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The 11th Washington Jewish Film Festival: An Exhibition of International Cinema

To Dec. 10 at the Lincoln Theatre, the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater, the Cineplex Odeon Foundry, the Goethe-Institut, the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Auditorium, and Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge

In its previous 10 years, as the Washington Jewish Film Festival grew dramatically in size and quality, it took viewers both to expected places and to such far-flung locations as China, Africa, and Wales. To judge from the 11 films made available for preview, this year’s edition is the best yet, but it offers few surprises in clime, period, or theme. Most of the 11 are set in Europe in the turbulent times between the rise of Hitler and the death of Stalin—or in the shadow of that era. Interestingly, several of them are courtroom dramas of a sort, and communism proves the villain almost as often as Nazism.

Of the fiction features, the most powerful and accomplished is Disparus (Dec. 7 and 10), an account of a dead-serious historical sideshow: the battle between French Stalinists and Trotskyites after the latter’s leader fled the Soviet Union. Like many of the films in this year’s festival, director Gilles Bourdos’ tale takes the form of a mystery thriller. Living in Paris in 1989, Louise (Brigitte Catillon) wants to learn what happened to the father of her recently deceased lover. She inherited the father’s diary, which she uses to reconstruct the life of printer, poet, and Trotskyite Alfred Katz (The Dreamlife of Angels’ Grégoire Colin), who vanished in 1938: Attempting to balance political and artistic radicalism, Alfred works for his underground cell while seeking to impress such surrealist heroes as André Breton and Man Ray. In the process, he meets and marries the sexually freewheeling Mila (Anouk Grinberg), a nude model and sometime hooker. She entices him into a ménage à trois with her other lover, Félix (Xavier Beauvois), who happens to be a Stalinist. Alfred and Félix become both friends and enemies, debating the future of communism as Germany, a threat to both of them, prepares to overrun France. (The Nazis do play a role in the story, but it’s a minor one.) This rich and evocative film weaves its historical saga with a recent counterpoint, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, which Louise watches unfold on TV as she muses on the damage done by a previous—and now apparently irrelevant—generation of communists.

Although set entirely in the ’90s, Rosenzweig’s Freedom (Dec. 2, 3, and 6) is also haunted by the past. Michael and Jacob Rosenzweig are the sons of German Holocaust survivors—a legacy that has affected them quite differently: Michael (Christoph Gareissen) is an amiable ne’er-do-well who’s deeply dependent on his mother, although recently he’s found a Vietnamese girlfriend, Nhung; Jacob (Benjamin Sadler) is a prickly, successful lawyer who maintains a large private archive of information on neo-Nazi activities. One evening, terrorists firebomb the shelter where Nhung lives (and Michael is visiting). When a neo-Nazi leader is killed nearby the same night, Michael is accused of the crime, and Jacob becomes his brother’s defense attorney—until the prosecutor decides to make him a defendant, too. Like other German thrillers that turn on Holocaust and neo-Nazi themes, Liliane Targownik’s film ultimately seems too slight for the issues it raises, but it’s a taut thriller that chillingly depicts contemporary Germany’s far-right thugs.

If the German criminal-justice system as depicted in Rosenzweig’s Freedom seems remarkably casual and hasty, things get even woollier in director Roland Suso Richter’s After the Truth (Dec. 7). This time the defendant is no less than Dr. Josef Mengele, infamous for conducting barbaric—and scientifically useless—”experiments” on Auschwitz prisoners. In this (fictional, of course) scenario, Mengele decides that the time has come to return to Germany from Argentina and make a case for himself as a compassionate doctor who did his best under the circumstances. As his defense counsel, the “Angel of Death” chooses Peter Rohm (Kai Wiesinger), who has long been researching a book on Mengele. Rohm is not sympathetic to the infamous doctor, yet for some reason feels compelled to take the case, making himself a hero to neo-Nazis and straining his relationship with his wife. Although the film feints a we-are-all-guilty defense, the trial’s conclusion won’t upset any except outright Mengele apologists. What works politically fails dramatically, however. The film’s mood is effectively creepy, but Rohm’s first and last scenes with his notorious client are as unconvincingly contrived as anything in a John Grisham plot. (The original script was written by Americans Christopher and Kathleen Riley, who could find no interest in producing the movie on this side of the Atlantic.)

