging documents, smuggling, doing all sorts of things to save lives."

Rezso Kasztner was a leading member of a Zionist rescue group in Budapest when the Germans occupied Hungary in March, 1944. This was late in the War, the Germans were clearly losing, and in a sudden about face, Adolf Eichmann offered to negotiate. His goal? Sell Hungarian Jews to the Allies in exchange for cash and supplies. 

After the war, Kasztner made aliyah, but once in Israel, he was condemned as a collaborator. In Killing Kasztner, Ross forces us to confront the paradox of negotiation, an urgent issue that is just as relevant today as it was in 1944. How do we know if we've crossed the line from "negotiation" to "appeasement"? Is this just a debate for historians after the fact? Can a man like Kasztner, acting in the role of a negotiator, ever be considered "a hero" or a "role model" for others?

Some of my colleagues have written about Killing Kasztner as if it were merely an apologia for a long forgotten figure from the final days of the Holocaust, but that was not the film I saw, and I am sure that was never Ross' intention. "What do we do with our negotiators?" Ross asks. "We condemn them before they even get to the table!" 

We already know what happens in the absence of negotiation. But Rezso Kasztner's daughter Zsuzsi, a woman who was excoriated as a child because her father dared to stand face-to-face with monsters, begs us to consider new possibilities: "The concept of heroism," she says, "It is not always at the end of the barrel of the gun."

Note that Ross has created many "Bonus Features" for the DVD. In addition to disc one (her original 2-hour documentary), there is now a Disc Two which contains extended one-on-one interviews with many of her sources, as well as panel discussions recorded at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Touro Law School, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Click here to order Killing Kasztner on DVD
Click here to read my original review of Killing Kasztner from 2009.
Click here to read my award-winning interview with Gaylen Ross.

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Photos of Rezso Kasztner and survivors of the "Kasztner Train" courtesy of Gaylen Ross and Zsuzsi Kasztner Michaeli.

Tzivi’s CJFF Overview

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Chicago has a new film festival!

Beginning tonight, the Chicago Jewish Film Festival will show 10 films over two long weekends. Screenings will be held at the Cinemark/Century in Evanston, the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, and the Music Box Theatre on Southport, with related programs at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Lincoln Park and at the Mayer Kaplan JCC in Skokie.

Of the 10 films on offer, I have seen six and all six - three documentaries and three feature films - are Highly Recommended.

The three documentaries - Before the Revolution, Crime After Crime, and Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love - span decades locations, and genres. On the other hand, the three features - Hannah Arendt, La Rafle, andThe Pin - are all focused on the Holocaust.

Although two of these films - Before the Revolution and The Pin - are new to Chicago, the others have already played somewhere in the metro area, and some of them are even available on DVD at this point. No matter. Nothing equals the experience of seeing a film with a live audience… and then heading out to discuss it with your friends once the credits roll!

Here are synopses of the six films in alphabetical order. Each synopsis has a link back to my full review (which also contains photographs and additional background information).

Before the Revolution

In the 21st Century, Iran is a major power in the Middle East and one of Israel's greatest existential enemies. So it will no doubt surprise many people to learn that in the 20th Century, the Iranian government had a close relationship with the Israeli government. In fact, in pursuit of modernization for his then-backward country, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the last Shah of Iran) was heavily dependent on Israeli talent.

And because one of the many Israeli technocrats who worked in Iran was his father, filmmaker Dan Shadur is now able to provide a fascinating first-hand account of what is was like to be an Israeli child growing up in Teheran in that "golden age" before Ayatollah Khomeini drove the Shah from power. (Documentary)

Crime After Crime  

Joshua Safran is a California attorney specializing in property law when he agrees to represent a battered woman named Debbie Peagle who is determined to overturn her murder conviction.

Filmmaker Yoav Potash follows Safran for years as he digs deep into Torah for sustenance through a long and exhausting appeal process. Since Safran is always unplugged on Saturdays, he's the last to receive an important update at critical point in the appeal, but he returns from his Shabbat observance refreshed and renewed.

