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.

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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.

 


Land of Mine film review

March 30, 2017

(This film review of Land of Mine appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 30 March 2017.)

Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet

The title of the Danish-German film “Land of Mine” (“Under Sandet”) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm the land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark. Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant (Roland Møller) who is filled with rage against the Germans.  Although there are no Jewish characters or themes in “Land of Mine”, this powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished because of the actions by Nazi state, and how? Møller wonderfully portrays the emotional journey of his character, giving the film a strong and satisfying emotional development.

“Land of Mine” is not a fanciful story: it happened. The Germans laid almost two million mines along the Danish coastline. The process of clearing them took more than five months, reportedly killing more people than the five-year German occupation of that country. More than 2,000 German prisoners were forced to undertake mine removal, and about half of them died or suffered serious injuries: the film does not shy away from these injuries (viewers be warned). Because forcing prisoners to undertake such work contravenes the Geneva Convention, this era in history remains a shameful one for Denmark – although it’s just that theme that attracted Danish writer/director Martin Zandvliet to the subject. Zandvliet credits Jewish documentary film directors (and brothers) David and Albert Maysels (“Gimme Shelter”, “Grey Gardens”) as his inspiration: “The way the Maysels brothers filmed their subjects was so vulnerable and sensuous that you could not help feeling the presence of their characters.”

“Land of Mine” was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost out to the Iranian film “The Salesman”. In a different year, “Land of Mine” could easily have won the Oscar. The film premiered in Australia at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, where it was one of the Festival’s most popular.


Film review of Labyrinth of Lies

April 3, 2016

(This film review of “Labyrinth of Lies” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 31 March 2016.)

Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli; written by Giulio Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel; starring Alexander Fehling and André Szymanski

As incredible as it may now seem, more than 70 years after the end of the Holocaust – and with Germany leading the way in continental European recognition of the horrors of the Nazi genocide – not until the early 1960s did Germans first widely understand what had happened in Auschwitz and other camps.

A key historical event that helped to create this consciousness was the “Frankfurt Auschwitz trials”, which took place from December 1963 to August 1965. While only 22 of the more than 7,000 surviving SS members involved in Auschwitz camp administration were charged during these trials (with more than 700 eventually sentenced), the events marked an important milestone. German prosecutors acted under German law in Germany, unlike the Allied military tribunals in Nuremberg in late 1945 and 1946.

This almost forgotten slice of German history provides the background to the fictional feature German film, “Labyrinth of Lies” (Im Labyrinth des Schweigens), which illustrates the dramatic events of that time. Following this film’s Australian premiere at last year’s Festival of Jewish Film, it is opening nationally in a limited number of cinemas, enabling a wider audience.

Hunky German actor Alexander Fehling plays Johann Radmann, an idealistic and naïve assistant prosecutor who decides to pursue the legal case against the former SS guards, spurred on by a passionate and crusading journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), who also brings Johann into a bohemian world previously unknown to the young lawyer. Fehling is familiar to non-German audiences for his roles in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and as Claire Danes’ boyfriend in the “Homeland” TV series.

Radmann is supported by the Attorney-General Fritz Bauer (played by Kurt Voss), which is the actual name of the real German chief prosecutor at the time, and the true hero of the Frankfurt trials. Bauer’s history – mostly hinted at in this film – is worthy of its own feature, and is the story I really wanted to watch. Born in Germany to Jewish parents, after incarceration in the Heuberg concentration camp with his friend Karl Schumacher (a leader of German Social Democratic Party), Bauer fled to Denmark and then Sweden, returning to Germany after the war to resume his legal career as a prosecutor and judge.

“Labyrinth of Lies” fictionalises the stories, humanising the narrative by presenting the events through Radmann’s eyes, with his growing commitment, enthusiasm and identification with the victims of Nazi terror. He faces all of the usual barriers – people who don’t want to know (especially those in authority), and a society-wide willingness to “forget” and get on with life.

