The Washington Jewish Film Festival

Dec. 2-10 at the Biograph Theater

This year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival, the sixth, travels from Latin America to North Africa to, of course, Eastern Europe, and mixes documentary with drama and comedy. The most striking of the films, though, are all fictional (if often semi-autobiographical) and all set in the ’50s. Genghis Cohn, Not Everyone Is Lucky Enough to Have Communist Parents, and Under the Domim Tree are not enough to establish a theme for the festival, but they do have a compelling common thread: In very different ways, these films confront the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.

There’s actually only one Communist parent in Not Everyone Is Lucky Enough to Have Communist Parents (Dec. 2, 9:30 p.m.), an affectionate portrait of a petit bourgeois Parisian Marxist in the ’50s. Irene (Josiane Balasko) is an Auschwitz survivor who’s giddy at the prospect of ousting de Gaulle in an upcoming election and hanging out with the mellifluous heroes of Stalingrad who’ve just arrived in Paris to perform with the Red Army Chorus, embodied by proletarian hunk Ivan (Victor Nieznanov). Though politically unsympathetic and distracted by the imminent failure of his shoe store, her husband Bernard (Maurice Benichou) is curiously supportive; preteen son Leon (Jeremy Davis) works enthusiastically for the cause, although his mother’s treatment of him borders on neglect. This cozy domestic comedy is an autobiographical effort for director/co-writer Jean-Jacques Silberman, so apparently he bears no resentment; indeed, his fictionalized portrait of his well-meaning mother is almost too sweet. Still, it seems a little soon for Stalinist nostalgia.

A history of Jews in Cuba, Havana Nagila (Dec. 3, 2 p.m.) reaches back to Columbus but concentrates on Cuba’s dwindling Jewish population, about 1,200 people who lack a rabbi and a reliable source of Passover supplies. Writer/director Laura Paull’s documentary offers some lively commentary from Jewish Cubans, but its broader analysis seems superficial.

Also the subject of some recent recording projects, The Music of Terezin (Dec. 4, 6:30 p.m.) is the legacy of the many Jewish composers who passed through Terezin, the Nazis’ “model” concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, on their way to such extermination camps as Auschwitz. Though principally a showplace for the International Red Cross and a waiting room for the death camps, Terezin also was something of an artists’ colony; as long as their content was approved by the SS censors, frequent musical and theatrical performances were permitted. Director Simon Broughton hasn’t entirely solved the problem of what to put on the screen as the music plays, so some of the documentary’s visuals seem pointless. Still, the film showcases the doleful Eastern European romanticism of such composers as Viktor Ullman, Hans Krasa, and Pavel Haas, and offers some interesting commentary from survivors. (Writer Ivan Klima, for example, notes that for many assimilated Prague Jews, Terezin was their introduction to Judaic theology and tradition.)

Genghis Cohn (Dec. 7, 8:35 p.m.) has been widely denounced as tasteless, so naturally it’s the most interesting of the festival films offered for preview. Adapted for the BBC by director Elijah Moshinsky from Roman Gary’s novel, The Dance of Genghis Cohn, this black comedy introduces Jewish ventriloquist and comedian Cohn (Anthony Sher), whose anti-Hitler act quickly leads him from a Berlin cabaret to death in a Polish mass grave. Almost 20 years later, the man who commanded the killing squad, Schatz (Robert Lindsay), has managed to hide his SS past and become the police commissioner of a tidy Bavarian town. He’s even about to win the sexual favors of the local baroness (Diana Rigg), when he’s profoundly unsettled by something only he can see: Cohn’s ghost. Cohn happily torments Schatz, but when a serial killer disrupts the town’s reputation for order, he becomes Watson to Schatz’s Holmes—or at least seems to. Under Cohn’s tutelage, the commissioner also begins peppering his speech with Yiddish and comes to appreciate such “Polish delicacies” as gefilte fish; in a sense, he’s taking Cohn’s place, a transition that the final scene shows is no laughing matter. Audacious but not inappropriate, Cohn lacks solemnity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious.

