March 8, 2001
Satan in the Shtetl
"Great-grandma was a naughty girl," says British filmmaker Ben Hopkins, whose feature debut, "Simon Magus," is the tale of a Polish shtetl in peril.
The iconoclastic director's single Jewish ancestor was the Eastern European mistress of an English gentleman in Vienna; in the 1910s, she moved to England to live with him and bear him (and other men) children. Her convent-educated daughter did not learn she was Jewish until she planned to marry. "Great-grandma told her she couldn't wed in church, because she was Jewish," says the Oxford graduate, who was raised as an atheist.
Nevertheless, around 1990, Hopkins says, "the Jews sitting around the samovar in our collective DNA came to life." Grandmother began referring to herself as a Jew; father, an ancient historian, immersed himself in studies about first- and second-century Judaism; and Hopkins made an unexpected entry in his journal: "Make 'Simon Magus' a Jewish story." "It was obviously written when I was drunk, as it is very scribbly,"confides the irreverent, award-winning filmmaker.
"Simon Magus," the tale of a visionary outcast (Noah Taylor) who becomes a pawn in an anti-Semitic plot against his Jewish community, has an eerie, magical atmosphere reminiscent of the works of Yiddish author I.B. Singer. The movie, which stars Rutger Hauer and Embeth Davidtz ("Schindler's List") was inspired by the early Christian legend of Simon Magus, the Samaritan magician who attempted to buy himself a place among Christ's disciples after Judas's death. Hopkins, the struggling director, identified with the failed magician: "It quite accurately described my life at the time," he says.
A coup for the director was casting prominent British thespian Ian Holm as Satan, a part that was relatively simple to write, Hopkins says.
"The devil is a fantastic character," he explains. "God is a bit boring."
"Stuart Magus" opens today at the Nuart in Los Angeles.