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Jewish Journal

PBS Documents Faces of Courage During Holocaust Remembrance Week

by Tom Tugend

March 29, 2010 | 5:16 pm

Ellie Kendrick in the “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Photo ©Darlow Smithson Productions for MASTERPIECE

Ellie Kendrick in the “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Photo ©Darlow Smithson Productions for MASTERPIECE

The different faces of courage confronting overpowering tragedy is the over-riding theme in seven films to be shown on PBS station KCET during Holocaust Remembrance Week, April 10-14.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” celebrates the quiet courage that allowed one young girl to retain her humanity and high spirits in defiance of the Nazi occupation.

“The Diary” as a book, on stage and in classrooms or movies, has been presented — and sometimes misrepresented — in so many forms that Anne has been transformed into an icon. Some serious critics have complained that the 14-year-old girl has come to symbolize the entire Holocaust, rather than one aspect of the Shoah.

PBS’ Masterpiece Classics, drawing on last year’s BBC production with an all-British cast, airs the two-hour drama April 11, starting at 9 p.m., on KCET.

The story of the high-spirited Jewish girl in hiding from the Nazis for two years in a crowded Amsterdam attic, while at the same time facing the perils of adolescence and first love, is too familiar and revered to permit tampering, but a director can vary the relationships among the key characters.

Ellie Kendrick (one of the heroine’s young schoolmates in “An Education”) gives us an Anne with all her exuberance, as well as occasional orneriness and chutzpah, but the major surprise is Otto Frank, Anne’s father, as portrayed by Iain Glen.

In her intimate diary, Anne was not uncritical of her parents, and Otto has been frequently shown as unemotional and ineffective.

By contrast, in the current presentation, Otto is very much the central and dominating figure who keeps his extended family of eight from falling apart from sheer boredom and proximity during their two years in the attics.

It is also Otto who enforces a certain degree of normalcy in the most abnormal circumstances. The three adult men are invariably dressed in jacket and tie, and in the celebration of a joyous Chanukah in the attic, the actors seem to convince themselves and the viewers that all is (or soon will be) right with the world.

Another kind of courage is the focus of “Imagine This,” when the only weapon of defiance against the oppressor may be the price of one’s life.

The two-hour film, airing April 11 at 3:30 p.m., is the cinematic version of a critically acclaimed London stage musical and is arguably the most complex and startling of the week’s Holocaust-themed films on KCET.

It opens with a group of bourgeois Jewish families in Warsaw enjoying an outing at a merry-go-round, when Nazi dive bombers interrupt the idyll.

Next, crammed into a ghetto, Daniel (Peter Polycarpou), the leader of the Jewish inmates, decides to buck up their spirits by putting on a play.

The presence of a flourishing theater, and even an orchestra and library, most notably in the Lodz Ghetto, is historically correct and was dramatized in Joshua Sobol’s memorable “Ghetto.”

For his production, Peter chooses the last stand of the Jews against the Romans at Masada, with obvious similarities to the “actors’” present situation.

In parallel, the characters as ghetto inmates and Masada resisters are faced with the choice of surrender and defiance.

A predictable romance develops between Leila Benn Harris, Peter’s beautiful daughter, and Simon Gleeson, alternately an anti-Nazi resistance fighter and a Roman general.

Providing some sorely needed comedy relief is Michael Matus, who morphs from ghetto inmate Izzy to a Christian slave to the Roman general.

The genesis of “Imagine This” goes back more than 50 years ago, when Shuki Levy, then an 11-year-old sabra, first climbed Masada and heard the story of its defenders.

“It was a tremendous emotional experience, which I have never forgotten, and every time I visit Israel, I go back to Masada,” Levy said during an interview.

Some eight years ago, Levy, now a prolific and prominent composer, performer and producer, finally decided to write his interpretation of the Masada story.

In stages, he did a musical score, a collaborator added the Warsaw Ghetto aspect, and “Imagine This” premiered on the London stage two years ago. The production was partially underwritten through proceeds from Levy’s partnership with Haim Saban, which brought the Power Rangers to every household.

Levy hopes that the movie viewer will leave the theater with two messages: We must constantly oppose man’s inhumanity to man, and the courage of the Jewish people has prevailed throughout history.

The British production is headed by producer Beth Trachtenberg and director Timothy Sheader.

A third kind of courage, the physical bravery of the warrior, is extolled in “Blessed Is the Match,” which dramatizes the life of Hannah Senesh, a 22-year-old writer and poet, who left the safety of Palestine in 1944 to parachute behind Nazi lines in an attempt to rescue Hungarian Jews. She was caught, tortured and executed.

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