In little more than a year, the Holocaust comedy has proceeded from aberration to trend, but that doesn’t mean that such films have achieved immunity in numbers. There remains something fundamentally objectionable about turning genocide into entertainment, even if the moral is meant to be profound. Still, if you’re only going to see one Holocaust laugh-fest, Train of Life is certainly the richest of the three recent examples. In part because it isn’t a star vehicle, the movie has more nuance and texture, although these qualities are sometimes in conflict with writer-director Radu Mihaileanu’s reliance on gags gleaned from shopworn vaudeville routines.
Although Mihaileanu shares Life Is Beautiful director-star Roberto Benigni’s penchant for broad physical humor, Train of Life’s fundamental scheme is more akin to Jakob the Liar’s. In both films, a man of marginal importance in a threatened Jewish community—a Nazi-run Polish ghetto in Jakob, an Eastern European shtetl in Train—becomes central to his neighbors’ survival when he stumbles upon unexpected knowledge. Train begins when village idiot Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski) brings the news that the Nazis are not merely relocating but actually exterminating Jews, advance warning that gives the residents time to plan a response. Shlomo’s idea is bold, if improbable: They will acquire a train, dress some of the villagers as German soldiers, and pretend to be a Nazi transport to a concentration camp. Rather than heading to Poland, however, they will make their way to the Soviet Union and from there somehow to Palestine. The logistics of this trek are vague, especially because Mihaileanu—a Romanian exile who lives in France—never locates the village in a specific country or region.
Buying and refurbishing a locomotive and several cars prove to be remarkably easy, as does making a set of Nazi uniforms to be worn by the villagers who speak German best. Instead, the villagers’ principal problems are psychological and political. Once the trip begins, tension builds between the mock-Germans and their mock-prisoners. Even more disruptive, however, is the split between the Zionists and the Marxists, which is played entirely for grins. If the film has a theological position, it’s expressed by Shlomo, who claims that man created God. As for politics, Mihaileanu apparently considers both Nazis and commies quite silly. He’s more interested in primal life forces like village beauty Esther (Agathe de la Fontaine), whose shifting erotic allegiances dismay her various suitors as well as her father. (Lest anyone doubt Esther’s charms, the director first presents her in the women’s bathhouse, sans towel.)
When not lampooning the great ideological forces of mid-20th-century Europe, Mihaileanu reaches for moldy schtick: The untrained engineer accidentally puts the train in reverse because he’s holding the instruction manual upside down; a group of partisans who try to blow up the train, thinking it an actual German transport, are hobbled by a radio code that’s basically Abbott and Costello’s Who’s-on-first routine. The movie’s slapstick sensibility sometimes seems pre-talkie, and the energetic, klezmer-heavy score suggests that it aspires to be a musical. Certainly Goran Bregovic’s music is more reliable than the often incongruous dialogue, which renders both Yiddish and German as French. This arrangement is particularly awkward when one of the villagers extols Yiddish as being German with a sense of humor.
That antic Jewish wit can conquer anything is the message of both Train of Life and Jakob the Liar. Of the two, Mihaileanu’s film features less sentimentality and more buffoonery, although its tone is buffeted by such solemn moments as the Nazis’ burning of the deserted shtetl’s synagogue. Such scenes are required of a Holocaust film, however, as is an ending that is—if not horrific—at least unsettling. Here, too, Train and Jakob almost intersect: The former inverts the latter’s final development. Mihaileanu’s variation is a little harsher, but in the shadow of Auschwitz, neither film’s ironic twist seems sufficient.
Haile Gerima’s 1994 Sankofa was a fiction feature, and his new Adwa: An African Victory! is a documentary, yet they’re of a piece. In both films, the Ethiopian-born Washington filmmaker seeks to reconstitute history as myth, providing Africans and African-Americans with the sort of heroic cultural grounding that Europeans and European-Americans take for granted. But whereas Sankofa’s impressionistic visuals were sometimes overripe, Adwa treads similar ground more persuasively.
The crux of the film is an account of the 1896 battle at which Italian colonial soldiers were unexpectedly defeated by a larger but poorly armed Ethiopian army. As Gerima’s narration explains, Adwa was not the only time that African forces won a battle against Europeans, but it was the first time they won a war. As a result of the clash, the Italians accepted Emperor Menelik II’s sovereignty over Ethiopia and withdrew their troops. (They would return 40 years later—a subject Gerima promises to address in a sequel.)
There is no footage of the battle at Adwa, of course, so Gerima makes do with maps, portraits, drawings, and paintings. He uses familiar documentary techniques to bring them to life—tracking across the images, shaking the camera to suggest violent motion, and adding combat noises and flashes of light to evoke gunfire and explosions. This part of the documentary resembles a National Park Service orientation for a Civil War battlefield, although those films tend to run substantially shorter than the 95-minute Adwa.
Yet Gerima’s instincts are anything but strictly historical. Adwa opens not with a simple recounting of the events leading to the battle but with a jazzy score, the cryptic comments of an off-screen seer, tracking shots of the broad African sky and a massive tree, and a poetic telling of the legend of St. George and the dragon. (George is the patron saint of England, but by many accounts his battle with the dragon took place in Libya, another African country that was for a time under Italian control.) The director stresses the folkloric, so he’s just as interested in the songs of children and the words of village elders as in the considered opinions of historians. Indeed, he treats all the film’s voices as fragments of a national consciousness, not identifying the talking heads by name or credentials.
This is not how conventional “objective” documentaries are made, but Adwa is no such thing. While Gerima takes his camera to Rome to film monuments to the Italian soldiers who fought in Ethiopia, he doesn’t ask any Italians for their comments. His concern is the symbolism of Adwa, which encouraged thoughts of revolution throughout colonized Africa and the African diaspora, inspiring Marcus Garvey, the creation of resistance churches (tellingly called “Ethiopian”) in South Africa, and, later, Rastafarianism. No wonder he presents the battle as a mythic event.
Still, treating history as fable poses fewer complications when the historical episode is better known than the battle of Adwa. Gerima’s film barely begins to explain the influence of Adwa, Italy’s amnesia about its colonial past, and Ethiopia’s singular place in Africa. (As one of the first outposts of Christianity, the country has traditionally identified more with the Middle East and Europe than with its own neighbors.) Perhaps Adwa: An African Victory! requires not one sequel but several. CP