Film review of Sobibor

October 21, 2018

(This film review of “Sobibor” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 October 2018, in a shortened form. It plays as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.)

The film “Sobibor” comes to the Festival carrying a lot more meaning than a big-budget story about a Nazi death camp., Located in eastern Poland, Sobibor (the camp) was one of the most deadly of the Nazi concentration camps, where 250,000+ Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Holland, Germany and the Soviet Union – notably including Jewish-Soviet POWs – were murdered.

The film provides a fictionalised version of the Sobibor prisoner uprising, the most successful of concentration camp revolts (Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka also had smaller, less successful uprisings). The 1987 British telemovie “Escape from Sobibor”, starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer, previously portrayed these events. (Documentaries have also been made by Claude Lanzmann and Pavel Kogan.) This Russian version carries great meaning and is likely to be one of the most watched films of the Festival, as its director and star Konstantin Khabenskiy (“Night Watch”, “Admiral”) will be a JIFF guest.

The uprising was led by the Soviet-Jewish POW Aleksandr Pechersky (Khabenskiy), who organised the uprising in just three weeks, eventually including the majority of the 550 Sobibor prisoners. With few weapons, they killed a number of SS soldiers and Ukrainian guards. Of those who escaped, about 80 were killed during the revolt, 170 others found and killed later and many others turned over by local collaborators. Yet 53 managed to survive the war – including Pechersky.

“Sobibor” can be a tough film to watch and prospective viewers are forewarned. An early scene shows a large number of naked women herded into a gas chamber and gassed, with attendant screams and vomiting. As Cnaan Liphshiz writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the film is one of the goriest of its kind, there’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions.”

Numerous Holocaust films have been set in the camps, notably including Oscar winners “Schindler’s List” and “Son of Saul”. While “Sobibor” doesn’t rise to the dramatic or artistic heights of these two, its large budget – much of it from Russian government sources – ensures that the action is realistic, although some of the details of Nazi camp procedures may be debated.

The film has already had unprecedented success in Russian cinemas, and is Russia’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards. It also carries important contemporary political significance, as part of a Russian attempt to ensure that the Soviet Union’s role in European liberation is recognised. As Russia Today reports, the film “is a major step … to preserving historical truth … about the heroism of the Soviet people … who saved Europe and the whole world from fascism at the cost of many lives.” A recent screening of the film for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscores how Russia has made the Sobibor revolt an important part of their national story.

Jewish themes and directors abound at Melbourne International Film Festival

July 30, 2017

(This article appeared in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 27 July 2017.)

Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF, 3-20 August), the selection of films reflecting Jewish subjects and characters provides an unusual insight into how the “current moment” of Jewish life is reflected in contemporary film.  This year there are lots of Jewish stories, with Jews both behind and in front of the camera in the USA, Russia, Poland, Israel – and Australia.

In a festival full of Jewish film riches, the “must see” is the opening night world premiere of “Jungle”, a fictional re-telling by Greg McLean (Australian director of “Wolf Creek”) of the real-life story of adventurer and entrepreneur Yossi Ghinsberg, played by Jewish actor Daniel Radcliffe. The 22-year-old Ghinsberg travelled with two friends into the uncharted Amazon, but the dream trip turned into a nightmare from which not all returned. The film has been described as a “stunningly shot, edge-of-your seat story of survival and self-discovery …. entertaining, terrifying and deeply moving.” The Festival also features an “In Conversation” session with the real Yossi Ghinsberg and director Greg McLean, moderated by journalist Sandy George.

A different Israeli story features in the documentary “Death in the Terminal” by co-directors Asaf Sudry and Tali Shemesh, providing a tense, minute-by-minute account of mistaken identity and mob justice by recreating the events of a 2015 terrorist attack in Beersheva. Using CCTV footage, mobile phone videos and witness testimonies, real events unfold from multiple angles. (Caution: contains archival footage of real killings.)

Three fascinating films come from Russia – a contemporary thriller, a meditative documentary on the Holocaust and an early classic sci fi. “Closeness”, the feature debut from Kantemir Balagov, based on a true story is set in a Jewish enclave within a mostly-Muslim region of the Caucasus. The story follows Ilana (Jewish actress Darya Zhovner), whose family is rocked when her younger brother David and his fiancée are abducted, with the kidnappers demanding a large ransom. The program cautions that the film “contains archival footage of real killings”.