Watching Safran battle on thus becomes an uplifting Jewish experience far deeper than a typical Law & Order episode "ripped from the headlines." (Documentary)

Hannah Arendt 

Barbara Sukowa stars as Hannah Arendt, the German-born political philosopher best-known today for her books on 20th Century totalitarianism.

Director Margarethe von Trotta's film (based on a screenplay by Pamela Katz) focuses on Hannah Arendt's attempts to introduce nuance into discussions of the Holocaust when she covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961.

The result was an uproar that started in the pages of The New Yorker magazine and still resonates today. (BioPic/Drama)

La Rafle

Melanie Laurent stars as Annette Monod, a member of a prominent French Protestant family who cared for Jewish children rounded up in 1942 and herded into the Vélodrome d'Hiver (a sports stadium near the Eiffel Tower known colloquially as the "Vél d'Hiv").

If the name Vél d'Hiv already sounds familiar to you, it's probably because you either read Tatiana de Rosnay's best-selling novel Sarah's Key (published in 2007), and/or saw the film adaptation released in 2011 (which starred Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist).

But writer/director Rose Bosch feels no need to engage our sympathies by adding a contemporary heroine. Bosch keeps La Rafle firmly anchored in the horrific events of 1942, and her film is all the better for it. (BioPic/Drama)

Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love  

This is filmmaker Dori Berinstein's third Broadway documentary. The first was ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway,  which I reviewed for the JUF when it played at the Music Box Theatre way back in June 2007. The second was Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, which received a "Gold Hugo" nomination in the documentary film category from our 2011 Chicago International Film Festival.

When I asked her about the affinity between Jews and Broadway, Berinstein said: "Theater makes you think and theater makes you feel. There's a long, very wonderful history of Jews being involved in this art form, and having used it to create change in the way people see the world. It's also just an inspiring, transporting art form, so what's not to love?" And that is the story of Marvin Hamlisch in a nutshell.

Born into a family that had no grandparents, Hamlisch used music to "create change in the way people see the world," and Berinstein, with her extraordinary insider access, makes it clear that Hamlisch (who died in 2012 at the age of 68) lived a life well-lived. He was not only an "EGOT" (that is, the winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar, and a Tony), he also won a Pulitzer Prize, two Golden Globes, and shelves full of additional honors and testimonials. His legacy is enormous.

Marvin Hamlisch: May his memory be for blessing. (Documentary)

The Pin

This haunting film about two young people who find each other in a barn at the edge of the Russian border has somewhat the same feel as The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (which some of you may have seen at the Lookingglass Theatre  Company at Water Tower Place back in 2011).

Unlike so many Holocaust films, The Pin is delicate & understated, showing how the power of imagination under impossible circumstances became a tool of survival.

Note that all of the dialogue in The Pin is in Yiddish, with English subtitles of course. (Romance/Drama)

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The Chicago Jewish Film Festival is sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC Chicago) with support from The Mrs. Zollie Frank Fund and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Additional participants include the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, the Chicago YIVO Society, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and ShPIeL-Performing Identity Theatre.

Yasher Koach to Artistic Director David Chack and the 2014 CJFF Mishpokhe.

For more details (including schedules and tickets), visit the CJFF website.

Unfortunately I have yet to see the other four films: Blumenthal, Closer to the Moon, Megillas Lester, and Precious Life. I hope to catch up with all of them soon!

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Top photo:From Before the Revolution. Photo courtesy of Heymann Brothers Films.
Bottom photo: From La Rafle. Photo courtesy of Menemsha Films.

Tzivi reviews Ida

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It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the start of another Chicago summer. But in the dark, at the local art house, the Holocaust is always with us.

A new film from Poland called Ida opens today at the Music Box Theatre in Andersonville and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. This film has an extraordinarily high rating of 96% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but as is often the case when it comes to films about the Holocaust, I do not agree with the consensus of my colleagues.

Ida is set in Lodz in 1962. “Anna” (Agata Trzebuchowska), a teenage novice in a Polish Convent, is about to take her vows when the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) insists that she visit her “Aunt Wanda” (Agata Kulesza), someone whose existence had been hidden from her until that very moment.

