Jewish Journal


June 1, 2010

Summer Films That Provoke


"John Rabe"

"John Rabe"

Once again, this season’s lineup defies the popular assumption that films released during the summer have to be either big blockbusters or vapid youth-oriented fare designed to appeal to less discriminating, mainstream audiences. At least two upcoming films promise to provoke discussion — one deals with homosexuality in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community; the other paints a heroic picture of a loyal Nazi party member called “the Oskar Schindler of China” by The New York Times. 

In addition, our list contains several documentaries with wide-ranging subjects, including the experiences of one platoon in Afghanistan, the struggles of a championship Arab soccer team in Israel, a look beneath the surface of comedian Joan Rivers and a search for the meaning of existence.

There is also an upbeat French movie about the triumph of down-and-out musicians in Russia. “Le Concert,” by filmmaker Radu Milhaileanu, is pervaded with a fablelike quality. “That’s the kind of moviemaking I like, which is very Jewish,” said Milhaileanu, who was born in Romania. “There are many before me who did that ... Lubitsch, Chaplin and Billy Wilder. The effects are like fairy tales, as in the works of Sholom Aleichem and [Isaac] Bashevis Singer.  I’m very close to those themes myself, having been an actor in the Jewish theater in Bucharest.  I also had my own theater, which was a clandestine enterprise, as I didn’t share the communist ideology.”

Milhaileanu’s current offering, slated to open here July 16, centers on Andreï Filipov (Aleksei Guskov), who works as a janitor at the Bolshoi but who had once been the conductor of the company’s orchestra.  He was fired in the middle of a concert for refusing to get rid of all the Jewish musicians.  When he intercepts an invitation from the prestigious Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, he decides to assemble his former musicians, now a down-and-out assortment of alcoholics, and pass them them off as the authentic Bolshoi orchestra.

Filipov and his best friend, Sacha Grossman (Dimitry Nazarov), a cellist who now works as an ambulance driver, enlist the aid of their old enemy, the former Bolshoi manager who aided in Filipov’s downfall (Valeriy Barinov).  This character longs for a return to the days of Communist rule but behaves very much like a capitalist as he negotiates with the French, demanding a host of luxuries for himself and the musicians.

The filmmaker is clearly ridiculing Communist idealogues. “I lived for 20 years under the Ceausescu dictatorship,” he said. “I ran away to Israel in the 1980s, when I was 22, and I stayed only for three weeks. Then I came to Paris. It was on purpose that I satirized that kind of regime.”

In Milhaileanu’s film, the scheme is successful, and the troupe goes to Paris, with hilarious repercussions.

Ultimately, at the stunning climax, the fake orchestra gets to complete the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto that had been interrupted years earlier.

Milhaileanu said he was interested in how the story blended with an important part of history involving Brezhnev and what happened to the Jewish people during the 1980s. “It was true that Brezhnev fired Jewish people from the Russian orchestra. I was also drawn to the idea of these musicians who have the chance to get back their dignity and realize their destiny. These themes seemed quite powerful to me. At the end, when everything gets resolved, there are issues involving family and music and how to reach an ultimate harmony. I think those concerns are universal.”

In sharp contrast to this hopeful movie is the depiction of a doomed love between two men in an Orthodox Jerusalem community. “Eyes Wide Open,” from filmmaker Haim Tabakman, revolves around Aaron (Zohar Strauss), a respected butcher with a wife and four children.  He meets Ezri (Ran Danker), a handsome, young, former yeshiva student who has come to town in secret pursuit of another young man. After Aaron offers Ezri a job and a place to stay above his shop, the two begin a passionate affair that consumes the butcher. However, certain members of the community begin to suspect that something unholy is taking place in their midst. They exert mounting pressure on Aaron to get rid of the young man, and the situation culminates in a violent confrontation.

Tabakman discussed his film, scheduled for release in Los Angeles on June 25, during an interview included in the production notes. He emphasized that his movie is not based on a true story, but was well researched, and the events portrayed could happen at any time, especially to males who interact almost exclusively with each other, as they do in a yeshiva.  He added that religious people do not consider homosexuality a sin; for them, it just does not exist. As a result, the movie’s main character faces an almost impossible conflict between remaining in his religious circle and also being authentic. 