As Holocaust dramas go, “Labyrinth of Lies” receives a B+, notable because of some strong performances (Fehling, Voss and others) and its willingness to illustrate a forgotten moment of Holocaust aftermath. The film also touches on the role that Bauer played with helping to track down Eichmann and working with the Mossad. With a slow start, an often predictable plotline, and an unfortunate tendency to present Holocaust survivors as stereotyped two-dimensional damaged characters, “Labyrinth of Lies” finally proves its worth by illustrating what we all now know, but may forget: the Nazi war machine ran because of the willing participation of a large percentage of the German population, not just a select few.

Alexander Fehling (Rolle: Johann Radmann)

(Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in “Labyrinth of Lies”)


Film review of Phoenix

December 6, 2015

(This review of “Phoenix” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on December 3, 2015.)

Directed by Christian Petzold
Written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki
Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf

Sneaking into Australian cinemas this week with little fanfare comes one of the most important Jewish films of 2015: “Phoenix”, a noir-ish German drama that raises important questions of personal identity, collaboration and betrayal. Set in immediate post-war Berlin, German-Jewish Holocaust survivor and former nightclub singer Nelly (Nina Hoss) has been horribly disfigured. With the assistance of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a fellow survivor who works for the Jewish Agency, she starts to recover her life, first by taking the opportunity to reconstruct her face. Despite the horrors Nelly went through, all she wants to do is to pick up the pieces: her request to the facial surgeon is, “to look exactly like I used to”. But with such severe injuries, the result is a new face, along with the possibility of a new life, allowing Nelly to pass un-noticed among those she once knew.

Against Lene’s objections, Nelly wants to find her non-Jewish husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may – or may not – have turned her in to the Nazis. She’s a lost and broken soul wandering in a ruined Berlin, where she finds her way to the neon red-lit Phoenix nightclub (the double-entendre of rising from the ashes is intentional). And yes, there’s Johnny, a sleazy survivor ever “on the make”, who does not (or simply refuses to) recognise Nelly but sees enough of a similarity with his presumed dead wife to hatch a plan so that he can obtain her money.

To appreciate “Phoenix”, you must set aside the implausibility of Johnny’s incomprehension that this woman – to her great horror – is, in fact, his very alive wife. In a huge act of emotional subjugation with its horrifying psychological implications, Nelly goes along with the plan, believing that this is the way to regain her life and identity, going so far as taking Johnny’s instructions as how to act like Nelly and helping to create a “back story” for the “fake” Nelly.

Here “Phoenix” contains strong parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), with its psychological melodrama of masquerade and shifting and duplicate identities. These similarities may not be accidental, as both films are based on post-war French novels. Viewers with sharp memories may recall that this story has been told on film before, in the 1961 British film “The Return from the Ashes”, written by Julius J. Epstein (“Casablanca”). This tangled web of stories based on personal betrayal and psychological dysfunction reflects early attempts by European novelists and film-makers to grapple with the horrors of the Holocaust.

Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear winner Christian Petzold directs “Phoenix” with great visual flair that has made it a universal darling of film critics. Despite this acclaim, “Phoenix” contains many elements that Jewish audiences may find uncomfortable, in the same way as last year’s Polish film, “Ida”, did. Both films show only a couple of depressive Jewish characters in bleak post-war landscapes. Unlike the triumphalism of films like “Exodus”, Zionism seems to offer these survivors little or no hope for the future.

Ultimately, “Phoenix” reveals more about the concerns of post-war Germany than it does about the Holocaust. As Ryan Gilbey wrote in The Guardian, the film’s “warped narrative functions as an allegory for the stories that people and nations recount to themselves in order to go on surviving”. The power of the Holocaust in our memory is now so great that its stories are unexpectedly at risk of being universalised to represent even the fate of Germany.

(In German with English subtitles.)

Phoenix poster


Sydney Film Festival 2015

May 29, 2015

(This article on the Sydney Film Festival appeared in the Sydney edition of The Australian Jewish News on 28 May 2015.)

