Jewish Journal


December 3, 2009

Winter Treasures on Screen


The coming winter season offers some small gems, many of which may remain under the radar, so to speak. Most, in their individual ways, tell stories that have some relationship to the Nazi era, and each is singularly individual in its perspective. Two films, “Four Seasons Lodge” and “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis,” tell very diverse stories about Holocaust survivors.

In the documentary “Four Seasons Lodge,” a group of survivors provides an uplifting example of embracing life. The film depicts what may be the last season of the group’s annual summer sojourn at a Catskills bungalow colony where they have congregated for 25 years. The movie examines the importance of friendship and focuses on about half a dozen of the survivors as they dance, eat, laugh, flirt, argue, play poker and share some of their happy and painful memories.

First-time filmmaker Andrew Jacobs is a reporter for The New York Times and was doing a series of stories on summer life in the Catskill Mountains. He stumbled on the Four Seasons Lodge and wrote a brief article on the colony, but felt he wanted to do something more about the people he encountered.

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“Their pasts are kind of mesmerizing, in an awful way, and I was just struck by the fact that they’ve all survived the Holocaust. Almost all of them lost everyone in their family. They bring with them this incredible history. But what really struck me about them was that, despite this trauma they carried around, they were incredibly upbeat and fun-loving and had a real joie de vivre that was surprising, for anyone of that age.

“Here they are in their 80s and 90s,” Jacobs continued, “facing their own demons and also losing a lot of friends as they age, and yet they were interested in living life to the fullest. That drew me to them, and I wanted to know more.”

Jacobs filmed his subjects interacting with each other, instead of interviewing them on camera. Despite the fact that the characters in his documentary all went through the Holocaust, Jacobs did not make that part of their lives his primary focus. But, when they did talk of their ordeals, he was surprised by how powerful memory can be. One of the characters who made a strong impression on Jacobs was Max, who appears briefly in the movie.

“As a teenager he was experimented on by Mengele. He really endured the worst, with his whole family dying and then his being in charge of burying bodies and pulling out people’s teeth,” Jacobs explained, “but he’s very intelligent and philosophical and not embittered. He’s just very grateful to have a second chance, to come to America and have a good life.”

Jacobs observed that there’s a lesson in seeing people who have endured unspeakable horror finding joy later in life and appreciating the simpler aspects of life as they enjoy their friends, dance together and cook together. He feels the theme of community is a very important part of this story.

“With people who are aging, there is often, in this country at least, the feeling that they’re not sure how they’re going to live out their later years. I think these people show that you can create community at any age, and they have become family. So they’ve maintained this place for decades. I think that’s an encouraging example.” You can see this film as of Dec. 11.

A quite different experience for survivors is portrayed in the documentary, “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis.”

In 1944, a Hungarian Jew, an attorney named Rezso Kasztner, negotiated with Eichmann and arranged for a train that carried some 1,700 Jews from Hungary to Bergen-Belsen for several months, and, finally, to freedom in Switzerland. The film explores the aftermath of Kasztner’s activities, which involves a libel suit and his assassination.

When filmmaker Gaylen Ross first learned about Kasztner, she was astounded that his story wasn’t well known.

“Why wasn’t there a conversation about a Jew who negotiated with the Nazis? I was amazed that the story was essentially erased in this country. In Israel, where the trial and the assassination happened, it was filled with all sorts of politics and controversy that obfuscated the whole issue about Jewish rescue and negotiations.”

The more Ross delved, the more fascinated she became. “It was like one of those Shakespearean or Greek tragedies. It’s universal and timeless, and a compelling story. It drew me in and kept me going for eight years.”

The details are complicated. After the war, Kasztner ultimately settled in Israel and became part of the Ben-Gurion government. At one point, a man who put out pamphlets “exposing” various individuals started accusing Kasztner of being a collaborator and of failing to warn Hungarian Jews about the deportations, thereby allowing hundreds of thousands to be killed.

Since Kasztner was part of the administration, the government filed a libel suit in 1954. In the course of the trial, the opposing attorney asked Kasztner if he had ever given an affidavit on behalf of a Nazi office. Kasztner denied it until the attorney produced the document.

The trial judge then turned against him, accusing him of “selling his soul to the devil,” and Kasztner became a pariah in Israel. But it wasn’t just he who suffered.

“The survivors who were saved on Kasztner’s train also felt the guilt and shame of the accusation about collaboration,” Ross said. “There were survivors who said they felt they lived with the mark of Cain on their heads.”

In 1957, a man in his 20s, Ze’ev Eckstein, who was involved with right-wing ideologues and wanted to be a hero, killed Kasztner. He spent seven years in prison, until his sentence was commuted. Ross interviews him extensively in the film about the murder and his motivations. She even managed to engineer a meeting between Eckstein and Kasztner’s daughter, most of which was conducted off-camera.

What makes the movie particularly intriguing is its introduction of new material uncovered in the archives by researcher Shoshana Barri.

Kasztner had testified that he gave the affidavits for certain Nazis on behalf of the Jewish Agency.

“The Jewish Agency came to the trial and denied it,” Ross said. “What the researcher found was that they knew everything about these affidavits. In fact, there were expense accounts written by the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress paying for Kasztner to make the trip and present the affidavits. Kasztner didn’t betray them, and they didn’t help him.”

The researcher also found that the Ben-Gurion government wanted certain things from former Nazis, including Hungarian ransom money as well as arms and machinery to build the country, and used Kasztner as a vehicle.

Reaction to the film runs the gamut from those who consider Kasztner a hero to those who still consider him a traitor.

