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An almost-silent semi-comedy set in a seemingly ancient Austria, The Inheritors has both a dreamlike atmosphere and a robust urgency. On one level, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film is a Marxist critique of the Heimatfilm—the “homeland film” long popular in Germanic countries and associated with the Nazi obsession with “blood and soil”—but it’s also a lark, a tale of how much fun it can be to wake up one morning to discover that the wicked witch is dead.

The authority figure who dissolves in this scenario is Hillinger, who turns up dead one morning in the yard outside his house. Hillinger’s nine peasants and their foreman (Tilo Pruckner) expect the local gentry to decide their fate, but the dead farmer has left a ticking bomb in the form of his will, which he has specified must be read publicly. The document is a litany of insults, but its principal affront is that it leaves the farm to Hillinger’s peasants. The foreman can’t fathom this turn of events, and he proceeds to make a deal with neighboring farmer Danniger (Ulrich Wildgruber) to buy the property. Proto-feminist young peasant Emmy (Sophie Rois) rejects this plan, and when her sometime lover Lukas (Simon Schwarz) joins in the rebellion, a majority of the peasants support them. Ultimately, seven of them decide to stay. (The film’s German title literally translates as “The One-Seventh Farmers.”)

While Danniger and the foreman conspire to seize the land, Lukas, Emmy, and the rest discover the difficulties and satisfactions of a family business. “Now everything is so complicated,” the illiterate, childlike Lukas complains, not realizing just how many revelations are yet in store about the dead farmer, the peasants, and Lukas’ own background. (He was a foundling, but in an insular society like this, his parents can’t be far away.) Ultimately, the former peasants’ modest uprising becomes a threat to both the other farmers and the church—the current social order is the “will of God,” Danniger harrumphs—and a brutal counterrevolutionary crackdown becomes inevitable.

In preparing a socioeconomic critique that doesn’t exactly glamorize Lukas and his cohorts, writer-director Ruzowitzky’s film suggests the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which at its most complex mingled compassion and mockery. (Like the hapless characters Fassbinder himself sometimes played, Lukas is literally a punching bag for the ruling class.) Ruzowitzky has left such models behind, however, in crafting The Inheritors’ sense of gentle wonderment. Scored to delicate Erik Satie piano sketches, the movie features such unexpected moments as a scene in which a traveler arrives and asks if he and his elephant can spend the night. “We didn’t think of it as an unusually unusual thing,” notes narrator Severin (Lars Rudolph), whose offhand commentary the director modeled on that in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

Given its enchanted sequences, those scenes revealing that the film is set in the 20th century come as a shock. Ruzowitzky’s only previous feature, Tempo, was a contemporary youth-culture picture about a bike messenger who spends his down time at techno clubs; this one is set in a much more mysterious time and place. The peasants’ original circumstances are feudal, yet once they become free, they must face such contemporary problems as—in one hilarious bit—leisure time. The Inheritors finds itself at the cusp of the medieval and the modern, and it’s hard to say which looks more perilous.

The Washington Jewish Film Festival has grown to be one of the largest such fests in the world, and this year, more films than ever before were made available for preview: 11 of the 33 features, documentaries, and shorts. The 1998 selection is not as geographically wide-ranging as last year’s—most of the films are set in Europe or Israel—but it offers a wealth of modes and moods. Although many of the films concern the Holocaust and its aftermath, there are also romantic comedies, studies of music in Jewish culture, and several movies about that perennial film-festival concern: filmmaking.

God uses a manual Hebrew typewriter in Let There Be Light (Dec. 12 at 9 p.m.; Dec. 13 at 1:45 p.m.), French director Arthur Joffe’s comedy about the supreme being’s attempt to deal with Earth’s new demigods: movie producers. After finally finishing his sequel to the Bible in the form of a film script, God (the voice of Pierre Arditi, taking the form of various earthlings) descends to earth in search of a production deal. Quickly abandoning Hollywood, he heads to Paris, where he decides that low-level technician Jeanne (Hélè#ne #de Fougerolles) will direct his opus. God sees the spirited young woman as Jeanne d’Arc reborn, while her enemy is a producer with an “Anglo-Saxon” name: Harper (Tcheky Karyo), who is of course the devil (complete with a skyscraper aerie worthy of Al Pacino’s in Devil’s Advocate, an impossibility in height-limited Paris). The film (co-written by Joffe) doesn’t reward close theological or narrative scrutiny—after all the haggling over the script, the movie Jeanne finally shoots is apparently improvised—but it benefits from amusing asides, movie-insider gags, and winning performances.