The director is also quoted as saying that he hoped his movie would help eliminate the taboo about homosexuality in ultra-Orthodox society and would serve as part of the evolution of that society. For him, the way religious people live today is not the way they have always lived in Jerusalem, but is a reaction to the fear of losing part of their tradition.  He believes there is a way to convince these people, through films and without using force, that the homosexual world is a reality that has to be acknowledged.

The Los Angeles Film Festival will screen “Eyes Wide Open” downtown on June 20, 7 p.m., at the Regal 8 and June 24, 10 p.m. at the Regal 8.

Another candidate for controversy is the German biopic “John Rabe,” which dramatizes what has been called “the rape of Nanking” (now Nanjing). The year is 1937, and German businessman John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur), a loyal Nazi Party member, has been living in China for 27 years. He runs the Nanking branch of Siemens, a company active in telecommunication, power plants and medical technologies, and has just been called home from his post. When the Japanese, allies of the Germans, begin bombing Nanking, Rabe has the Chinese workers and their families gather under a huge Nazi flag bearing a swastika to dissuade the invaders from continuing the assault. 

Eventually, Rabe decides to remain in China and heads a committee that negotiates with the Japanese for recognition of a safety zone, where hundreds of thousands seek sanctuary.  He is increasingly horrified by Japanese atrocities, including rape, the murder of men, women and children, and even the beheading of war prisoners for sport. As the zone itself is threatened, Rabe finds the courage to defy the invaders.

Director Florian Gallenberger was drawn to this historical episode because it is so little known in the West while being, in his opinion, of such significance. “John Rabe interested me as a character, because he does what you would never expect from him. He is an average employee and not a very likable person in the beginning. But, in the course of events, he develops a strength and braveness which I find outstanding and inspiring and which make him a completely different person at the end.”

The director pointed out that Rabe was not in Germany after Hitler took power and had a very naïve understanding of Nazi ideology, believing it to be a humanistic workers’ movement.

“We can see that very clearly, when he writes to Hitler asking for help,” Gallenberger said. “He was convinced that Hitler would support the Chinese workers who were suffering under Japanese war crimes. Also, we
have to remember that it was 1937. There was already, of course, an obvious and strong suppression of Jewish people in Germany, but what is referred to as the Reichskristallnacht and seen as the moment when the Holocaust really started to openly unfold in all its unbelievable horror and cruelty, occurred in November 1938. I really think that Rabe, being so far away from Europe for such a long time, had no knowledge of the Holocaust in 1937.”

Once back in Berlin, Rabe tried to inform people about what happened in Nanking by giving lectures and writing a book that detailed the massacre. “At this point, he was arrested by the Gestapo for collaborating with the Chinese,” the director said. “His diaries were confiscated, his book forbidden, and he was not allowed to speak about what he had experienced in China. He lost his position at Siemens and — thank God — his mistaken picture of Hitler’s Germany.”

When the war ended, Rabe asked to be “de-Nazified” but was turned down at first by the British.  His request was eventually granted because of his activities in China, whose government, to express its gratitude, gave him a small pension. However, he was impoverished when he died of a stroke in 1950.

“John Rabe” begins its Los Angeles run June 4.

A very different war story is told in the documentary “Restrepo.” Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, correspondents on assignment for Vanity Fair, spent a total of 10 months embedded with a platoon stationed
in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The area is a known base for Taliban troops traveling from Pakistan to Kabul and is considered to be one of the most deadly staging arenas in the current conflict.  The film’s title comes from a remote outpost the soldiers built, manned and named for their medic, who died in action.

Hetherington and Junger recorded the day-to-day existence the men were living, without staging anything or commenting on the war. They managed to achieve a rare immediacy on screen and to put the audience in the middle of the combat zone with the men, some of whom were killed or wounded during the filming.

“One of the things we wanted to do was make a very visceral, soldier’s-eye view of the war,” Hetherington said. “We felt that, regardless of your politics, whether you’re left wing or right wing, whether you’re for or against the war, there are young men being sent out in your name to this far off place, and they are fighting there, and that experience needs to be understood and digested.”

As for what he hopes the film will accomplish, Hetherington cited the thousands of men and women who are fighting and dying or being wounded.

“Back in America, they’re hardly visible. And I think the country owes them the debt of understanding and honoring their experience. That means that, if we invite people to come and sit in front of a screen for 90 minutes, and we take them on what is equivalent to a 90-minute deployment, that’s not really much to ask. That’s a small thing to have them understand what these people go through.”

