January 12, 2006
Two Dark Tales Illuminated at Sundance
Martin Scorsese has famously influenced a whole generation of American filmmakers, from Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino to Rob Weiss and Nick Gomez. But his influence is not limited to filmmakers in this country.
One who has channeled the Gotham-based auteur, albeit subconsciously, is Tony Krawitz, an Australian director, who specializes in short films. Krawitz's most recent effort is "Jewboy," a one-hour feature about Yuri, a Chasidic Jew, who comes back to Sydney, Australia, for his father's funeral and has a crisis of more than just faith.
Although Krawitz says that he refrained from watching Scorsese's films while making "Jewboy," his lead character Yuri reminds one at times of Harvey Keitel's Charlie in "Mean Streets," as well as Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."
Like Keitel's Charlie, Yuri places his fingers over the flame of a burning candle. He wonders if God will really punish him, if the flame is truly eternal. He also wants to feel something, even if it's pain. That is why he touches the fire, since his religion prohibits him from touching a woman, from even holding hands with any female other than a family member.
The provocative title of the film "reflects the mentality of the lead character, so marked is he by being an Orthodox Jew 24/7," says Krawitz, speaking from Australia. "Jewboy" makes a powerful statement about the oppressiveness and sterility of this Orthodox environment. Smothered with extended family whose expectations are that he will follow his father by becoming a rabbi, Yuri sees a future of loveless marriage, platitudes uttered by friends, and constraint.
More than anything else, he wants to connect with other people, and not only figuratively. The tension in the film occurs whenever he wants to touch a woman. There is a moment early on when he and his Lubavitch girlfriend circle their fingers through powdery flour on a table, coming tantalizingly close to touching each other. They both shudder and smile secretly as they part from the exercise, an erotic fillip in their claustrophobic world.
Krawitz, 38, was born in South Africa but grew up in Bondi Beach, a neighborhood of Sydney with a large Chasidic presence. He remembers a high school classmate who told him that he would not be able to touch a woman until he got married. Although Krawitz considers himself a secular Jew, this early exposure to the Orthodox world led to a lifelong fascination with that community.
As a university student, Krawitz drove cabs and on occasion was called "Jewboy" by his fares. Yuri, too, becomes a cab driver, which leads him into Sydney's demimonde of sleaze, a scaled-down version of the Times Square in "Taxi Driver."
Ewen Leslie, who gives Yuri's character a tremendous inner life, bears a physical resemblance to Travis Bickle. Both dark-haired ghosts of the city, Leslie, when he takes off his shirt, reveals a sinewy, bony physique that is very similar to De Niro's in that film. And Yuri's small, nondescript one-room apartment calls to mind Bickle's lodgings.
Yuri's awkwardness with women and his conflicted feelings about sex are yet another echo.
Tortured as he is by his religion's restrictions, Yuri goes to extremes to honor them: carrying a drunk, cleavage-displaying rider out of a cab by wrapping her with his jacket; touching the window of a peep show gallery as the topless dancer performs for him; and finally reaches the precipice, holding back his arms as a sexy prostitute presses her breasts against his chest and then fellates him.
After this encounter, Yuri rushes through the neon underworld with what Krawitz terms a "strobe-light effect," the increased speed and then slow-motion of the camera, evocative of the turmoil in the streets in "Chungking Express," a film that Krawitz says did influence him. In this case, "messing with speed" mirrors the inner confusion Yuri is undergoing.
At the end of the film, he holds his grandmother's hand as she, a concentration camp survivor, watches a tennis match and roots for Australia's Mark Philippoussis.
"I have faith in him," she says.
"Jewboy," which was entered into Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, is Krawitz's first film at Sundance. Although slightly less than an hour long, it will compete in the feature category.
Also competing at Sundance, in the documentary category, is "KZ," perhaps "the first postmodern Holocaust movie," says its director Rex Bloomstein. "It explores the subject in a different way."
Certainly, there is more than an element of postmodern irony about a bunch of present-day, lederhosen-clad Austrian youth, singing roistering tunes about the concentration camp in Mauthausen and hoisting mugs at the very place where SS officers once clinked glasses of Schnapps after massacring their victims.
But that's just one example of irony. Bloomstein interviews present residents of Mauthausen, including a young, dark-skinned teenage girl, presumably of mixed ethnicity, who wears a T-shirt with the words "New York" running across it and says that living in Mauthausen "is a perfect dream." In the background, her surly, silent boyfriend, arms folded, leans against a car, impatient for the interview to end.
Bloomstein also interviews older residents of the town who lived there during World War II, one of whom beams with pride over having been married to an SS officer.
"KZ," an abbreviation for the Austrian name for concentration camp, "Konzentrationslager," depicts not only the town's residents, but also the tour guides and the tourists.
One tour guide, an intense young Austrian with a shaved head, speaks to the visitors in staccato tones. He has a defiance about him, so consumed is he with anger at his country and the town's legacy. Another guide is an older middle-aged man, who admits that he has become an alcoholic after years of working at the camp.
For the first 15 minutes of the film, neither guide mentions the word Jews, because Mauthausen was not exclusively a Jewish concentration camp. It began as a labor camp and later admitted large numbers of Russians and Poles as well as Jews, who were not brought to the camp until 1944, according to the film.
Bloomstein, a 64-year-old resident of England, has made numerous television documentaries with Jewish themes, including the three-part series, "The Longest Hatred." But "KZ" marks his first time at the helm of a documentary film.
He was making a TV documentary called "Liberation" when he noticed the beer drinking and singing taking place within yards of the former concentration camp. He was "haunted by the disjunction, the reality of people enjoying themselves, and then the reality over there" at the camp, and decided to make a film that would show "the interface of memory and history and the present."
Using a hand-held camera, Bloomstein finds one man, standing next to a crematorium, who straightens out his trousers after his girlfriend tells him they're rumpled; then, camera in hand, she takes a picture of him. Bloomstein finds another man visiting the camp, a swarthy fellow, who writes in a book of visitors' comments that Israel should be ashamed at how it has treated the Palestinians and the Kurds. His daughter simply writes, "Peace."
Unlike most Holocaust documentaries, this one, as its press materials proclaim, contains no archival footage, no survivor testimonials, no voice-over. Bloomstein points out that there is also "No music."
He doesn't want an artificial stimulus for people to feel sad. He wants the filmgoer to be one of the tourists and take in everything as if he were there -- the gas chambers, the ovens, and the "Wailing Wall," the wall in front of which Jews, left to die, stood naked for days in the snow and in the burning heat. For postmodern irony, this is about as gruesome as it gets.
For more information on the Sundance, visit festival.sundance.org/2006.