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The Washington Jewish Film Festival

Dec. 7-15 at the American Film Institute; Dec. 8 at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry

Two decidedly unsolemn views of Hitler and the Holocaust are the highlights of this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival. Michael Verhoeven’s My Mother’s Courage and Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Conversation With the Beast portray an unusual pair of survivors: the mother of Hungarian writer George Tabori, who was almost deported to Auschwitz in 1944, and Adolf Hitler, who survives today in a Berlin bunker at age 103.

You’d expect it of the latter, of course, but both films take an absurdist view of the cataclysm that followed the Nazi rise to power. Rather than emphasize the overwhelming carnage, they focus on small, human—and often capricious—sidelights. Both lampoon the Nazi ideal yet offer glimmers of the terror that this ridiculous yet savage gang inflicted.

Narrated by Tabori, who appears on screen occasionally, My Mother’s Courage (Dec. 7, 7 p.m., introduced by Michael Verhoeven; Dec. 12, 8:45 p.m.) combines a personal anecdote with symbolic, theatrical sequences that suggest the work of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg (Hitler: A Film From Germany). One day, Tabori’s mother Elsa (Pauline Collins) is arrested by two old, sickly Hungarian fascists; convinced she has nothing to fear because she’s done nothing wrong, she cooperates with her captors, even waiting for them after they miss a trolley car she’s boarded. Herded into a train for a mysterious journey, she tries to comfort a young gentile woman, Maria (Natalie Morse), who’s just been raped and has just seen her Jewish friend murdered by fascists. Eventually, Elsa is persuaded to appeal to the SS officer in charge of the operation, a curiously detached man; perhaps simply to demonstrate his authority, he decrees that Elsa and Maria can return to Budapest.

Originally shot in English but subsequently (and successfully) dubbed into German, My Mother’s Courage is both less cohesive and less convincing than Verhoeven’s previous films on related themes, The White Rose and The Nasty Girl. While Elsa’s plight is played straight, it’s framed by slapstick conceptions of the Nazis and their bumbling Hungarian allies. At one point, a train full of German industrialists and their whores arrives, and these grotesques intentionally resemble George Grosz caricatures. Verhoeven also adds a bit of Syberbergian propaganda/context by decorating this train with the logos of Bayer, BASF, and I.G. Farben, German industrial giants that benefited directly from the Holocaust. All these devices overwhelm the story at the film’s center, but they do make Verhoeven’s point that this is not a quaint, historical footnote: At the film’s end, Elsa leaves the train that brought her back to Budapest from certain death and walks into the streets of contemporary Berlin.

Even more problematic is Conversation With the Beast (Dec. 8, noon, introduced by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Foundry; Dec. 10, 9 p.m.), which was directed and co-written by its star, Mueller-Stahl. Basically a series of interviews between an American historian, Arnold Webster (Bob Balaban), and a man who claims to be Hitler (Mueller-Stahl), this also has elements of the theatrical, the fantastic, and the absurd. The putative Hitler is a doddering crank, yet a man whose “magic” remains so strong that it can keep his wife Hortense (Katharina Bohm) as young and beautiful as she was when he married her just after the war.

This Hitler is a comic remnant of the historical monster. “I love bunkers. I was crazy about bunkers,” he tells Webster; later, when Hortense catches her husband causing a small conflagration, she remonstrates him for “burning books again. That’s childish.” The theme is that Hitler lives, even if this particular character might actually be one of the ex-dictator’s doubles; “my enemies won’t let me die,” protests Hitler as he tries vainly to arrange an appearance on CNN.

Like My Mother’s Courage, Conversation With the Beast draws on the slapstick portrayals of the Fuhrer; in one flashback, Hitler auditions to play himself in a film, only to be told he should emulate Charlie Chaplin’s portrayal. Ultimately, this approach risks trivializing Hitler and his deeds. When the final scene takes the issue of retribution seriously, it seems less a culmination of the film’s themes than simply a device to escape from a premise whose audacity never quite paid off.