And as soon as they do meet face-to-face, Wanda immediately informs Anna that her real name is Ida and – surprise, surprise – her parents were Jewish.

Even though it is only 80 minutes long, Ida feels much longer. In fact, with its long, wordless, static – albeit beautifully composed – shots, it often felt interminable to me. But my fundamental problem with Ida is that the screenplay (co-written by director Pawel Pawlikowski and British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz) is so deliberately spare that the film becomes a Rorschach Test. And sad to say, I think the less you know about the Holocaust, the more likely you will be to misinterpret what little bits of information are actually provided in the film.

Some will say Pawlikowski leaves these “big questions” to the audience, but I think that’s a cop out. Me, I don’t think Pawlikowski has given sufficient thought to “the Jewish Question.” I think he’s really interested in creating beautiful images of Poland before the thaw, but he has adroitly used the Holocaust to add “gravitas” to an otherwise thin aesthetic exercise.

To read my full review of Ida (which includes several “spoiler alerts”), visit my blog Second City Tzivi.

Click here for the Music Box schedule.

Click here for the Renaissance Place schedule.

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"Anna/Ida" (Agata Trzebuchowska) with her "Aunt Wanda" (Agata Kulesza).
Photo Credits: Sylwester Kazmierczak and Liliana Milewska

 

 

Tzivi reviews Dancing in Jaffa

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A tip of the hat to Pierre Dulaine!

In 1994, long before ballroom dancing received mainstream acclaim through the wildly popular TV show Dancing With The Stars, Dulaine created the "Dancing Classrooms" program which has become his life's work and lasting legacy.

Dulaine was born in the city of Jaffa - then part of Mandate Palestine - in April 1944. As he tells us in Dancing in Jaffa, his mother was part Palestinian and part French, and his father was a British soldier of Irish descent. These were complicated times and Dulaine's heritage magnified the complexity considerably: Palestinian, French, British, Irish… oy!

The one thing Dulaine clearly was not was Jewish, and in 1948, after Jaffa became part of the new state of Israel, his family began wandering, living for a time in Amman, Jordan and eventually settling in Birmingham, England.

Decades later, after the huge success of the "Dancing Classrooms" program -- which now serves thousands of children all around the world -- Dulaine has returned to his birthplace to sprinkle magic dust over a set of selected schools in Jaffa… and the amazing thing is, it works!

By the time of the final competition, Hebrew-speaking children are dancing with children who mostly speak Arabic, and Palestinian mothers in hijab are sitting next to Israeli mothers in tee shirts. The boys and girls on the dance floor are poised and graceful, their teachers are beaming, and everyone in the bleachers is cheering them on.

Outside the warm dance spaces, however, "real life" continues to be just as complex as ever. Award-winning Israeli director Hilla Medalia includes tension-filled street scenes with Israeli adults marching in honor of Yom Ha'atzmaut while Palestinian protesters commemorate the Nakba.

What will happen to these children after Dulaine is long gone? Maybe someday Hilla Medalia will do a Part Two, but for now the only thing we know for sure is that Pierre Dulaine has created something that should be too good to be true… and yet… somehow… it works!

Dancing in Jaffa opens at the Music Box Theatre on Southport on Friday, May 2. Visit the Music Box website for complete schedule information.

For more about Pierre Dulaine and the making of Dancing in Jaffa, read my "Second City Tzivi" Blog post.

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Photo Credits: Courtesy of IFC.

Tzivi reviews Noah

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"You know you're having a bad day when furious readers write to complain that 'it didn't really happen that way.'"

I had a great laugh when one of my colleagues posted this on Facebook last week!

But despite all the doubts (and precisely because of all the controversy), Darren Aronofsky's Biblical epic Noah was last week's box office champion, recovering most of its $125 million dollar production cost in its very first week on the big screen.

Should you go? In my home, we have a split decision. I say yes. My husband Rich says no. I completely understand why Rich (sitting in the seat next to me) kept shaking his head, but despite all its flaws (and there are many), I found Noah to be a very powerful on screen experience.