In director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s Man Is a Woman (Dec. 10 at 8:45 p.m.), Parisian musician Simon (Antoine de Caunes) meets Rosalie (Elsa Zylberstein) at a wedding, where Simon declares his love for the groom, his cousin David. Rosalie is a singer of traditional Yiddish tunes who was raised Orthodox in New York, and Simon is a secular Jew; the two have little in common except music and the fact that they’re both attracted to straight men. When Simon’s uncle offers him a substantial bribe to marry and continue the family line, however, the young man decides to marry Rosalie. Despite the opposition of Rosalie’s strict father, the wedding proceeds, and everyone seems pleased. But Zilbermann (who previously directed Zylberstein in Not Everyone Was Lucky Enough to Have Had Communist Parents) doesn’t pretend that happily-ever-after is a real possibility. A hit in France, the film is engaging, if a bit glib.

Based on Uri Orlev’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Island on Bird Street (Dec. 6 at 2:45 p.m.; Dec. 7 at 6:30 p.m.) is the story of an 11-year-old Pole who survives alone after the Nazis clear the Jewish ghetto where he lives with his father and uncle. Alex (Jordan Kiziuk) has a literary companion for this ordeal, a copy of Robinson Crusoe, and sometimes Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s English-

language film does seem a little too much the Victorian boy’s adventure tale: Alex has a pet white rat, Snow, and benefits from numerous miraculous meetings and exceptionally close calls of the sort that characterize 19th-century serial fiction. This is a well-constructed after-school-special sort of drama, but it seems too tidy to reflect authentically the chaos and horror of the Holocaust.

Contrived melodrama ultimately trumps drama, romance, and black comedy in Dutch director Rudolph van den Berg’s For My Baby (Dec. 7 at 8:45 p.m.). Although born after the war, Viennese comedian Daniel (Alan Cumming) lives out the Holocaust horrors experienced by his parents (who survived) and his sister (who didn’t). “Just say no to procreation,” he cracks in his act, counseling people not to pass their traumatic histories on to succeeding generations. Daniel changes his mind, however, when he meets Lilian (Juliet Aubrey), an aspiring American opera singer. Meanwhile, a Nazi-tracking friend of Daniel’s father has discovered that a German war criminal who was presumed dead has returned to Vienna under an assumed name. This all comes together in the overschematic English-language script (written by the director and Michael O’Loughlin), which provides the central characters more neatly interlocking baggage than the movie can possibly bear. Still, Gabor Szabo’s moody, kinetic cinematography and Cumming’s raw-nerve performance give the film a distinctive edge.

The least of the previewed fiction features is the opening-night offering, Pick a Card (Dec. 5 at 6:30 and 9 p.m.), a grating romantic comedy. The fiction debut of Israeli documentarian Julie Shles, the film recounts the troubled relationship of Batya (Esti Zackheim), who works as a Tel Aviv checkout clerk, and David (Zvika Hadar), who has abandoned his job as a mechanic because he aspires to be a magician. Narratively, the problem is that David has no skills as a conjurer; conceptually, the problem is that David has no appeal as a character. Employing harsh lighting, a neon-hued palette, and hand-held camera, Shles portrays an Israel that’s multi-culti (bit players include a recent-immigrant Ukrainian hooker and an African transvestite) and secular (David playfully shocks an Orthodox youngster by telling him that God is an Arab). The interesting cultural details, however, are overpowered by the dull Batya and the dislikable David.