Two of the previewed documentaries are also courtroom tales. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (Dec. 3) tells the story of the long and frustrating campaign to free nine African-American teenagers falsely accused of rape on an Alabama freight train in 1931. Supported by communists and other leftists, crack New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz demolished the case against the nine during their second trial, only to discover that in Alabama any black men defended by Jews and communists were automatically deemed guilty. As Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker’s crisp retelling of this American disgrace reveals, the young men were eventually saved from execution, but the trial did more to advance the civil rights movement than it did to help the defendants.

Zuzana Justman’s A Trial in Prague (Dec. 6 and 8) is considerably more abstruse, documenting as it does one of the strangest political phenomena of the 20th century: the Stalinist show trial. In 1952, 14 leading Czech Communists were arrested for trumped-up crimes against the state and the Soviet Union, which used such arbitrary, scripted tribunals to consolidate power over the Eastern bloc nations. That 11 of the defendants were Jews showed how quickly Stalinism had regressed from anti-Nazism to familiar bigotries and repression. The interesting moments come largely from the recent testimony of survivors, mostly wives and children. The black-and-white footage is very limited, and the repeated use of the same tracking shots of moving cars—to evoke the ritualistic nature of the events, apparently—is less ominous than simply tiresome.

One of the few previewed films to escape the first half of the 20th century, The Brian Epstein Story (Dec. 3) nonetheless seems to depict a long-vanished world. This overlong but often fascinating documentary recounts the life of the Beatles’ manager, who died (in 1967) at a time when homosexuality was still a crime in Britain, when a closeted young man like Epstein could still employ a “colored manservant,” and when Jews could still be casually termed—in the words of a recently interviewed Paul McCartney, quoting his father—”good with money.” The son of a Liverpool appliance-store owner, Epstein went to drama school but ultimately returned to work in the family business, adding records to the shop’s stock of stereos, and soon discovered the tremendous appeal of a local band called the Beatles. Did Epstein go to the Cavern Club to check out this group or—as Marianne Faithfull claims—to look for rough trade? That’s one of the many questions that Anthony Wall’s film doesn’t really attempt to answer. The fundamental one is: Did Epstein create the Beatles phenomenon, or was he just in the right place at the right time? None of his other acts became worldwide stars, although a few did well in Britain. (However, when a burned-out Epstein tried to sell his management company, McCartney recalls, the Beatles told him they would keep him or have no manager at all.) Amid the passages from Epstein’s A Cellarful of Noise—read by Jude Law—and rare footage (including some of the Beatles’ U.S. debut at the Washington Coliseum), the most interesting revelation may be that Epstein modeled the demeanor of “the boys” on that of the ever-affable entertainer Anthony Newley.

A much stronger sense of personality emerges in Fighter (Dec. 9 and 10), in which Czech-Americans Jan Weiner and Arnost Lustig trace the former’s route from Prague, which he left in 1940, to London, where he enlisted in the RAF in 1943. Weiner is a friend of Lustig, an American University professor who survived Auschwitz, and the two bicker over matters profound—Weiner can’t accept Lustig’s justifications for having joined the Communist Party—and trivial. There is much sorrow along the route from Czechoslovakia to Slovenia to Italy, but also humor and verve. Weiner is a querulous traveling companion, but his crabbiness is an antidote

to despair.

Of the other fiction features, the most cunningly staged is Agnieszka Holland’s made-for-Polish-TV version of The Dybbuk (Dec. 2 and 3), a staple of Yiddish theater and cinema. The story is familiar: A bride is possessed by the spirit of her true love, who was denied her hand by her father. Shot in sound stages illuminated by golden light, the film is visually distinctive, and this version plays up an always relevant theme: the chasm that separates the rich and the poor.