“To this day,” Ross said, “I get e-mails saying, ‘How dare you talk about this man and these survivors who live at the expense of the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews!’”

“Killing Kasztner” is a smash hit in New York and opens here Jan. 15.

A film filled with incipient Nazis, according to some critics, comes from Austrian director Michael Haneke, who has woven an austere, cruel tale with “The White Ribbon,” which takes place in a small northern German Protestant village in 1913/1914, just before World War I. A series of mysterious catastrophes that befall certain inhabitants upsets the village’s seeming tranquility: the town doctor (Rainer Bock) is injured in a riding accident by a hidden tripwire; a woman who works in the local mill owned by the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) is killed on the job; the mill catches fire one night. Meanwhile, the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) cruelly abuses his children in the name of discipline, and a sense of sick rage permeates the underbelly of the community. The title refers to a ribbon the pastor forces his children to wear to remind them of the innocence and purity he expects of them. But the children are bent on revenge.

The photography is in black and white, and there is no music, so that the harshness of the ambiance is accentuated.

Many journalists have assumed Haneke was trying to show that the culture he depicts was a fertile field for the society that eventually supported Hitler and the Nazis. They further speculate that the pervasiveness of cruelty in that culture led inevitably to the rise of fascism and the public’s easy acceptance of its barbarism. But the director has been widely quoted as saying that, though he was dealing with the Nazi generation, at the core he was examining the roots of fanaticism, and that issue could pertain to many situations and many countries.

As reported by Chris Tilly of The Tomato Report, the film caused a sensation at Cannes, and it “left the Cannes crowds shocked and stunned, and seems to have impressed every critic in attendance.” The movie opens Dec. 30.

From pre-WW I Germany, we move to pre-World War II Germany with the film, “North Face,” based on a true story. As the movie begins, two German climbers have perished trying to conquer the north face of the Eiger Mountain in the Swiss Alps, thought to be impregnable, and their bodies can’t be reached. It is 1936, and many mountain climbers are converging at the base of the Eiger, hoping to scale the peak and win a medal at the Olympics. They are prodded by the regime, which wants German climbers to vanquish the mountain for the glory of Nazi Germany. 

The plot follows two nonpolitical young men, Anderl Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) and Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann), as they leave their service in the Wehrmacht and set out to climb the Eiger. At the same time, a rival Austrian team is also setting out to scale the mountain, and the two teams join forces when the going gets rough. A newspaperman (Ulrich Tukur) from a pro-fascist paper and a young photographer (Johanna Wokalek) from the same publication — who had a romance with Kurz and who now sees an opportunity to get sensational photos and advance her career — are among the crowd watching from a resort hotel at the foot of the mountain. There is also a train that runs through the mountain and has a station opening onto the north face. When Kurz is in dire straits, the photographer goes to the station and tries to help him reach safety.

“Mountain movies were a popular and extremely commercial genre in the ’20s and ’30s in Germany,” director Philipp Stölzl said. “It was always very ‘German,’ but not really political in the first place — but, after ’33, the Nazis melted the genre into their propaganda machine. The Nazis obviously loved mountaineering, and young men fighting and dying for an idealistic ‘victory’ over raw nature supplied perfect heroes for a nation preparing a war.”

Stölzl characterized “North Face” as, first, a tough historical adventure. He added, “Underneath it is a political movie about the Nazi regime implanting the wrong dream in young boys and having this sick flirtation with a heroic death in the mountains. And in a way it is also a social critique about two poor guys seeing their only chance for a better life in climbing an extremely dangerous mountain.” The Los Angeles run begins Feb. 12.

An unusual phenomenon is depicted in the French offering “The Girl on the Train,” that of an individual who falsely claims to have been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. According to the press notes, director André Téchiné was inspired by an actual case that occurred in France in 2004, which became known as the “RER D affair” (RER D is a Paris subway line). Journalist Yohanan Winogradsky described the incident in which a young non-Jewish woman reported that six young men she characterized as Arabs and blacks mugged and beat her on a train when they assumed she was Jewish. A number of leading French politicians roundly condemned the act.

Winogradsky holds that, when the accusations were found to be false, there began a nationwide skepticism and reserve in responding to actual anti-Semitic attacks.

In the film, Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) is an aimless young woman who lives with her mother (Catherine Deneuve), falls in love and unwittingly gets involved in a drug-dealing scheme. She is cleared, and her mother enlists the help of an old friend, who is a lawyer and Jewish (Michel Blanc), on behalf of her daughter’s boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle).

One night Jeanne, who is not Jewish, is watching some Nazi-era news footage that brings her to tears. She cuts herself in several places and draws a swastika on her abdomen. Then she claims to have been attacked in an anti-Semitic hate crime. The reasons for her actions are unclear, though it is suggested that she was seeking a certain kind of love. When her deception is uncovered, it scandalizes her mother.

There is a parallel story about the relationship between the Jewish attorney, his son (Mathieu Demy), and his grandson (Jeremy Quaegebeur), who is preparing for his bar mitzvah. This one will be on screen Jan. 29.

Finally, we have “Ajami” (see story, Page 10), whose title refers to a neighborhood in the Israeli city of Jaffa where all the cultures of that country bump up against each other. The district is rampant with crime, drugs and hostilities.

It is especially noteworthy that the filmmakers are a Jewish Israeli, Yaron Shani, and a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Scandar Copti. In addition, this is an Israeli film whose dialogue is in Arabic. Opening date is Feb. 12.

There you have what should be an appealing selection. See you in the spring.

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