“Austerlitz”, by Russian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, draws on the “observational cinema” technique of Jewish film-maker Frederick Wiseman. Berlin-based Loznitsa frequently engages in Jewish topics and consciously named his film after the WG Sebald novel, “Austerlitz”, as it explores similar themes of memory and history. The film watches how tourists behave at two Nazi concentration camps: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The black and white camera captures how sometimes intense, often distracted tourists act in these places. A true cultural commentary for our times. Loznitsa’s film “A Gentle Creature” – about the decay of modern Russia – also screens.

Many of the photographers and cinematographers in the Soviet Union until 1932 were Jews, including Jakov (Yakov) Protazanov, director of the ground-breaking 1924 silent “Aelita, Queen of Mars”. It was the first Soviet science fiction film ever made.

The rarely seen “The Man Who Cried” (2000) constitutes part of MIFF’s Sally Potter retrospective. Growing up in England, Russian Jewish refugee Suzie (Christina Ricci) befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett), gypsy horse-handler Cesar (Johnny Depp) and opera star Dante (John Turturro). The emotionally rich film follows Suzie through the Second World War to finding her father in America.

Two documentaries examine the experiences of Arab life on the West Bank. “Waiting for Giraffes”, looks at the only operating zoo on the West Bank. It’s a quixotic quest by zoo vet Dr Sami to build up the zoo and bring in new giraffes. In reaching out to his Israeli colleagues, the film posits hope for future friendly coexistence. Georgian-born Israeli film-maker Helen Yanovsky directs “The Boy from H2”, a 21 minute short about a 12-year-old Arab boy who lives in Hebron’s Area H2, a section of the city controlled by Israeli military; co-produced by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.

Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa” and “Angry Harvest”), born in Warsaw in 1948 as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who received a Yad Vashem Righteous Persons medal, won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear with the feminist ecological thriller “Spoor”. Also from Poland comes “Afterimage”, the final film from the late master Andrzej Wajda (“Katyń”, “Land of Promise”), which dramatises the final years of Polish avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński, who observed the Holocaust unfolding first-hand living in Łódź in war-time Poland. Strzemiński’s 1947 piece, a 10 collage work entitled “To My Friends the Jews”, combined drawings and photographs from both the ghetto and death camps, to become one of the most significant “pro” Jewish works at a time of great antisemitism in that country.

Other Jewish directors abound. British-born Jewish comedian Ben Elton premieres his first Australian film, “Three Summers”, set in a fictional West Australian rural folk festival. New York Jewish indie directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (the “new Coen brothers”) return with “Good Time”, nominated for the Palme d’Or at the latest Cannes Film Festival. Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” stars Debra Winger and Tracey Letts; “The Lost City of Z” from James Gray’s (“The Immigrant”) tells an Amazon story not unlike Yossi Ghinsberg’s; and Marc Meyers’ “My Friend Dahmer” stars Ross Lynch as the notorious American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

American Jewish documentarians represented in the Festival include John Scheinfeld “Chasing Trane”, about musician John Coltrane; Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral: The VR Experience”; Matthew Heineman “City of Ghosts”, about journalists and ISIS in Iraq; and Amir Bar-Lev’s “Long Strange Trip” about The Grateful Dead. Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz’s (“Legally Blonde”) “Step” charts stories of African-American dancers, and New York-based Israeli-born Shaul Schwarz’s “Trophy” explores the world of big-game hunters and animal rights activists.

Closer to home, MIFF includes a preview of ABC TV season 2 of “Glitch”, directed by Australian Jewish director Tony Krawitz. And Melbourne Jewish director Gregory Erdstein again collaborates with his wife, writer/actress Alice Foulcher, in Australian comedy “That’s Not Me”.

Also worth catching: a reprise of the 1956 classic American frightener “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed by Don Siegel; Chilean-Jewish director Alicia Scherson’s “Family Life”, a  “delightfully strange, heartfelt look at mid-30s ennui”; “Porto”, with the final performance by the late Jewish actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”); and “Manifesto” a 90-minute version of the German-Australian multi-screen co-production in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 roles, loosely based on the Karl Marx tract.

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.

Russian Resurrection Film Festival in Australia returns

July 10, 2013

(This review of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 3 July 2013.)