The visit of an Italian water-polo team further disrupts life at an economically foundering kibbutz in The Italians Are Coming (Dec. 7, 9:30 p.m.; Dec. 8, 4:30 p.m., Foundry), the feature debut by Israeli director Eyal Halfon. As in Cup Final, which Halfon wrote, sports is the universal language in this drama, which reunites two aging water-polo stars, Amos (Asher Tsarfati) and Luigi (Franco Nero). Where Amos is bitter about the course of his life, the fate of the kibbutz, and the possible disbanding of the team he coaches, Luigi is concerned only that the kibbutz will abandon its philosophy, which he sees (from the haven of upscale Rome) as ideal. Water polo, Luigi instructs the kibbutz members, is the perfect sport because “it’s all about teamwork.” When the climactic match inevitably arrives, however, the emphasis is on a redemptive star turn. Even socialist ideals, apparently, can’t subvert the implacable workings of the sports-movie genre.

A shotgun marriage of documentary and MTV, September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill (Dec. 14, 9 p.m.) mixes documentary clips (mostly audio) with a series of performances of songs written or co-written by Weill. Larry Weinstein’s slick Canadian-German coproduction draws on the Hal Willner-produced 1985 tribute album, Lost in the Stars, although most of the original performers are not on hand. Lou Reed (with ex-Urban Verb Danny Frankel on drums) still does “September Song,” but PJ Harvey has replaced Marianne Faithfull for “Ballad of a Soldier’s Wife,” and Nick Cave has wrested “Mack the Knife” from Sting. Some of the performance clips are interesting, but the film could have used more historical context (and less break dancing).

Also made available for preview were three hourlong documentaries from Israel, Compromise (Dec. 15, 3:30 p.m.), The House Where the Cockroaches Live to a Ripe Old Age (Dec. 12, 3 & 6 p.m.), and You, Me, Jerusalem (shown with Compromise). The former, director Anat Even’s account of an Israeli/Palestinian staging of Romeo and Juliet, is well meaning but has considerably less juice than Baz Luhrmann’s current Latino-gang fantasia. The second, an account of egocentric Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk, is named for one of the many Kaniuk books that have not been translated into English. The often cantankerous author gets off a few good lines—he insists that there should be no purebred dogs in Israel, a country “that survived the race theory”—but this portrait will probably appeal principally to viewers who already know his writing.

More sweeping is You, Me, Jerusalem, co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian, Micha X. Peled and George Khleifi. Using Jerusalem’s ethnically integrated ambulance service as their vehicle, the filmmakers explore both sides of the divide, concentrating on ordinary people and issues. (Most of the film’s subjects are either ambulance workers and doctors or their relatives.) This study would have benefited from a stronger framework, but it does offer a rare glimpse at the everyday life behind the clashing ideologies of contemporary Jerusalem.

Of the films that were not previewable, the most promising would seem to be The Jew (Dec. 8, 6:45 p.m. Foundry), an account of the life of successful 18th-century Portuguese writer Antonio da Silva, who was burned at the stake for being Jewish despite officially being a convert to Christianity, Long Is the Road (Dec. 10, 6:30 p.m.), a recently restored 1947 film that is the first Jewish cinematic treatment of the Holocaust, and The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story (Dec. 15, 8:30 p.m.), a rendering of the 93-year-old caricaturist who remains a New York Times mainstay. All screenings are at the American Film Institute, unless otherwise noted.

Writer/director Christopher Hampton opens his adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent with a prefatory note that hints that Victorian London, bustling with subterranean malcontents, was not unlike its contemporary equivalent. Perhaps so, but his film fails to make the case. Though it did serve as inspiration to both Hitchcock (for his 1936 Sabotage) and Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczyncki, The Secret Agent is minor—and dated—Conrad, and commissioning a Philip Glass Romantic/minimalist score is not sufficient to make it relevant.

That’s a disappointment, but not a surprise. Enlivened by the performances of Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson, Hampton’s directorial debut, Carrington, was unexpectedly pungent. As a screenwriter, however, he’s been responsible for such mannered literary botches as Dangerous Liaisons, Total Eclipse, and Mary Reilly. (To his credit, he also wrote the powerful The Good Father.) His Secret Agent continues the trend toward art-house films hallowed only by their provenance in 19th-century British novels.

