Jewish films at Melbourne International Film Festival

August 25, 2019

(This preview of the Melbourne International Film Festival -MIFF- appears in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 25 July 2019.)

Now in its 68th year, the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) continues its record as one of Australia’s leading cultural icons with innovative and challenging films. This year’s Festival (1-18 August) highlighted an under-rated Jewish actor and a European Jewish director, and presented a divergent snapshot of how Jewish life continues to pervade contemporary international film.

MIFF featured what is surely Australia’s first “Jeff Goldblum Marathon” – 7 films and 14 hours of straight Jeff Goldblum programming overnight on 9 August: “Thor: Ragnarok”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, “The Fly”, “Earth Girls Are Easy”, “Independence Day”, “Vibes” and “The Tall Guy”. Goldblum comes with a strong pedigree: he was born in 1952, the same year as MIFF started. After an Orthodox upbringing in Pittsburgh, he moved to New York City to study with famed Jewish acting coach Stanford Meisner, who has taught everyone from Gregory Peck to Sydney Pollack to Jon Voight to Tom Cruise and Christoph Waltz.

By latest count, Goldblum has played Jewish characters at least 22 times (3 times as himself): 2 of the most important of these characters appear at MIFF: David Levinson the technology expert in “Independence Day”, and Seth Brundle in “The Fly” – the “very image of the Jewish nerd, a scientist with poor social skills.” Goldblum’s Jewish persona is so strong that “Tablet” magazine listed his complete film oeuvre as the “75th best Jewish film” ever.

Few directors have marked a reputation on dramatic Holocaust film as Polish film-maker Agnieszka Holland, one of MIFF three “Directors in Focus”. Born in Warsaw in 1949 to a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Holland has brought an unusual perspective to Polish-Jewish history. Her nine films at MIFF include her three Holocaust classics. “Angry Harvest” – 1985 Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee – tells the chilling story of a woman on the run from the Nazis who finds shelter with a simple farmer, who develops a sexual fascination with her. “Europa Europa” – winner of the 1990 Best Foreign Language Golden Globe – dramatises the life of German-born Solomon Perel, who survives the war through Kristallnacht, the German invasion of Poland, residence in a Russian orphanage and – ultimately and incredibly – by acting as Russian-German translator for a German army unit. The film celebrates Jewish survival by showing the real Solomon Perel in Israel singing “Hine Ma Tov”, a scene that foreshadowed the final images of real-life survivors in “Schindler’s List” (1993). “In Darkness” – also a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, 2012 – is a realistic tale of heroism of a Polish worker who shelters a group of Jewish refugees in the sewers of Lvov.

Other highlights of the Festival included four unusual Jewish documentaries. British film-maker Nick Broomfield’s “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” poetically details the love affair between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra that resulted in “So Long, Marianne” and other iconic songs. Broomfield brings a unique perspective: in 1968, he travelled to Hydra, met and befriended Cohen’s lover and muse, Marianne.

“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary”, by Jewish film director Ben Berman, tells a bizarre story of how he shot a documentary on the “Freddy Krueger of Comedy”, John Edward Szeles,

The Israeli documentary team of Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam has again stepped out far from home in their documentary “Leftover Women”, examining the stigmatisation of unmarried young women in China. Other Israeli films included “Parparim”, a short comedy-drama Israeli film about butterflies; “Working Woman”, an Israeli drama feature about sexual harassment; and “Shhhh”, an short Israeli comedy-horror film about putting a baby to sleep.

In “It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story”, tells the story of how two Jewish refugees from Germany – Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff – founded the New York-based legendary jazz label Blue Note Records.

The comedy-drama “Benjamin”, by gay British-Jewish director Simon Amstell, is not a documentary, but could well have been: the main character is “a depressed film-maker with a penchant for men” – much like Amstell himself.