Set in an Israeli boarding school for orphans in the early ’50s, Under the Domim Tree (Dec. 9, 7 p.m.) depicts the unsettled lives and psyches of a generation of European refugees whose parents’ fate was mostly unknown but generally (and rightly) assumed to be dire. The children represented here are not all orphans, and not all experienced World War II firsthand: Avi is at the school because her mother is in an asylum, convinced that she witnessed atrocities that she and her Israeli-born daughter actually avoided. Among the school’s other residents are two near-feral boys who hid together for two years in a European forest; a Polish-born girl whose hopes of seeing her father are first raised and then dashed; and another girl who insists that the couple trying to claim her are not her parents. Directed by Eli Cohen from Gila Almagor’s autobiographical book, this is a poignant account that’s only slightly marred by the improbable final epiphanies that attempt to end the film on an upbeat note.

Though it tells the story of the “kindertransports” that carried thousands of “non-Aryan” children to Britain in 1938-39, My Knees Were Jumping (Dec. 10, 5:15 p.m.) is principally a personal tale. The film was made by Melissa Hacker, a New Yorker whose mother was sent at age 13 from Vienna to the U.K. (and who was one of the few kindertransport kids to ever see her parents again); it focuses on a small group of Americans who were saved by the kindertransport effort—and on the children of those refugees, like Hacker and her sister, who tell of their childhood confusion about their parents’ early trauma. Indeed, the emphasis on the next generation seems undue; this would have been more forceful had it focused on those directly affected.

Tough guys may not dance, but they do suffer, especially in the films of tough young guy Sean Penn. Dedicated to “my friend” Charles Bukowski, The Crossing Guard is the second movie about hurtin’ older guys written and directed by the semi-retired young actor.

A downtown-LA jeweler who stands up to bigots and parties with hookers, Freddy Gale is both a small-timer and larger than life. (He’d have to be, he’s played by Jack Nicholson.) While his ex-wife Mary (Nicholson’s ex-girlfriend, Anjelica Huston) attends survivor group therapy with the likes of John Savage (whose career barely survived The Deer Hunter), Freddy forgets his pain by boozing at a local strip club. Except that Freddy, resolute sufferer that he is, doesn’t really want to forget. He’s marking off the days on the calendar, and when the time comes, he appears at Mary’s to announce that “John Booth is out. And I’m going to kill him.”

John (David Morse, who also starred in Penn’s The Indian Runner) is the man who’s just served a six-year prison term for vehicular manslaughter, having run over the Gales’ 7-year-old daughter Emily while drunk. As tormented as Freddy by the death, he’s rather too perfectly the older man’s counterpart. As John eases uncomfortably back into daily life, he meets Jojo (Penn’s ex-girlfriend, Robin Wright), a sensitive artist who announces, “I think your guilt is a little too much competition for me,” but attempts to comfort him anyway.

Freddy also inspires creative women; at one point, he indulgently watches one of his stripper consorts perform a song she wrote for him. But emotional entanglements with women are for lesser men, like Roger (Robbie Robertson), the untormented guy who’s Mary’s second husband. Freddy and John really have eyes only for each other.

When Freddy first arrives at John’s trailer to kill him, his intended victim accepts his punishment; it’s only circumstance, in the form of Freddy’s jammed gun, that spares him. Subsequently pulled over for drunken driving, the older man becomes morally interchangeable with his prey. Ultimately, Freddy runs from the cops, is implausibly harbored by a young Asian-American girl (roughly the same age as Emily had been, of course), and shows up at John’s for a final confrontation. It’s up to these two men, neither the group-therapy type, to either kill or heal each other as the sun rises over LA and Bruce Springsteen’s gruff but sensitive voice claims the soundtrack.

Portentous in a meandering sort of way, The Crossing Guard is psychobabble with booze, strippers, and guns. That doesn’t mean it’s a badly made movie: From the opening flurry of quick cuts to the closing crane shot, Penn shows his command of the form—it doesn’t hurt to hire Vilmos Zsigmond as your cinematographer—and he’s elicited better performances than his script warrants. Only devotees of tortured macho, however, will likely appreciate the skill with which Penn the director has served Penn the writer.