Scattered amid this year’s more traditional holiday fare are some ambitious, profound and illuminating films that should intrigue the discriminating audience.
Among these is “The Last of the Unjust,” a rabbi accused of collaborating with the Nazis, from noted French-Jewish filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. When the director was gathering material for his acclaimed work “Shoah” in 1975, he spent several days shooting interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, a Viennese rabbi who became the third, last and only one to survive as chief of the Jewish Council of Elders at the concentration camp/ghetto in Czechoslovakia known as Theresienstadt. The camp was promoted as a model community for Jews and used for propaganda by the Nazis, when, in reality, conditions were harsh, many inmates died of disease or were killed, and numerous others were transported to death camps in the east.
The Murmelstein footage didn’t appear in “Shoah,” but Lanzmann said he always knew he would use the material at some point. “I was the heir of something so important that I had not the right to keep it for myself alone.
“The issue of the Jewish councils had never been comprehensively addressed before, not by me, not by anybody. It did not fit in ‘Shoah,’ ” he said. “It was now the moment to deal with it.”
The Nazis set up Jewish councils in camps like Theresienstadt to administer basic services, carry out orders from the Germans and communicate or mediate between the Germans and the prisoners. The council chiefs frequently had to implement brutal orders, such as to choose who would be transported, or for rationing food. Many of Murmelstein’s decisions were deeply resented, and he was accused of being a collaborator. After the camp was liberated, he was tried by Czech authorities and imprisoned for 18 months before being found innocent of all charges.
Lanzmann explained that Murmelstein referred to himself as “the last of the unjust,” giving this film its title, a take on André Schwarz-Bart’s masterful novel, “The Last of the Just.”
“I have to make it clear,” the director noted, “genuine collaborators — meaning people who shared Nazi ideology — did not exist amongst Jews, and Murmelstein was certainly the absolute opposite of a collaborator. Yet, Benjamin Murmelstein survived the war.
“In the film,” Lanzmann continued, “he recalls that the first question he was asked in prison after the war, was: ‘Why did you survive?’ Frightening question. People couldn’t understand why all of the others were dead and Murmelstein was alive. If you don’t dig deeper, it is easy to draw a conclusion: He must have been a collaborator then; he must have been a traitor.
“Murmelstein managed to bring an answer during our meeting. He survived because he understood that his survival — and the survival of all the ‘inhabitants’ of the ghetto — and the survival of the ghetto were completely linked. Therefore, he worked hard to keep the ghetto working, to keep it exposable and useful for the Nazis. When some saw there a deliberate action to hide what Theresienstadt really was from the Western countries, he explains that this was a way to hamper the Nazis from exterminating the whole ghetto. If the ghetto were to be useless, it would have been destroyed! Like so many others.
“Besides,” Lanzmann said, “his whole situation that he described in the film — ‘between the hammer and the anvil, between the Jews and the Nazis’ — was unbearable and made him take tough decisions that were un-understandable for the Jews at that time.”
Lanzmann said his film also explores more universal issues, beyond Murmelstein.
“The aim of ‘The Last of the Unjust’ is summarized by that sentence of the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, quoted by Murmelstein: ‘If, in 50 years, it is said that all the Jews from the ghettos were saints, there won’t be (a) greater lie,’ and Murmelstein adds, ‘They were all martyrs, but not all martyrs are saints.’
“This is what I try to explain in this film. I try to expose the complexity of the human soul. This film is an invitation to think.”
“The Last of the Unjust” opens for an Oscar-qualifying run Dec. 13 and goes into wide release in early 2014.
Moving from the Holocaust to the Mideast, we have the documentary “It’s Better to Jump,” in which Palestinian residents of Akka, the walled seaport in northern Israel that is home to Muslims, Jews, Christians and Baha’i, voice their complaints about Israel’s influence on their culture and their economic conditions. They cite gentrification, through which Israelis pay inflated prices for properties so that the poor inhabitants leave, and they charge that the process is a concerted effort to replace the Palestinians with Jewish occupants in order to change the demography. The interviewees express their fear that the ancient city will become a tourist town. They also decry what they perceive as discrimination in education and employment against the Arabs and in favor of the Jews.
The film’s title refers to a rite of passage that has young people stand on top of a 40-foot wall, which has endured for centuries, and jump into the treacherous waters at the bottom. The children describe the experience as one of exhilaration and liberation.
Patrick Alexander Stewart, his Palestinian wife, Mouna Stewart, and Gina Angelone served as the movie’s directors/producers.
“It’s Better to Jump” opens Dec. 6.
A complex domestic situation involving Middle Easterners in Paris is the subject of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s (“A Separation”) latest effort, “The Past.”
The story focuses on Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who returns to Paris after four years in his native Tehran to help his French wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo — “The Artist”), complete their divorce proceedings. Marie wants to marry her lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose child she is carrying, but their relationship causes intense friction between Marie and her teenage daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet). The girl has learned that Samir’s wife is in a coma after a suicide attempt and believes Samir’s affair with her mother was the cause. Although Ahmad is not her father, Lucie relates to him as a father figure, and he tries his best to broker a peace between his soon-to-be ex-wife and his stepdaughter. His attempts lead to the revelation of a secret from the past, hence the title. Meanwhile, Samir is torn between guilt over his wife’s condition, uncertainty about whether she will live or die, and his desire for Marie.
Rather than dealing with cultural conflicts, the film focuses on personal dilemmas that could occur in any culture. “One of my guidelines was not to define my characters by their nationality or their flag,” Farhadi states in the press notes. “Their behavior is determined by the situation they are experiencing. In a crisis situation, differences tend to disappear.”