Other films of note: “Smoke Between Trees”, an Australian drama starring Jewish actor Tiriel Mora (“Frontline” and “The Castle”), brother of film director Philippe Mora; the 1969 Czech classic “The Cremator”, set in Nazi-occupied Prague; and Jewish director Ira Sachs’ “Frankie”.

MIFF also premiered possibly the biggest film about Hollywood to be released in many years: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood”. Set in a hedonistic 1960s Los Angeles, the film features lots of real-life and made-up Jewish characters, including Roman Polanski (played by Polish actor Rafał Zawierucha) and fictional agent Marvin Schwarzs played by Al Pacino.

And speaking of Hollywood: MIFF also featured “Untouchable”, a doco about “the fall of Hollywood producing titan Harvey Weinstein is told through the testimony of the women he allegedly targeted”.


Never Look Away film review

June 30, 2019

(This film review of “Never Look Away” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 June 2019.)

Directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; starring Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer and Saskia Rosendahl

*****

This opening of the German language film “Never Look Away” is a major event, bringing a sweeping historical view of German life scanning a three decade period from the late 1930s to the 1960s.

“Never Look Away” is a loose dramatisation of the life of contemporary German visual artist Gerhard Richter (1932-) – named Kurt Barnert in the film, acted by Tom Schilling (“Oh Boy”, “Before the Fall”). But German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) has much higher goals than a simple biopic for his massive and epic (188 minute) film: he wants to illustrate many of the profound events of this tumultuous period of German history: the Nazi racial exclusion laws and eugenics, the Second World War and subsequent life in a Germany divided between east and west.

Using the refracted experience of an artist provides a personal – and highly visual – scope to what could otherwise be a mundane retelling of events. The film opens in Dresden with a brilliant scene that recreates the traveling art exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), in which the Nazi regime attempted to ridicule German modernist art on the grounds of it being “un-German”, Jewish or Communist. A wide-eyed five year old Kurt attends the exhibition with his eccentric and creative aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl, star of Cate Shortland’s film “Lore”), and is impressed.

As the Nazi grip on power tightens, Elisabeth is diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalised and eventually euthanised under the orders of gynaecology professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a loyal member of the Nazi SS medical corps. The scenes in Professor Seeband’s hospital are harrowing, and his confrontation with Elisabeth a devastating illustration of Nazi cruelty to its own citizens. The cunning Seeband survives both the war and incarceration by the occupying Russian army, while remaining secretly loyal to his Nazi principles. Chillingly, Seeband later returns to the film’s story through a set of coincidences also based on real life.

The war devastates much of Kurt’s family, but he slowly makes his way in the post-war East German art world, producing made-to-order socialist realist murals of industrial workers. He also meets and weds the beautiful fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), despite the serious misgivings of her parents. Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany just as the Berlin Wall goes up, and Kurt lands a position at the Düsseldorf art academy, where he is taught by an enigmatic professor clearly based on the famous German sculptor, installation artist and art theoretician Joseph Beuys. Director von Donnersmarck neatly captures the artistic, cultural and political differences between the two German states, giving the film an extraordinary depth of insight into that period.

“Never Look Away” has received many plaudits, including two nominations at the most recent Academy Awards – for best foreign language film and best cinematography – along with strong audience support at this month’s Sydney Film Festival, a rapturous reception at the Venice Film Festival and an audience award at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

The film is not perfect: a gas chamber scene in which aunt Elisabeth is murdered jars with its brightly lit explicit presentation – how many films have included similar scenes, and how little the scene actually tells us (have a look at The Son of Saul for a better use of these images). But few recent films have included such an historic – and spectacularly well-presented – epic sweep of modern history. Almost no current dramatic films have the courage to tackle so much, and to give the audience such rich questions to ponder: what is the place of art in society, how do we find the hidden meaning of art, what is the true meaning of ideology, how do we survive during ages of political upheaval and – neatly and fully believably – how can love and affection triumph over adversity.


Film review of Where Hands Touch

June 9, 2019

(This film review of “Where Hands Touch” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 28 March 2019.)

