As “X-Men: First Class” continues to glean first class reviews, it’s worth noting that the mutant saga is perhaps the most Jewish superhero film to grace the silver screen: which makes sense considering the movie marks the return of producer Bryan Singer to the franchise. (He directed the first two “X-Men” films, but not this time. Now he gets a writing credit.) As a gay and Jewish filmmaker, his work has long reflected his own outsider-group status.
The Marvel Comics saga depicts the origins of the rivalry between telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender)—who can manipulate magnetic fields—from their very different childhoods in the 1940s. While Xavier grows up privileged, Erik spends his boyhood in the Warsaw ghetto and, ultimately, is tortured by a sadistic doctor in a concentration camp. As the adult Lensherr tracks down that physician—who now has Armageddon on his mind—the movie becomes the best Holocaust revenge fantasy since Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Here are some of the movie’s top Jewish moments, which chronicle Erik’s journey from tortured child to his transformation into the villainous Magneto. [SPOILER ALERT]
1. As the film opens in 1944 Poland, Erik and his parents are herded in the mud and rain to the gates of a concentration camp, where the boy is forcibly separated from his family. When the gates of the camp slam shut, Erik is restrained by guards who are shocked when his screams and gestures actually bend and twist the iron gates to the compound. As the guards finally wrestle him to the ground, the camera zooms in on Erik’s yellow Star of David—a branding that will follow him for the rest of his life.
2. In an office gleaming with knives and other instruments of medical torture, the concentration camp’s sadistic doctor, Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), orders Erik to demonstrate his telekinetic talents on a Reich coin adorned with a swastika. “Blue eyes, blond hair, pathetic,” the doctor tells the boy of the Nazi’s genetic goals. Schmidt is far more interested in mutant powers. “Genes are the key that unlocks the door to a new age…a new future for mankind, evolution,” he tells the terrified boy. “A little coin is nothing compared to a compound gate,” he adds, encouragingly, referring to the gate incident. But when Erik cannot move the coin via brain-power, Herr doctor changes his tactics. Reflecting that while the Nazis don’t always have the greatest ideas, their methods seem to produce results, he gives the boy an ultimatum. Unless Erik can move the coin by the count of three, he will shoot Erik’s mother, who is brought into the room for the occasion. It’s only after the shot rings out that the enraged Erik practically destroys the office with his anger-induced magnetism. Dr. Schmidt is pleased. “So we unlock your gift with anger; anger and pain,” he says. “We’re going to have a lot of fun together.”
3. It’s Geneva, Switzerland, in 1962. While extracting information about Schmidt’s whereabouts from a smug Swiss banker, Erik makes his point by also extracting (via magnetism) one of the man’s tooth fillings. “This gold is what remains of my people,” he says of the bank money.
4. More ironic mayhem awaits German expatriates in a bar in Argentina who resist Lensherr’s questions about Schmidt. “Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s Monster,” he tells them. “I’m looking for my creator.”
5. As Xavier helps Erik unleash his powers without the use of anger, Xavier (via telepathy) unearths a tender memory from the Holocaust survivor’s brain: Lighting the chanukiah with his deceased mother. “I accessed the brightest corner of your memory,” he tells the baffled Erik, adding that there is so much more to the survivor than pain and anger. To discover his full powers, Erik must “find the point between rage and serenity.”
6. At a crucial moment before Erik’s transformation into the evil Magneto— and in one of the most powerful sequences in the film—human soldiers attacking the mutants were “just following orders,” a fellow mutant tells Lensherr. It’s not exactly the best thing to say to a man who has survived a concentration camp. “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders,” Erik replies. “Never again.”
The film opens on June 3. For another point of view about the movie, check out Geek Heeb.