“The Past” opens Dec. 20.
We now travel to America, where two of the upcoming films depict Jewish con men.
In “American Hustle,” scam artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is compelled to aid FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in a sting aimed at uncovering political corruption. The story is inspired by the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early ’80s, in which undercover FBI operatives offered bribes to politicians, resulting in the convictions of U.S. Sen. Harrison A. Williams and six congressmen, among other public officials, on charges of bribery and conspiracy. To help run Abscam, the FBI hired swindler Melvin Weinberg, on whom the character of Rosenfeld is based.
During a “Good Morning America” interview in July, director David O. Russell talked about what audiences can expect from his film.
“They can expect a wild world of amazing characters, people with their passions and their arts, that was inspired by this wild event that happened back then. You’ve got con artists — Christian Bale playing a con artist from the Bronx, Amy Adams his partner in crime — so good, they get so good at what they do as con artists that the government asks them to work for them.”
He added, “And you’ve got the economy, like today, in a tough place, people very eager, if not desperate, to make something happen.”
“American Hustle” opens Dec. 13.
The other swindler-themed movie is Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” adapted from the memoir of the same title by Jordan Belfort, a notorious trader who became hugely successful by marketing penny stocks through his brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, during the 1990s. In a Wall Street Journal article, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Belfort, is quoted as saying the film portrays “the real epitome of American greed.”
The film also marks DiCaprio’s fifth with Scorsese, who, in the same article, characterizes Belfort as a man bent on “making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. He enters this world, masters it brilliantly, has a great time and spins out of control. Jordan was a guy who got around every obstacle and every regulation and then, because of drugs and the sheer addiction to wealth and what it brings, couldn’t bring himself to stop. Jordan risks a lot, but he does it because that’s part of the enjoyment — he’s so brilliant that he always tests the limits. ‘I got away with this, so how about trying to get away with that?’ And then he got caught.”
In 2003, Belfort was convicted of money laundering and securities fraud and was sentenced to four years in federal prison but served only 22 months. He was also ordered to pay $110 million in restitution to people he defrauded, but, according to the New York Daily News, Belfort so far has forked over only $11.6 million, and Brooklyn federal prosecutors are asking the court to hold him in default. The article also cites Belfort’s response: “An irate Belfort — who plans a 2014 motivational speaking world tour to teach people how to ‘not just create wealth, but to use it for the greater good’ — called the U.S. attorney’s accusations ‘all lies ... a complete fabrication.’
“ ‘When I saw the deadbeat accusation, I almost started crying,’ said Belfort, his eyes welling with tears. ‘I can’t believe something like this is happening in America.’ ”
“The Wolf of Wall Street” opens Dec. 25.
A very different American tale is told in a new movie from the Coen brothers. “Inside Llewyn Davis” re-creates the folk music scene in Greenwich Village during the late 1950s and early ’60s, an era that coincided with the beat generation and just predated the more commercially successful figures of the genre such as Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary.
The fictional character of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer trying to make it as a solo act after his partner commits suicide. Essentially homeless, he crashes on friends’ couches and scrounges from anyone who will give him a handout, all the while trying to practice his art with uncompromising authenticity. But his singlemindedness makes him his own worst enemy as he alienates friends and strangers, sabotaging the few opportunities that come his way.
In the Village Voice, Alan Scherstuhl wrote, “While often funny and alive with winning performances, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ finds the brothers in a dark mood, exploring the near-inevitable disappointment that faces artists too sincere to compromise — disappointments that the Coens, to their credit, have made a career out of dodging. The result is their most affecting film since the masterful ‘A Serious Man.’ ”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in limited release Dec. 6 and in wider release Dec. 20.
The story of Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) battle to acquire the rights to film his daughters’ favorite book, “Mary Poppins,” from author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is told in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Travers was actually the pen name used by Helen Goff.
The film goes back and forth in time between the novelist’s youth (Annie Rose) in early 20th century Australia and the year 1961, when Disney invites her to his studio, hoping he will finally get permission to film her novel after four decades of being rebuffed by the writer. She accepts his invitation because, by this time, sales of her book have dwindled, along with her finances.
Disney presents her with creative storyboards and upbeat songs by the gifted Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), sons of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who scored more films than any other musical team.
But despite Disney’s efforts, Travers is still unyielding. She relents only after he is able to relate to her on a deeper level and address the pain over her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), depicted as a loving, but irresponsible parent, given to drink and to tall tales, who served as the inspiration for the character of Mr. Banks, the father of the family that hires Mary Poppins as a nanny.
In the production notes, director John Lee Hancock explains what turns the tide for the relationship:
“He needs to find out more about her, who she is, and what her relationship with her father was, and that becomes the key. He realizes that they have a somewhat shared past in their relationships with their fathers. He must convince her that the idea of turning something dark or even tragic into something that has a message that lives on and saves you from that dark past is the stuff of storytellers. And that’s what they have in common.”
“Saving Mr. Banks” opens in select cities Dec. 13 and goes into wide release Dec. 20.
Finally, there is Ben Stiller’s remake of the 1947 hit film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which was based on a James Thurber short story about an inveterate daydreamer. Stiller directs and stars in the new version, taking on the role originally played by Danny Kaye.
The updated Walter Mitty is the photo editor of a magazine who escapes his humdrum existence by fantasizing about heroic deeds and steamy romances. But when his job and that of his secret crush are threatened, he is forced to action in the real world. Underlying the humor are issues arising from the explosion of new, often impersonal technologies that render many people’s way of life outmoded and irrelevant.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is scheduled for a Dec. 25 release.