Regarding the upshot of the soldiers’ heroic efforts, Hetherington said after the soldiers ended their 15-month rotation, other troops took their place.  However, about a month ago, the Americans pulled out of the Korengal Valley completely. Restrepo as a base and the entire Valley are now in Taliban hands.

“Restrepo” opens June 25.

Another powerful and disturbing image of war’s repercussions can be found in “The Dry Land,” a fiction film from writer/director Ryan Piers Williams in his feature debut that chronicles the torment of a vet (Ryan O’Nan) afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder as he returns from Iraq to his hometown in Texas. The character has scant recollection of a crucial enemy hit on his Humvee and experiences flashbacks he doesn’t understand.  His erratic, sometimes violent, behavior becomes too much for his wife (America Ferrera, who also serves as executive producer), and she moves out of their house.

Impelled to fill in the blank spaces of his memory, the returnee persuades an army buddy (Wilmer Valderrama) to accompany him on a visit to another survivor of the incident (Diego Klattenhoff), who is now a double amputee. When he finally learns the truth of what happened during the assault he returns home and tries to reclaim his life.

“The Dry Land” has a July 30 release date.

We move from war and its fallout to the tale of Bnei Sakhnin, a soccer team from an Arab town in northern Israel that managed to win the coveted Israel Cup and then represent the Jewish state in the European competition. The documentary “After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United” covers the season following the historic victory, as the under-funded, relatively inexperienced team struggles to maintain its position in the country’s major league while dealing with expectations from fans that may prove impossible to fulfill.

Bnei Sakhnin, owned by an Arab, coached by a Jew, and composed of Arab, Jewish and foreign players, appears to be a model of integration. Director Christopher Browne, an Irish Catholic from Connecticut, recalled that, while in Israel, he learned there is a lot of integration between Jews and Arabs, but it tends to occur primarily at the very top and at the very bottom of Israeli society.

“I can’t remember who said it, but I think it might have been a professor at Haifa University who told me that, at the top end, professors collaborate on academic research and that sort of thing; integrated orchestras and theater companies and film productions also fit into this category.  At the other end, criminals tend to work together out of necessity, but there are fewer opportunities for integration and collaboration across broad swaths of Israel society.”

Browne added that he found a great deal of symbolism in this story of an underdog team fighting for survival.

“Bnei Sakhnin can be seen as a potent metaphor for a lot of things, obviously as a bridge between Jews and Arabs, but it can just as easily function as a symbol for Arab cultural pride in Israel. The symbolism surrounding Bnei Sakhnin also has the possibility of veering quickly into uncomfortable places; the team’s aggressive style of competition potentially represents Arab violence or at least a perception of it. And, if the team falls out of the league, it can quickly become a symbol of Arab failure and despair instead of hope and aspiration.”

At present, Bnei Sakhnin remains in the premier league and now has its own stadium.

“After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United” will come to Los Angeles on May 28.

Also recommended:

“The Nature of Existence” is slated for a July 2 opening. In the documentary, director Roger Nygard ( of “Trekkies” fame) travels the world and interviews a wide variety of people, including religious leaders, scientists, artists and scholars, to get their individual perspectives on such fundamental and sometimes humorous questions as why we are here, how the universe began, whether God exists and what is the basis for his interest in our sex lives, along with an array of other inquiries.

Nygard began his quest when he was on a trip to Tel Aviv for a “Star Trek” convention.  After being brought on stage, he said he needed a rabbi and was soon put in touch with Rabbi Baruch Kaplan in Jerusalem, who talked about the concept of God.  That interview was followed over the next four years by some 174 more conversations, which Nygard filmed at a variety of locations around the world. 

“Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work” opens June 11.  This documentary strips the veneer from the multifaceted entertainer, now in her 70s, to reveal the fortitude and determination required to survive in an industry that venerates the young and the beautiful. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg followed Rivers for more than a year, photographing some of her most personal moments as well as her professional activities.

What emerges is the portrait of a woman, the daughter of Russian immigrants, who says of herself, “I am a performer. When I am on stage, it is the only time I am truly happy.”

“Harlan —In the Shadow of Jew Suss” also begins its run June 11. Veit Harlan is virtually unknown today, but he was one of Nazi Germany’s most infamous filmmakers.  All SS members were required to watch his anti-Semitic propaganda movie, “Jew Suss.” This documentary is an examination of World War II film history and also tells the story of a German family from the time of the Third Reich to the present.

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