The British Army long resisted establishing a Palestinian unit during World War II, and the one it finally activated arrived in northern Italy only two months before Germany surrendered. But according to In Our Own Hands: The Hidden Story of the Jewish Brigade in World War II (Dec. 6 at 12:15 p.m.), what came next is more important: After the war, the brigade members smuggled Jewish refugees in the direction of Palestine and trained them to fight for Israel’s independence. Chuck Olin’s documentary tells a fascinating, little-known story, but it would have benefited from some outside and perhaps even skeptical commentary; all the talking heads are former brigade members or officers—which gives the film a self-congratulatory tone.

A Jewish Soviet news photographer who managed to survive numerous pogroms and purges is the subject of Evgueni Khaldei, Photographer Under Stalin (Dec. 7 at 1 p.m.). Although Khaldei never actually toiled directly for Stalin, he did work long stints at Tass and Pravda, and made many emblematic images—including one of the Soviet flag being unfurled atop the Reichstag in 1945—a photo, he explains, that was as staged as its Iwo Jima counterpart. Khaldei was wounded in a pogrom as an infant and fired during the 1948 “campaign against cosmopolitanism,” but director Marc-Henri Wajnberg can’t quite decide if his film is about the photographer’s life or work. The result is informative but somewhat disorganized.

While most of Europe was engaged in war, Hungarian musician and shop owner Gyorgy Peto made home movies of his family, friends, and—after Hungary’s “Jewish law” was instituted—his fellow workers in the Jewish Labor Squad. Director Peter Forgacs uses that footage as the basis of his study of Hungary in the ’30s and ’40s, Free Fall (Dec. 6 at 7:15 p.m.; Dec. 7 at 3:15 p.m.). Using voice-over, tinting, and superimpositions, Forgacs contrasts the Peto’s everyday life with the political upheaval about to engulf them. The effect is poignant, if a little soft-edged for the subject.

Claire Alby and Gerald Calliat’s Opera and the Third Reich (Dec. 10 at 6:30 p.m.) seems a missed opportunity, mostly because the directors, being French, called on French experts to discuss the Nazi enthusiasm for Wagnerian pomp. Rather than make historical, aesthetic, or ideological connections between Wagner and Hitler, they blather in the sort of self-reflexive language that’s made French semiotics an academic laughingstock. Most memorable nonsense: One “scholar” tries to explain how European Jews exist in “the gap between word and action.” Then Hans Jürgen Syberberg (the brilliant director of Hitler: A Film From Germany) appears, and it’s a relief to hear someone finally speaking in English—even if it is translated German.

Human Remains (shown with Opera and the Third Reich) dwells on the banality of evil. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao speak from beyond the grave, discussing such mundane subjects as their favorite food and drink, romantic disappointments, sleep habits, pets, and lack of testicles. (The five dictators had a total of eight among them.) In this context, poor hygiene becomes more significant than genocide—and in that regard, Mao is the clear standout.

Claudia Heuermann’s Sabbath in Paradise (Dec. 12 at 11:15 p.m.) is an arty documentary that intersperses an examination of New York’s neo-klezmer scene with the tale of a Jewish traveler (black-and-white footage narrated by jazz buff and autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar). The music ranges from traditional to experimental, notably when John Zorn’s Masada incorporates elements of free jazz, no-wave punk, and minimalist drone. The result is haphazard and fragmented, although not without moments of interest. Zorn may be the biggest name here, but the most engaging interviewee is guitarist Marc Ribot.

Among the most promising films not available for preview are The Harmonists, an account of the “decadent” German musical troupe banned by the Nazis, made by Stalingrad and Brother of Sleep director Joseph Vilsmaier (Dec. 12 at 5:45 p.m.; Dec. 13 at 8 p.m.); A Fish in the Bathtub, a marital-crisis comedy starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara and directed by Hester Street’s Joan Micklin Silver (Dec. 8 at 6:30 p.m.; Dec. 9 at 1 p.m.); Treyf, in which two Jewish lesbians fall in love at a Passover seder (Dec. 9 at 6:30 p.m.); and Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream, a documentary based on the thesis of Neal Gabler’s book, An Empire of Their Own, which suggests that Jewish Hollywood moguls helped craft the American pluralist ideal (Dec. 8 at 1 p.m.; Dec. 9 at 9 p.m.).CP