Directed and written by Amma Asante; starring Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston and Tom Sweet

*****

Few film directors specialise in portraying inter-racial couples in historic contexts.  British filmmaker Amma Asante – who is black and born in Ghana – has, first with the award-winning “Belle” (2013), which told the true story of an 18th century enslaved West Indian woman who married a British navy officer and entered high society. Asante followed with “United Kingdom” (2016), another true story of an inter-racial couple in the immediate post Second World War period: an heir to the throne of African country Bechuanaland meets and marries a white British woman.

In “Where Hands Touch” – Asante’s third inter-racial romantic outing – the director turns her attention away from her home territory of British race relations to one far more fraught: Germany in the last years of the Second World War. She has chosen a small but fascinating part of history: children of colour who were born and raised in Nazi Germany, counter-posing the story to the Holocaust and persecution of Jews.

The film is ambitious, well-produced, earnest, well-meaning and attempts a high degree of sensitivity to its subject. Location shooting in Belgium and the Ile of Man capture mid-20th century Germany. However, screening the Holocaust – even as a tangential theme – is fraught even when film-makers are steeped in knowledge, which Asante is not.

The film starts in 1944 Nazi Germany: 15 year old Leyna Shlegel (Amandla Stenberg, from “The Hate You Give”) has a German mother, Kerstin, played by Australian actress Abbie Cornish (“Candy”, “Somersault”). Her absent black African father was a French soldier, and Leyna has grown up – uncomfortably – in Germany with dark skin. Kerstin decides to move the family (including her fully German younger son) from their Rhineland provincial city to Berlin, thinking it will be easier for her bi-racial daughter.

Bad move. Berlin – as the headquarters of the German state – is, if anything worse, and Leyna is systematically excluded from school and almost all aspects of public life. Using family connections, Kerstin tries to ensure that Leyna is not jailed or sterilised (or both): the Nazi state has some awareness of not wanting to offend the German parents of “non Aryans”, but it’s not much.

Leyna is forced to start factory work with her mother. Through a series of coincidences, Leyna meets – and yes – falls in love with Lutz (British actor George MacKay), an active and rising member of the Hitler youth corps, whose father is a rising Nazi administrator. What future for these two young lovers?

To its credit, “Where Hands Touch” shows the ultimate destination of minorities in Nazi Germany: Leyna does end up in a concentration camp, dehumanised and abused. Director Asante has countered criticism of her film and been at pains to state that she has not tried to diminish the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, but to illustrate the experience of Romani people, disabled people and other outcasts under Nazi rule. In that purpose she achieves some success. The film tries to raise the questions: what exactly is identity, national and racial, and where do they cross over?

Historically, parts of “Where Hands Touch” don’t add up: it’s unlikely – as this film depicts – that Jews were still wandering around openly in Berlin in 1944 wearing yellow stars. The plot contains too many coincidences, and there’s an element of emotional “clunkiness” to how the story unfolds.

Dramatic acting – particularly by Stenberg and Cornish – is strong, but not enough to overcome an over-ambitious and underwritten film.


Film review of Transit

June 9, 2019

(This film review of “Transit” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 11 April 2019.)

Directed and written by Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers; starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Maryam Zaree and Ronald Kukulies

Part of our ongoing fascination with the Holocaust on screen is the rich diversity of stories. Relatively few English-speakers may recognise the name Anna Seghers (the pen name of Netty Reiling), a German-Jewish Communist whose autobiographical 1944 novel “In Transit” is the basis for the new German language film “Transit”, directed by Christian Petzold.

Petzold is part of a new generation of German experimental film-makers, and is best known in the Jewish community for directing “Phoenix” (2014), a noir-ish drama set in immediate post-war Berlin, where a disfigured German-Jewish Holocaust survivor tries to recover her life, raising important questions of personal identity, collaboration and betrayal.