Both Disparus and After the Truth feature pregnant protagonists who suggest the possibility of new life in the face of historical atrocities; in Divided We Fall (Dec. 10), the issue is that Marie (Anna Sisková) is not pregnant. The Czech woman’s husband, Josef (Boleslav Polívka), is sterile—which becomes a big problem when Marie falsely announces that she’s expecting. That wouldn’t be a political matter, except that the year is 1943 and Marie has concocted her tale of pregnancy to keep a Nazi official from moving into the couple’s apartment, whose pantry harbors a Jewish concentration-camp escapee, David (Csongor Kassai). Now the archly named Marie and Josef need an immaculate conception—or a sperm donation from their clandestine boarder. Like Life Is Beautiful, Jan Hrebejk’s film transplants farce conventions to an era that resists farce. The result isn’t exactly dishonest, but it does sometimes seem off-key.

The least compelling of the previewable fiction features is Voyages (Dec. 2 to 4), three linked episodes about older Jewish women in Poland, France, and Israel. Director Emmanuel Finkiel evokes the unanswered questions posed by people, families, and identities tattered by the Holocaust, but the three tales just don’t have the cumulative impact that’s intended.

Of the many shorts in the 45-film fest, the only one I saw was Sam Ball’s The Pleasures of Urban Decay (Dec. 9), an introduction to the work of Ben Katchor, a cartoonist whose work appears in this paper. Close-ups of comic-strip panels aren’t that interesting, but the fest’s screening should be somewhat enlivened by the appearance of both Katchor and Ball.

Of the unpreviewable films, the one that comes most highly recommended is Amos Gitai’s Kippur (Dec. 4 and 10), an autobiographical account of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Other likely highlights include The Life of the Jews in Palestine (Dec. 10), a long-lost 1913 film designed to draw Eastern European Jews to the promised land; The Maelstrom (Dec. 3 and 5), an experimental reconstruction of home movies shot by a Dutch Jewish family from 1938 to 1942; and The Specialist (Dec. 5), a controversial Israeli documentary based on footage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial. That may be one too many courtroom chronicles, but if it’s as good as the best of the previewed films, it’s well worth investigating.

As artful as it is candidly self-revelatory, Léa Pool’s semi-autobiographical Set Me Free had its local debut at last year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival, yet it offers only a distant glimpse at the big geopolitical issues typical of this year’s entries. Living in Montreal in 1963, 13-year-old Hanna (the perfectly pitched Karine Vanasse) is the sensitive, confused daughter of a domineering unemployed poet (Miki Manojlovic), a Polish Jewish refugee haunted by his never-recounted Holocaust experiences. Adrift in Canada—where Pool has lived for more than 20 years, although she spent her childhood in Switzerland—the unnamed father writes poetry, plays chess for pocket money, and lives for words from home he catches on the radio and in the newspaper.

All other adult responsibilities in the household fall to Hanna’s long-suffering mother (Pascale Bussières), a Catholic who supports the family as a seamstress and at night types the manuscripts of her sometimes tender but increasingly abusive husband. Hanna is fiercely attached to her mother, but she—flustered by her newfound sexuality—also develops powerful crushes on several other women. She worships her empathetic teacher (Nancy Huston), experiments with kissing her new friend Laura (Charlotte Christeler), and is a regular at the cinema showing Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live, whose star—Anna Karina, Godard’s own early-’60s muse—becomes her inspiration. Karina’s Nana is an appropriately tormented—if impossibly cool—role model for a 13-year-old girl; she’s also an emissary from sophisticated Europe, which is experiencing a cinematic revolution that seems Hanna’s one possible escape from her home life.

Set Me Free is more subtly drawn than most ’60s coming-of-age flicks, and—given the familiar terrain—is remarkably fresh. One reason for this is that Pool’s film is more than a tale of adolescent perplexity—it’s also about finding a vocation. The intercutting of material from My Life to Live creates a vibrant visual dialogue between Hanna and her model, and by the film’s end, Hanna has started to make movies. Entranced by Karina, she’s going to become another Godard. CP