Because the Sydney Film Festival considers more than 3000 films for its program each year, and holds no quotas for any country, the selection of films with Jewish themes provides us with an insight into the modern Jewish experience: what issues are on the minds of us Jews – and others in the world? As the German-Jewish cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote in 1947, the themes that people choose for films are important windows into the subconscious mind of their present-day moment.

This year’s result is a mixed one, portraying a great range of Jewish personalities across time and space. There is one Holocaust drama, an experimental drama about Russian part-Jewish film director Sergei Eisenstein, and three documentaries about prominent Jews: a British pop singer (Amy Winehouse), an American fashion designer (Iris Apfel) and an American classical pianist (Seymour Bernstein).

Undoubtedly the Jewish highlight of this year’s festival is the German film “Phoenix”, directed by Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear winner Christian Petzold. Long-time Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Holocaust survivor whose face has been horribly disfigured. Set in immediate post-war Berlin, Nelly takes the opportunity to reconstruct a new face that allows her to pass un-noticed amongst those she once knew, including her husband, who may – or who may not – have turned her in to the Nazis. The result is a noir-ish mystery of personal identity, masquerade and strong drama.

The film “Amy” brings to screen the creative life and tragic death of British-Jewish pop singer Amy Winehouse. This stunning evocation of the troubled artist’s impact, relationships, music and legacy arrives in Sydney direct from Cannes, where it premiered two weeks ago, and prior to its international cinema release in early July.

The late Albert Maysles was truly one of the great Jewish documentarians, the co-director of classics like “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”. Although he passed away in March of this year at age 88, his final film is a biographical portrait of 93 year-old fashion designer Iris Apfel, a noted New York-born Jewish interior and fashion designer. Among other achievements, Apfel’s company, Old World Weavers, provided furnishings for every American president from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton. Maysles’ film, “Iris”, is her story, and a must-see for rag-traders.

Thinking man’s actor Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”) directs another Jewish biographical documentary, looking at the life of 87 year-old Seymour Bernstein in “Seymour: An Introduction”. Bernstein stopped his concert career abruptly at age 50 because of panic attacks, and this film touchingly charts his first performance in more than 35 years.

Fresh from this year’s Berlin Festival comes “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”, directed by Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) about time in Mexico spent by Sergei Eisenstein (“The Battleship Potemkin”) in 1930. This highly unconventional film features explicit gay sex, making it likely to be seen only at film festivals. The film industry weekly “Variety” calls “Last Tango in Paris” “tame” by comparison with Greenaway’s effort.

Two short films also contain Jewish themes: one from Israel (“Lama”, or “Why”) and a Palestinian-French co-production (“Ave Maria”) about an Israeli settler’s family whose car breaks down outside a West Bank convent.

Other films of interest include “God Told Me To”, a 1976 murder classic by Larry Cohen; “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, a tell-all documentary that the Church of Scientology has bitterly opposed; “Love and Mercy”, a bio-pic of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, co-written by Israeli Oren Moverman; and “Theeb”, a Jordanian co-production set in 1916 Arabian desert.

There is also a special “focus on South Africa”, with five films, including the classic 1973 “blaxploitation” film, “Joe Bullet”, made with an all-African cast and banned by the Apartheid government after just two public screenings.

(Image from the film “Phoenix”, starring Nina Hoss, appears below.)

PHOENIX 2013


Film review of Woman in Gold

May 22, 2015

(This review of “Woman in Gold” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 May 2015.)

Directed by Simon Curtis; Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell; Starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance and Antje Traue

With its wide historical sweep and Holocaust theme, the new dramatic film “Woman in Gold” is the first big Jewish film of 2015. This re-creation of the true story of how Viennese Jewish refuge Maria Altmann reclaimed her family’s Nazi stolen art is told from the perspective of E. Randol (“Randy”) Schoenberg, the American Jewish lawyer who took up her cause. The film ranges from early twenty-first century Los Angeles back in time to the 1920s – when Gustav Klimt painted a commission of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer – and ahead to the 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria, finally concluding in 2006.