In “Transit”, Petzold again turns to a Jewish story, based on Seghers’ escape from Nazi-occupied France via Marseille in 1940. In the film, the lead character “Georg” (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee in France seeking to flee the country as the “fascists” close in on him. Here is where Petzold’s film takes a creative and extraordinary turn: although his film is firmly a World War Two story of refugees and attempted escape, he has transplanted it to the present day, taking place in a fully recognisable modern France where everything appears contemporary, with exception of an absence of the internet and mobile phones.

In his journey of escape, Georg takes on the identity of Weidel, a German writer who has committed suicide in Paris and whose transit papers Georg has picked up. Weidel was a Communist and the Americans pointedly do not want him, although the Mexicans do; in his political naiveté, Georg travels through these scenes as a damaged innocent abroad. Georg is in fact damaged: actor Franz Rogowski speaks with a pronounced lisp, the result of an operation on a cleft palate in his youth – giving him great similarity to Joaquin Phoenix.

Georg spends his time with other increasingly desperate refugees (some of them Jewish) in a dreary and washed-out Marseille. They visit consulates looking for letters of transit, sullenly wait in endless queues and avoid confrontations with the authorities. Georg befriends an immigrant family, acting as a surrogate father to a young boy, and falls in love with Marie (Paula Beer), the wife of the dead writer whose identity he has appropriated; she in turn is living with a noble doctor who assists the poor and is also planning to leave. Marie thinks her husband Weidel is still alive and wandering Marseille, because people keep telling her that he has been there: the truth is that it’s really Georg.

The film comes across as a twisted form of “Casablanca”, the 1942 Humphrey Bogart film set in wartime French Morocco, with Georg as Rick, and Marie as Ilsa, the doctor as Victor Laszlo. But this is no homage to that film: blurring the time periods results in a mind-bending, time-crunching movie of displacement and deeply uncomfortable resonances to the present day of refugees and an apparent turn to nationalist, “keep them out” governments in Europe and elsewhere.

The Anna Seghers (Netty Reiling) “back story” provides important context for both her book and Petzold’s film adaptation: Born in Mainz on the Rhine in 1900, despite her Communist activities, she maintained a strong Jewish identity, writing her doctorate thesis in art history (University of Heidelberg, 1924) on “Jews and Judaism in the Work of Rembrandt”. Following the rise of the Nazis, she was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo, and fled Germany in 1932, moving to Zurich and then Paris. There she wrote the acclaimed novel “The Seventh Cross” – later a movie starring Spencer Tracy – about seven men attempting to escape a Nazi concentration camp, one of very few movies during the war to depict Nazi camps. When the Germans invaded France, she left via Marseille in 1940 for Mexico with her husband, Hungarian László Radványi. After the war, she returned to Germany, living in East Berlin until her death in 1983 and became one of the most famous East German writers.

 


Film review of The Reports on Sarah and Saleem

June 9, 2019

This film review of “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 23 May 2019 (Melbourne edition) and 30 May 2019 (Sydney edition).

Directed by Muayad Alayan; written by Rami Alayan; starring Adeeb Safadi, Sivane Kretchner, Ishai Golan and Maisa Abd Elhadi

Following last year’s premiere at the Jewish International Film Festival, “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” opens this week in Australia, one of the few places in the world where the film is screening. This strong thriller-drama is a cracker, and deepens the range of films that show how the Israeli-Palestinian social, economic and political divide is often not a divide at all, but more of a porous and shifting blur.

This first feature from Palestinian director Muayad Alayan and his screenwriter brother Rami Alayan illustrates a tragic sequence of events arising from an illicit affair between Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), an East Jerusalem delivery driver, and Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), the owner of a West Jerusalem café. She’s married to an up-and-coming army officer (Ishai Golan) – who is about to be transferred to the south – with whom she has a bright and articulate daughter, and he to an attractive pregnant woman (Maisa Abd Elhadi).