The agent of the film’s title is Verloc, played by the overly amiable Bob Hoskins, who co-produced and was initially slated to direct; he’s the host of an anarchist’s circle that meets at his Soho stationery/ pornography shop. (That Verloc is a porn merchant is one of Conrad’s sardonic details that Hampton almost entirely misplaces.) Anarchy, writing paper, and risque publications are inadequate to support Verloc and his family, which consists of his young wife Winnie (Patricia Arquette), her mildly retarded little brother Stevie (Christian Bale), and her mother (Elizabeth Spriggs). Therefore Verloc supplements his income by submitting regular reports on the comments and potential activities of his revolutionary friends to a foreign diplomat. (That official’s base, unnamed in the book, becomes the Russian embassy in the film.)

This arrangement is about to unsettle the personal and domestic serenity of Verloc, who is summoned to the embassy by the imperious, newly assigned Vladimir (British comedian Eddie Izzard in an amusingly flamboyant performance). The agent is informed that the intelligence he provides is worthless, and that to maintain his stipend he must choreograph a “series of outrages” that will convince the British government to crack down on ideological troublemakers. Citing the current reverence for science, Vladimir commands Verloc to detonate a bomb at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. (This part of Conrad’s plot is derived from an actual 1894 incident.) Verloc is quite unprepared for this assignment, but feels he has little choice but to do Vladimir’s bidding. Since he’s not a real revolutionary, he has no colleagues he can enlist to help. He can imagine only one accomplice: the impressionable, uncomprehending Stevie.

When the bomb plot goes wrong, Verloc’s role is quickly deduced by Chief Inspector Heat (Jim Broadbent), and both Heat and his skeptical superior (Julian Wadham) pay the Soho shop a visit. Winnie soon learns that her husband, who she married mostly to provide a home for her beloved brother, has enlisted Stevie in a dangerous action well beyond his comprehension. Here the plot veers from satire into melodrama, as the Verlocs’ marriage is permanently sundered and Winnie turns to one of the revolutionary circle, the womanizing Ossipon (Gerard Depardieu), to help her flee Britain. Like most of the tale’s anarchists, however, Ossipon is revealed not to be an especially stalwart fellow.

The movie’s one exceptional zealot is the bomb-wearing Professor, a man dedicated to “the destruction of what is” and thus the free distribution of explosives to anyone prepared to blow something up. Played by Robin Williams (listed in the credits as “George Spelvin”), the Professor is a creature from another film, one that’s both darker and funnier. The customarily overeager Williams is not known for his willingness to be uningratiating, but he gives the Professor’s crazed nihilism a refreshingly nasty edge. He’s the only one of the movie’s array of killers, bullies, and phonies who’s not trying to be cuddly.

Exaggerating Conrad’s time-shifting chronology, Hampton has made The Secret Agent a patchwork of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Like the lushly ridiculous The English Patient, the film attempts to make something out of not much through elaborate jumps, withholding information at first only to overplay it later. Hampton’s frequent flashbacks to the Greenwich explosion, which add details that hardly needed filling in, prove just as tiresomely blatant as The English Patient’s repeated returns to its airplane crash and aftermath. In the process, the director even loses the novel’s sensationalistic climax, which he’s forced to recapitulate as a newspaper headline lest the audience miss this concluding incident altogether.

Though Conrad’s story is not a laugh riot by Hollywood standards, it does mock the nihilist impulse that once seemed such a threat to civilization. (Subsequent events, of course, have shown nationalism to be a much more cataclysmic force.) Yet as soon as a cast is outfitted in bowlers and corsets and deployed in the faux-grimy London back streets and simulated fog and mist of Ealing Studios, Victorianism seems to grip its soul. The principal, and surely unintentional, jest of Hampton’s The Secret Agent is the embalming of Conrad’s sarcasm in the earnest deference of the contemporary lit-flick.