Directed by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”), “Woman in Gold” stars Helen Mirren as Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Schoenberg, who risks his professional career on the outcome of the case. As the grandson of the great Austrian-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, he had a strong personal interest in the fate of Austrian Jews and a long-time family connection with Altmann.

High production values add enormously to the impact of “Woman in Gold”. The classically defined nineteenth century architecture of Vienna nicely contrasts with the bland modern Los Angeles (which Randy Schoenberg describes as one of his grandfather Arnold’s “three great hates”) where Altmann and Schoenberg live.

“Woman of Gold” succeeds despite a pedestrian script (by first-timer Alexi Kaye Campbell), which frequently insists on “telling” the audience how characters feel, rather than showing us. Maria’s proclamation that, “I have to do what I can to keep the memories alive. Because people forget, especially the young. And then there’s justice”, feels stilted and predictable. There is too little mystery and little left to our imagination. We see scenes of Jews being forced to scrub sidewalks in 1938 Vienna, and of men having their beards cut off. Check and check. The problem is that we have seen these scenes before, all told in more affecting ways.

With no doubt about the film’s inevitable resolution, the main characters’ internal journeys needed to be made larger than life, in order to give us, the viewers, a reason to care about their fate. There was strong Austrian opposition to Altmann’s claims, concern that they would lose their national “Mona Lisa”.

Yet despite these faults, “Woman of Gold” works, in large part because of some exceptional performances, with Helen Mirren superbly personifying Maria. (This is Mirren’s third Jewish role, having played Ayn Rand in a 1999 telemovie and – most notably – the character of Rachel Singer in the Israeli spy drama “The Debt”.)

Ryan Reynolds bears a physical similarity to Schoenberg and performs strongly in an underwritten role that never quite illustrates the deep doubts, concerns and personal risks he most likely felt. The third key performance is by German actor Daniel Brühl, who does a great job in the role of the late Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, who helped to uncover the false ownership claims of the Klimt paintings.

“Woman in Gold” also achieves a high level of verisimilitude in its use of language. Unlike many English language films that are partly set in Europe – including notable Holocaust dramas such as “Schindler’s List” – these on-screen actors speak German on screen (with subtitles) when their characters are meant to. This effect is important, because an underlying theme of “Woman of Gold” is not only personal and financial loss, but the cultural dissociation connected with becoming refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria – a loss that included the German language and culture that so nurtured the assimilated and successful Viennese Jews.

There are many other wonderful touches in “Woman in Gold”, including an exquisite re-creation of Adele Bloch-Bauer (played by German actress Antje Traue), Maria Altmann’s aunt. Klimt (played by Moiritz Bleibtreu) also makes an appearance, as does Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder (son of Estée, and played by British actor Ben Miles), who ultimately purchases the painting of Adele for his Neue Gallery in New York City. Katie Holmes plays Schoenberg’s wife Pam, Max Irons (son of Jeremy) plays Maria’s young husband Frederick, Charles Dance plays the boss of Schoenberg’s law firm and Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce appear as American judges.

More than any recent mainstream feature film, “Woman in Gold” shows how we Jews regard ourselves as one connected family. As one of the characters proclaims, this is “a moment in history in which the past is asking the present” to make amends. Altmann and Schoenberg were driven in part by the great responsibility to honour the generations that came before them.

With the stunning Klimt painting at the heart of this story, it is tailor-made for film. Although the story has already been told in three documentaries, “The Rape of Europa” (2006), “Adele’s Wish” (2008) and especially “Stealing Klimt” (2007), this is the first dramatic feature. Last year’s “Monuments Men” with George Clooney covered similar ground, but “Woman of Gold” is far superior in tone, style and substance.

Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

(above: Gustav Klimt’s painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer)