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.


Allied film review

January 6, 2017

(This film review of “Allied” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 January 2017.)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Steven Knight; starring Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Jared Harris and Simon McBurney

Wars are great for the movie business.  And there’s nothing like battling the Nazis to engage us even now, more than 70 years later: rarely has the world seemed so well divided into good and evil as it did then. The new film “Allied” brings one of the most powerful heroic war themes to the big screen – allied agents operating behind enemy lines.

“Allied” opens with a lone parachutist landing in the desert, with the short screen caption, “French Morocco 1942”.  The parachutist is Canadian Air Force Intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), there on a secret mission to assassinate the German ambassador in Casablanca.  He teams up with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (French actress Marion Cotillard), as they pretend to be husband and wife, and operate in open society, he as a supposed chemical businessman from Paris. Danger arises in that Max’s reasonably fluent French (part of the film neatly uses subtitles and original languages) is hampered by his Quebecois accent, which will mark him out as an imposter to anyone actually from Paris.

At the time, Casablanca was governed by Vichy France (the Allies captured it in late 1942), and the film’s early scenes lovingly depict the architecture, culture and politics of that long-ago North African city.  At Marianne’s insistence, Max sleeps on the roof, because “that’s what men in Casablanca do” after making love with their wives.  Max and Marianne prove to be a powerful and successful team, leading Max to propose marriage.

The action of “Allied” then shifts to blitz-ravaged London, where Marianne eventually joins Max and they have a daughter, born during a massive air-raid in a hospital courtyard.  The film’s nasty plot twist – a spoiler that any viewing of the film’s trailer will tell you – involves the allegation that Marianne is a double agent.  If she is, Max must “follow the protocol” of intimate relationships and kill her, an “is she or isn’t she?” question with profound consequences that tears at the myths of wartime heroism. Thus the film’s title “Allied” operates with a double and possibly triple meaning.

The production values of “Allied” are definitely “big screen” (this is a film worth viewing in the cinema), with director Robert Zemeckis neatly blending special effects into the convincing action, working with cinematographer Don Burgess.  Although the result is not as exciting as their “Forrest Gump” collaboration, it is state-of-the-art Hollywood professionalism. Notable scenes include Marianne and Max’s mutual seduction in a car stuck in a sandstorm, and the London bombings.

In the lead roles, both Pitt and Cotillard do a fine job, with an excellent supporting cast that includes American Jewish actress Lizzy Caplan as Max’s sister, and a great set of supporting British actors including Jared Harris (son of Richard) and Simon McBurney. This is Brad Pitt’s third World War Two heroic outing: he played a tank commander in “Fury” (2014) and the head of Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge squad in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009).

“Allied” consciously references its famous forebear “Casablanca”, the 1942 Oscar-winning film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with specific references to the importance of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”.  “Allied” maintains “Casablanca’s” themes of self-sacrifice and heroism set against the wartime effort, but turns the plot in psychological Hitchcockian ways.


If you have a taste for war dramas, Mel Gibson’s ultra-violent “Hacksaw Ridge” – a multi-award winner at last month’s Australian Film Institute’s “AACTA” ceremony – is currently playing in Australian cinemas.  Also opening later this year are two true stories:  “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, how the director of the Warsaw Zoo saved more than 300 Jews from the Nazis; and “HHhH”, from the Laurent Binet novel, recounting the 1942 assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich.

“Allied” is currently screening in Australian cinemas.

allied2(above: Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in “Allied”)

Film review of Belle and Sebastian

July 6, 2014

(This review of the film “Belle and Sebastian” appeared in Australian Jewish News on 3 July 2014.)

The iconic French children’s story “Belle and Sebastian” has added a fascinating sub-theme of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland during the Second World War in its new film version. Originally entitled Belle et Sébastien in French, it first started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry. The book was first adapted into a French TV series in the late 1960s and proved so popular that it was dubbed into English and shown on the BBC in the UK. It even provided the inspiration for the Scottish “indie” band “Belle and Sebastian”.

The new film version resets the action to 1943.  Set in the French Alps near the French-Swiss border, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep. As a parallel story, local Nazi soldiers are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland.  The film is beautifully shot in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.

It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing (opening here in Australia in time for the winter school holidays), and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian.  It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters. “Belle and Sebastian” was the second highest-grossing film in France last year, and premiered in Australia at the French Film Festival in March.