Their romance – one night a week, mostly in the back of Saleem’s delivery van – is fuelled by the passionate risk-taking each one goes through. Sarah’s family can afford a nanny/helper, but Saleem’s struggles financially. That motivates Saleem to moonlight at night as a delivery person, no questions asked, dropping off “whatever people ask for”.

One night Saleem is sent to Bethlehem for a delivery, and takes Sarah with him, convincing her to go out for drinks “because nobody knows us”. Just speak English, he says, and everyone will assume you are a foreigner. An incident in a bar leads to Saleem’s entanglement with Palestinian secret police, where he is forced to pretend that he was recruiting Sarah for espionage (“the reports”) so that he can escape punishment and detention. Once the Israelis catch on, the plot becomes “thicker”, and Sarah and Saleem are caught in a web of deceit, power and conflict.

The director/writer Alayan brothers both studied in the USA, and grew up in East Jerusalem, experiencing their teenage years during the second Intifada. They put to good use the adage of “write what you know”. The experience of Palestinian life in East Jerusalem and the interactions between the characters are naturalistic with an unforced realism that imbues every scene with power. For comparison you would need to cast back to Martin Scorsese’s early “Mean Streets”; the directing and editing is spare (although the film runs a full two hours), with a coiled energy getting ready to strike.

There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem”. The film feels astonishingly straightforward and objective in its political approach to the characters and their situations. Many of the scenes are claustrophobic, but that’s part of the film-making style. I would have liked more “back story” – more detail as to how Sarah and Saleem arrived at where they are – but the Alayan brothers take a European approach and just start the action. The result is a mature and accomplished narrative by film-makers who are likely go on to tell much bigger stories in the future.


Film review of Long Shot

May 11, 2019

This film review of “Long Shot” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 9 May 2019

Directed by Jonathan Levine; written by Dann Sterling and Liz Hannah; starring Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Bob Odenkirk and Alexander Skarsgård

*****

There is little that is new in the romantic comedy “Long Shot”. In the opening scene, nerdy Jewish guy Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogan) attempts to infiltrate a white power neo-Nazi group (try “BlacKkKlansman”). Later a stunning-looking US Secretary of State, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) makes a presidential bid (think “Madam Secretary” with a dose of “Veep”). Nerdy Jewish guy (Flarsky) beds an attractive shiksa (Theron) – how about “Knocked Up”, which starred … Seth Rogen.

“Long Shot” is highly derivative and deceptively simple, but also an astonishingly well-constructed comedy. It does what all good comedies must: it entertains, an “audience pleaser” set firmly in a fantasy “present day” not unlike our own. Isn’t that one reason for going to the movies – to experience a more perfect world where the nerdy guy gets the girl, even if she’s super powerful?

The set up: Fred Flarsky (Rogan) is a crusading New York journalist working for the “Brooklyn Advocate”, a large but struggling community newspaper. When the newspaper is bought by slimy media mogul Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), Flarsky quits in disgust. Invited by his friend, African-American Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), to a reception, Flarsky meets Charlotte the Secretary of State, who used to baby-sit him during her activist high school years. Charlotte offers Fred a job as a speechwriter in her incipient political campaign, and the two grow close, based on his support for her policies.

“Long Shot” benefits from exquisite timing, fabulous and well-chosen pop culture references (including my favourite, Bruce Springsteen) and a few wonderful coincidences: the film’s action starts now, mid-2019, in the early stage lead-up to the American 2020 presidential election. US President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) – a clownish character, something of a cross between George W Bush and Donald J Trump – is a former Golden Globe-winning TV star of a series where he played … the US President, and he revels in watching re-runs of himself. Think both Trump and Ronald Reagan, but has anyone noticed that a former TV star who played the Ukrainian president just won the actual presidency of Ukraine? No screenwriter could have predicted that.

President Chambers decides to step down after just one term because he is aiming for “something higher”: he wants to break into film, which only a few TV stars have done – George Clooney, being one. This lovely satire on the intersection between American politics and film and TV pointedly hits the mark, but is hilarious played “straight” by the characters.

“Long Shot” takes a progressive political viewpoint: Secretary of State and presidential candidate Field advocates for a major world environmental initiative. But it includes a scene reminiscent of when the Kathy Bates character in “The Blind Side” warns the Sandra Bullock character that she’s a Democrat, apparently a no-no in polite southern WASP society. Flarsky’s long-time best friend Lance reveals that he is not only a Republican, but a Christian. What could have been a sloppy, soppy scene turns into a touching recap of what’s good about America, extolling many of the almost forgotten qualities that Republicans have brought to US life.

The plot doesn’t need that scene, but it cleverly places “Long Shot” closer to the centre of the American body politic. The scene may be good for the box office, but is it believable? Not on your life, although the film’s greatest weakness is the Flarsky-Field romance: it’s hard to believe that a statuesque and powerful American female politician would choose the scruffy Flarsky for her beau. No matter; we intellectual Jewish guys now have yet another film that celebrates our virtues.


Film review of Vox Lux

March 9, 2019

(This film review of “Vox Lux” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 February 2019.)

Directed and written by Brady Corbet; starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle and Raffey Cassidy, with narration by Willem Dafoe

*****

“Vox Lux” is a new drama featuring everyone’s favourite Israeli-American actress, Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, “Jackie”), as Celeste Montgomery, a young woman who survives a violent tragedy with her sister (French actress Stacy Martin, star of “Nymphomaniac”) and turns it into a hit song that launches their singing careers.

Portman arrives in the film half-way through; her younger self (Raffey Cassidy) is the one (careful: plot spoilers ahead) who faces the darkened eyes of a Columbine-style school shooter in her Staten Island high school, offering to be a hostage if he lets everyone go. It doesn’t work: Celeste is shot anyway, but she survives, following which she attends months of physical therapy.

With the help of her younger sister, Celeste chances on music as a form of therapy, and ends up writing a hit song about her experience, coached by a gruff manager (Jude Law) and guided by a music publicist (Jennifer Ehle). Fast forward 15 years. Celeste, now 31, is a superstar singer, a drug and alcohol abuser, and an imperious, self-centred and powerful presence, part Lady Gaga, part Madonna. She also has a teenage daughter (with no partner on the scene) named Albertine, played by Raffey Cassidy (who is also the younger Celeste). A neat trick.

“Vox Lux” is that kind of movie, striving to keep the audience off-balance. Despite the film’s nasty subject matter, it is presented with a strong ironical (and occasionally humorous) tone, partly due to a calm “voice from on high” narration by an unmistakeable Willem Dafoe. There’s something else, possibly the sound design or an at times menacing musical score by iconic composer Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers). Or perhaps it’s the edginess that most characters show on screen, that makes you think something terrible is always about to happen. Some pretty bad things take place – this is a physically and emotionally violent film, truly earning its MA15+ rating – although events never feel quite as emotionally devastating as foreshadowed. The director, Brady Corbet, may be playing with us here, distancing us from the emotions of his lead character. Or not. The result is disconcerting, intentionally so. This is clever film-making, torn from tomorrow’s news. It may not be easy to watch, but the result commands our attention.

Portman’s performance is enthralling, a haunting darker sister to Lady Gaga in “A Star is Born”. Like Lady Gaga, she sings her own songs. What she loses in melody, she makes up in aggressiveness.

Despite strong early Oscar buzz, Portman was shut out of both Oscars and Golden Globe nominations. According to The Guardian, last year – 2018 – was the worst on record for gun violence in American schools, with 94, beating the previous record (set in 2006) of 59. Are the film’s themes, so contemporary in the era of Sandy Hook and Parkland, just too strong for major awards?

The final half of the film is a count down to a major concert by Celeste, and it is shattered by a distant tragedy with uncomfortable resonance to Celeste’s own brand. Celebrity and terrorism are inextricably linked in America, “Vox Lux” seems to be telling us.