I have had my ups and downs with Darren Aronofsky's films over the years. I was one of the few people who genuinely liked The Fountain. I met with Aronofsky when he came to show it at our 2006 Chicago International Film Festival, so I have a first-hand feel for his spiritual side. But after the box office failure of The Fountain, his ambition drove him to seek commercial success and he found it with Black Swan (which was nominated for 5 Oscars in 2010).

Me, I hated Black Swan, but now that Aronofsky has used his clout to make Noah, I've decided to roll with the punches. Yes, some of the special effects are preposterous and for sure I could have done without Ray Winstone's rampages as Noah's archenemy "Tubal-Cain."

But at its core, Aronofsky's Noah is the journey of a man who is called to be a hero, rising to the occasion and then suffering in the aftermath. Seen this way-my way-Noah is in the tradition of some of cinema's greatest films such as 12 O'Clock High (1949), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Schindler's List (1993).

Noah is playing this week at theatres all around Metro Chicago including the River East, the ShowPlace ICON, and the Navy Pier IMAX (in the city), and the Evanston Century 12/CineArts, the Muvico Rosemont, and the Regal Gardens at Old Orchard (in the suburbs). For a complete listing, click here for Fandango.

Read more about Noah on my Blog Second City Tzivi.

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Photo: Russell Crowe as "Noah," with Jennifer Connelly as his wife "Na'ameh." Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

Tzivi reviews Bethlehem

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"Sanfur" (Shadi Mar'i) is a Palestinian teen living on the West Bank. He comes from a prominent family and his older brother is a well-known terrorist. Unbeknownst to them, Sanfur is also supplying information to "Razi" (Tsahi Halevi), a Shabak officer in the Israeli Secret Service (aka Shin Bet).

After years of interactions, a deep bond has grown between Sanfur and Razi. As Razi tells his superior "Levy" (Yossi Eini): "I spend more time with this kid than I spend with my own family." But as Sanfur edges closer to manhood, he has to put on more of a show for his buddies, and Levy begins to question Razi's ability to control the situation.

The most charismatic character in Bethlehem is a Bedouin named "Badawi" (Haitham Omari). Short of both cash and connections, Badawi is filled to the brim with verbal bravado and sheer physical courage. This makes Badawi a magnet for the boys, and just as much of a problem for Palestinian politicians as he is for Shabak officers.

Bethlehem received 11 Ophir Award nominations from the Israel Film Academy in 2013, and it won in 6 categories including Best Picture, which immediately made it Israel's Oscar candidate for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014. But even though it succeeds well enough as a "police procedural," with lots of chase scenes and Hollywood-style action, I found Bethlehem woefully thin. Director Yuval Adler and his co-writer Ali Wakad seem to have put all their energy on the Palestinian side. They never convinced me that Razi had a life outside their screenplay, and all the other Israeli characters, including Levy and Razi's wife "Einat" (Michal Shtemler), were even more schematic.

Ironically, AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) did not select Bethlehem as one of the five finalists for Best Foreign Language Film, but they did select Omar which is almost its mirror image. Both films are set in the West Bank, both films focus on the relationship between a Shabak officer and his teenage Palestinian informant, and both films even use some of the same actors in minor roles. (For example, Tarek Copti plays Sanfur's father in Bethlehem, and he plays the father of Omar's girlfriend in Omar).

Last year, two films,5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers, faced off in the Best Documentary category. To me this indicates the power movies have over what many people in the world think they know about the Arab/Israeli conflict. So I urge you to see these films too so you can answer any questions which might come your way.

Click here to read my full review of Bethlehem, which will open locally on 3/7/14 at the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park.

Click here to read my full review of Omar, which opened locally on 2/21/14 and is still playing at the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park. 

Click here to read my reviews of 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers (two of last year's Oscar candidates in the Best Documentary category).

Click here for screening times and additional information on the Landmark Theatre website

Top Photo: Sahdi Mar'i as "Sanfur" and Tsahi Halevi as "Razi."
Photo Credit: Vered Adir courtesy of Adopt Films.