French Film Festival in Australia

February 27, 2014

(Note:  this article on the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival in Australia originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 February 2014.)

The Jewish experience in France is a complicated one:  after centuries of persecution, Jews were emancipated during the French Revolution, and Napoleon spread this freedom to Jews in other parts of Europe as he expanded the French empire.  Yet it was in France that the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, and French collaboration with Nazis in persecuting Jews was widespread.  Today, with more than half a million Jews living in France, the Jewish contribution to French life and culture continues to be significant.  Each year, the French Film Festival provides a window into the latest intersections of Jewish history and French culture.

This year two Festival films contain Jewish themes:  one on Russian-Jewish refuseniks and one on Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland.  The Festival also features “Grand Central”, a new film by French-Jewish director Rebecca Zlotowski (“Belle Epine”) and a small retrospective of films by Francois Truffaut, who is a significant figure in French Jewish film.  Truffaut (1932-84) is not identified as Jewish in the popular mind, but private research in the late 1960s identified his previously unknown father as Jewish.  While Truffaut’s mother denied the allegation, Truffaut reportedly embraced it, believing that it explained much of his character and his interest in society’s outcasts and martyrs.  But Truffaut’s experience of Jewish life went further:  his first wife, Madeleine Morgenstern, was Jewish, as were his two daughters with her – Laura and Eva.  More than that, we remember Truffaut for his two classic Jewish films: “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (Goodbye, Children) and “The Last Metro”.  While neither of these films are included in the retrospective, the Festival does feature “Finally, Sunday”, “Jules and Jim” and his autobiographical “The 400 Blows”.

Despite its inherent human drama during a heightened time of Cold War tension, there are remarkably few filmic portrayals of the experience of Soviet Jews during the Brezhnev “refusenik” period, when many Jewish attempted, usually without success, to leave Soviet Russia.  The Festival features one film that deals with this time – “Friends From France” (“Les Interdits”), directed by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski.  Set in 1979, two French Jewish cousins (played by the singer Soko and Jeremie Lippmann) travel to Odessa pretending to be an engaged couple on a holiday.  But they are really there to make contact with Soviet-Jewish dissidents.  It’s a time of danger and secret police raids.  Complications ensue when the cousins become attracted to each other, and the personal and the political become intertwined.

The “Belle and Sebastian” story started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry.  Set in the French Alps, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep.  The book was adapted into a French TV series and then a Japanese animated series.  This new film version has been re-set in 1943 and moved to the French-Swiss border, with an additional theme of local Nazi soldiers who are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland.  It is beautifully filmed in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.

It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing, and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian.  It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters.  The French Film Festival’s screenings of “Belle and Sebastian” are the first ones in an English language country, one of many opportunities to see un-released French films.

The Festival runs in Sydney from 4 through 23 March and Melbourne from 5 through 23 March.  Click here for details on Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.

French Film Festival in Australia

March 5, 2013

(This article appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 28 February 2013 in a reduced version.)

Generations of film-goers have become used to French films with a distinctly artistic bent:  the “nouvelle vague” – “new wave” – films became associated with a casual (some would say careless) approach to telling screen stories.  In the late 1950s films of Truffaut, Chabrol and Goddard, we became accustomed to listen to “the white spaces” between the lines the actors spoke, in between puffs on their ever-present Gauloises.   How unlike the “tell them everything” approach that Hollywood film has taken.

But times have changed.  In fact many of this year’s selection of films at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival (from 5 March in Sydney; 6 March in Melbourne; later in other states) seem peculiarly, in fact almost adamantly, American in theme and approach.  Of the films in the Festival with significant Jewish interest, three of them feel like American re-makes, and two of them actually are.

Modern American romantic film comedy has developed in a number of genres.  Two of my favourites are the “I get to go back in time (usually high school) and fix the mistakes I made then”, and the “I leap forward in time, get a glimpse of my dystopic romantic future, and get to fix my mistakes”.  Classic examples of the genre are “Peggy Sue Got Married” (back in time) and “The Family Man” (the future).  (And how ironic is it that Nicholas Cage stars in both films?  The role which Cage plays in iconic American films is definitely under-appreciated, and will be the subject of a separate post soon.)

In “Camille Rewinds”, French-Jewish Noemie Lvovsky directs, co-writes and stars as Camille, an unhappy, about-to-be divorced woman (think Kathleen Turner in “Peggy Sue Got Married”).  At a New Year’s Eve party, she faints and travels back in time to her sixteen year-old high school past when she first met her husband.  She magically slips into her past life, but this time knows the future consequences of her actions and tries hard to avoid them.  It’s a light, romantic fantasy, marred only by Lvovsky’s casting herself as Camille:  the somewhat rotund Lvovksy does not look anything close to sixteen, and she has cast two actors as her parents who look nothing like her distinctly Ashkenazic Jewish features.

Camille Rewinds poster in French

Another Jewish actor – noted writer/director Mathieu Kassovitz – stars in “Another Woman’s Life”.  In their twenties, young Marie (a delightful Juliette Binoche) meets and falls in love with Paul (Kassovitz), but wakes up to discover that she and Paul have been married for ten years.  Worse yet, they are on the verge of divorce, both in relationships with other people.  Like Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni in “The Family Man”, can Marie save her marriage – the one she cannot remember even having?

Another Womans Life Kassovitz Binoche

In “Happiness Never Comes Alone”, popular Moroccan-Jewish actor and comedian Gad Elmaleh plays a French-Jewish musician Sacha.  He falls in love with Charlotte (played by a very radiant Sophie Marceau), a woman with two former husbands, three children and a busy professional life.  Will these two lovers overcome their challenges and achieve a happy life together?  Yet another truly American-style story of individuals triumphing over adversity, enlivened by the bursting energy that the two leads bring to the screen.  Sacha’s grandmother has the best funny Jewish lines, with her first “is she Jewish?” question, and her telling Sacha to check Charlotte’s sons at night to see if they are circumcised.

Happiness Never Comes Alone Elmaleh Marceau

Rounding out the films of related Jewish interest are an historic drama and a powerful documentary.  The closing night film “Les Enfants du Paradis” is an epic made in Paris during the final years of the Nazi occupation: many view this classic as the best French film ever made.  And in “The Invisibles”, gay French-Jewish documentarian Sebastien Lifshitz looks at homosexual men and women born during the period 1919 to 1939, a time when they were forced to become “invisible”.

Woody Allen doco headlines Jewish themes in Sydney Film Festival 2012

June 3, 2012

The following article appeared in the Australian Jewish News on Thursday 31 May 2012:

For thousands of dedicated Sydney film-goers, the Queens Birthday long weekend is cold, dark and … the most exciting time of the year.  The reason?  The Sydney Film Festival (SFF), now in its 59th year, starts then. SFF is not Australia’s oldest (Melbourne wins that contest by three years), but is much beloved by successive generations of film aficionados.

Although the SFF does not have a “Jewish quota” (thank goodness), it does have an official “Jewish interest” category and each year introduces a number of unusual, intelligent and unseen new films that illuminate the world Jewish experience. In their own way, these films represent the latest Jewish currents, obsessions and antagonisms.

Undoubtedly the Jewish highlight of this year’s festival is “Woody Allen: A Documentary”, a feature-length examination of the New York Jewish actor, director, comedian and scriptwriter, directed by Robert B Weide.  This film serves as both an introduction to Allen’s personal journey and his extraordinary body of films.  It’s also a truly entertaining experience, lavishly illustrated by his work.  Allen’s films have ranged from the boyishly comic (“Bananas”) to the dreary (“Interiors”, anyone?) to the classic “(“Annie Hall”). And at age 76, he still captures the audience with hits such as the recent “Midnight in Paris”.

Allen singlehandedly has introduced his own Jewish screen stereotype: the nerdy, anxious, physically underdeveloped and intellectually overdeveloped, sex-obsessed Jewish male, to which almost all contemporary Jewish screen comics owe a great debt: think Ben Stiller, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill. “Woody Allen: A Documentary” tells us more about him than we thought possible, including interviews with his mother, sister, biographer, numerous ex-girlfriends, producers and managers. We follow his career from his early hard-working years as a terrified but game comic to his continued insistence on directing a film every year, writing his notes on long yellow paper and typing his scripts on an original typewriter.

This is the Australian premiere of the film, which first screened in the USA on PBS in November 2011.  You can view the trailer for the film below:

Since the documentary “Waltz With Bashir”, we are no longer surprised when Israeli film-makers produce captivating and truly original films. But still, “The Law in These Parts” manages to illuminate a surprisingly unseen aspect of Israeli political life. The film shows how IDF lawyers created a new “rule of law” in the occupied territories that has helped to enable the resumption of Arab lands and effectively assisted the expansion of settlements. “The Law in These Parts” is unashamedly a left-wing critique of Israeli society, however it does so not by polemic but by simply allowing retired Israeli army officers describe what they did and how they did it.  You can watch the trailer for this film by clicking on the link below:

By contrast, a different style of documentary film, “El Gusto”, illustrates some fascinating new currents in French Jewish life. Like the drama “Free Men” (featured in the French Film Festival in March), “El Gusto” portrays a world where Jews and Muslims not only co-exist, but do so with enormous shared culture. In this case, it’s “chaabi”, a unique form of popular music which Jewish and Muslim musicians created in Algeria in the first half of the twentieth century, and which was virtually obliterated by 1954 Algerian independence. This film follows reunion of these Jewish and Muslim musicians, culminating in emotional concerts.  Watch the trailer for this film by clicking below:

Other Jewish highlights of the festival include American-Jewish actor-director Josh Radnor’s romantic comedy “Liberal Arts”, Jason Segel in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and Daniel Martinico’s uncompromising “Ok, Good”. The Festival also features “Dead Europe”, the new Australian film directed by Tony Krawitz and produced by Emile Sherman, both official guests.

The Sydney Film Festival runs from Wednesday 6th through Sunday 17th June, at the State Theatre and other venues.

French film festival in Australia features “The Rabbi’s Cat” and “Free Men”

March 10, 2012

As dedicated film-goers understand, the beauty of film festivals is that they bring to us the new, surprising and off-beat films that simply will not find a mainstream audience for a general release.  The irony is that even in our moment of sixteen free-to-air television channels, unlimited video on YouTube and easy illegal downloads of “How I Met Your Mother”, film festivals have continued to grow in popularity.

The Alliance Francaise film festival is one of the most popular “foreign” festivals in Australia.  This year it surprises us with two unique French-Jewish historical films, one about a rabbi in early 20th century Algeria and the other about how Arab émigrés helped to save Jews in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

“The Rabbi’s Cat” (French title: “Le Chat du Rabbin”) is based on a five-part series of graphic novels (we used to call them “comics”) by French-Jewish artist Joann Sfar.  At age 31, Sfar is one of a new generation of French comic artists, and acknowledges his debt to 1930s American animation styles, and is particularly influenced by Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine (a Jewish expressionist painter) and Will Eisner.  He comes from both an Ashkenazi and Sephardic background and is strongly identified Jewish in his life and work.

Sfar had previously directed “Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life”, which had a brief cinema release in Australia in mid-2010.  He both wrote and co-directed the film “The Rabbi’s Cat”, and thus the animation is lovingly faithful to his striking visual style.  However the true delight of the film is how it cleverly frames questions of modern Jewish identity.  The fantastical story of how the widower Rabbi Sfar (yes, same surname), his grown daughter Zlabya and their talking cat (who swallowed a parrot, thus can speak) negotiate life in Algeria in the pre-war years operates in part as adventure story and in part as philosophical meditation on Jewish life.  For Jews, many of the film’s scenes are, quite simply, laugh-out-loud funny.

Reviewers have described the film’s visual style as a cross between “Tintin” and Chagall, and compared it favourably to the Iranian animated film “Persepolis”.  It won a top award at the 2011Annecy International Animated Film Festival, which is the premiere “go to” place for animated films.  With its talking cat, there are shades of the 1986 animated film “An American Tail” (a Russian Jewish mouse emigrates to America) as well, but “The Rabbi’s Cat” is definitely for adults.

By contrast, the film “Free Men” (“Les Hommes Libre”) takes a direct dramatic approach.  Set in 1942 occupied Paris, a young Algerian Muslim black market trader Younes (Tahar Rahim) is coopted by the French police to inform on activities at his local mosque (whose imam is played by Michael Lonsdale from “Of Gods and Men”).  The politically naive Younes is gradually drawn into the intrigue and ends up supporting local Arab efforts of working with the Resistance to save French Jews.  Reportedly “inspired by true events”, the film is a conscious effort to show that Arab-Jewish enmity is not ordained.  The film provides a unique view (the Arab perspective) of a crucial period in history French-Jewish history, although the narrative develops somewhat slowly and the limited production values pale against sharper French films set during this period.

Both films screen numerous times in each city where the festival runs:  Melbourne (7-25 March), Sydney (6-25 March), Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.

(This review appeared in a slightly different form in the Australian Jewish News on 1 March 2012.)