While the Russian-Jewish experience has long been reflected in mainstream film (think “Fiddler on the Roof”, Steven Spielberg’s animated “American Tail” and the more recent “Defiance”), films about the contemporary experience of Russian Jews rarely enter widespread popular consciousness.  For this reason, the Russian Resurrection Film Festival provides a valuable reflection of the changing nature of the Russian Jewish experience.

And what an experience it has been.  More than five million Jews lived in the “Pale of Settlement” at the end of the 19th century (an area that also included parts of what is now Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Belorussia) – including all eight of my great-grandparents and three of my four grandparents.  Despite substantial emigration, the number of Jews living in greater Russia was still likely to be greater than five million at the beginning of the Second World War, but now has declined to less than 400,000, due to the Nazi Holocaust, and more latterly, assimilation, low birth rates, and emigration to the USA and Israel.

This year, two Festival films capture aspects of the new Russian life in the post-Communist era. If you had to choose one film-maker who represents the diversity, complexity and contradictions of Russian Jewish life, Pavel Lungin would likely be your pick.  Coming from a Jewish background, he has made some of the most fascinating Jewish-themed films in recent years: “Lunar Park” (about a skinhead who discovers he is Jewish), “Taxi Blues” (a Jewish musician’s relationship with an antisemitic taxi driver) and “The Tycoon” (based on the life of Jewish entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky).

In “The Conductor”, a Russian chamber orchestra travels to Jerusalem to present a concert of the “St. Matthew Passion oratorio“.  While none of the orchestra’s members appear to be Jewish, their lives intersect with Israelis in unusual ways.  Vyacheslav Petrov (Vladas Bagdonas), the taciturn, widely feared and angry conductor of the orchestra, has some very unusual business to conduct.  His estranged son, an aspiring artist, has been living in Jerusalem in a commune of a mixed young Russians and Israelis, and Petrov has important personal business to conduct there.  Other members of the orchestra – all of them experiencing personal dilemmas of some sort – experience life in Israel in raw and even tragic ways.  A few decades ago, these Russia-Israel connections would have been inconceivable, but they now constitute a rich source of drama, of which “The Conductor” is one.  “The Conductor” is a bleak, dense and dark film (most scenes seem to take place at night or in gray light) with subtle Christian overtones; watch particularly for the scene where Petrov carries a life-size painting of a naked man through Jerusalem streets.

The Conductor photo

By contrast, the film “Hipsters” provides a bright, loud, colourful and crazily upbeat view of what surely was a very difficult time in Russia:  the mid-1950s.  If Baz Luhrmann were to be reincarnated as a Russian film director, this is the film that he would make – filled with singing, dancing, great costumes and lots of music.  The Russian title of the film is “Stilyagi”, which means “obsessed with fashion”.  And that’s just what most of the main characters are:  young adults still living at home in Moscow who are fascinated by American dress and music, and model themselves on what appears to be Frankie Avalon, Elvis Presley and the mythical American “hip” fashions of that time.

The main character is a young man named “Mels”; and as the film opens he is part of a “komsomol” gang that pursues the “hipsters” unmercifully.  His name speaks Russian Communist tradition, as it is an acronym for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. He falls in love with a beautiful “hipster” woman and reinvents himself by dropping the “s” to become “Mel”.  One of Mel’s closest hipster friends is Bob, and here is the Jewish sidebar:  it becomes clear that Bob is Jewish, his father is a doctor and his parents live their whole lives in fear with their bags packed at the door in case they must flee.  It’s an odd theme to throw in a film that sits mostly in fantasy, but underlines the marginal nature of Jews in Soviet society during that period.

Back in 2009, “Hipsters” swept the “Golden Eagles” and the “Nikas” – the Russian equivalents of the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and is an undeniably entertaining film.  It’s light, frothy and features music from popular Soviet bands from the 1970s and 1980s:  think “Hairspray”, Russian-style.

Other films of interest in this year’s festival include some major Russian box office successes – notablyLegend No. 17”, a true story about Russia’s successful 1972 ice hockey in Canada; the psychological thriller For Marx(labour unrest in a steel factor); and Russia’s big budget disaster film Metro”,  about passengers trapped in flooded Moscow subways.

The Festival opene in Melbourne at the Palace Cinema Como last week, followed by Canberra on 16 July, Sydney on 24 July, Brisbane on 26 July, Perth on 1 August and Byron Bay on 2 August.

Russian Resurrection 2013 logo

Russian Resurrection Film Festival in Australia

September 6, 2012

Review of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 6 September 2012

It’s the closest you can get to Russia without visiting. In its ninth year in Australia, the 2012 Russian Resurrection Film Festival brings twenty-five films, including two classic Chekhovian dramas from the 1970s, two unusual children’s films and three classics about the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon.

Undoubtedly the most interesting film of the Festival is the war film “Match”, which takes place in Nazi-occupied Kiev.  In the so-called “Death Match” of August 1942, Kiev’s best football club Dynamo Kiev beat a team of star German Luftwaffe players, despite alleged threats to kill the Ukrainians if they won.  For decades after the event, the accepted version of the story was that all of the Ukrainian players were murdered by the Nazis for defying the orders to “throw” the match. This story has been immortalised in books and movies, including the 1981 Hollywood film “Escape to Victory” starring Sylvester Stallone and Pele as Allied POWs who beat a Nazi football team.  But following Ukrainian independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a different story emerged: while some of the players were arrested and a few subsequently shot, it was because they had attempted to kill German soldiers

Although set in the Ukraine, the film “Match” was made by Russians and follows the traditional Russian line on the events of 1942. This includes portraying the mayor of Kiev as a Nazi stooge (warmly welcoming the Germans as they occupy the city) and showing most Ukrainian speakers as collaborators whereas the Russian speakers are uniformly heroic. Few of us non-Russian speakers will be able to detect the intricacies of who speaks Russian and who speaks Ukrainian, but what is clear – although not commented on in reviews I have read – is that the film virtually ignores the tragedy which befell Ukrainian Jews upon the Nazi occupation. At the time, some 20 percent of Kiev’s population (175,000) was Jewish, and the first killings at Babi Yar – over two murderous days – were of almost 34,000 Jews. Despite its extensive cast and budget, “Match” skips this history and in fact re-writes parts of it.

“Match” became controversial in April and May of this year, when Ukraine threatened to ban the film. Authorities expressed concerns that it would stir anti-German violence during the Euro 2012 championships about to begin, with German teams slated to play a number of games in Kiev. Lest we think that the past is dead and buried, the complicated German-Russian-Ukrainian relationship is still being played out on soccer fields and cinema screens.

For fans of cinema history, the festival’s highlights are undoubtedly the historical films on the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s march into Russia. The Festival showcases the joint French-Russian silent film “1812” (appropriately enough, released in 1912) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive 1967 version of “War and Peace”, which runs a full seven hours. The latter film won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1969 and reportedly used 120,000 extras to re-enact the battle of Borodino. At an “inflation-adjusted” production cost of $560million, some claim it is the most expensive film ever made. Truly one to be savoured in the cinema. Just bring your lunch and dinner.

The Festival has been highly successful in bringing some of the most popular Russian films of the last year to Australia, including the box office romance hits “Yolki 2 sequel to Six Degrees of Celebration” (Red Square on New Years Eve) and “Two Days”, which is set against debates of Russian culture and literature.

The Festival also features two fascinating reflections of how Russian society is beginning to engage with spiritual pursuits, with “My Boyfriend is an Angel” and the Russian tank equivalent to “Sink the Bismarck”, the World War II film “White Tiger” based on the novel “Tankman” by Ilya Boyashov. The rich variety of current Russian cinema is also evident in the most popular Russian animated film ever released, “Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf”.

The Concert film review

May 6, 2010

(This film review appeared in the May 6, 2010 edition of the Australian Jewish News.  Also note the link to my video review of “The Concert” below).

Directed and written by Radu Mihaileanu

Starring Aleksei Guskov, Melanie Laurent, Dimitri Nazarov, Valeri Barinov and Miou Miou 

Romanian-French Jewish film director Radu Mihaileanu specialises in fable-like stories with major Jewish themes.  His 1998 film Train de Vie (Train of Life) portrayed a Jewish village in Poland that organised to escape the Nazis by taking over a train and shipping themselves (with the best German speakers playing German soldiers) to Palestine.  Although Life is Beautiful gained the awards and international recognition, it was Mihaileanu who first used fantasy as escape from the Holocaust.  His last film, Live and Become, was about an Ethiopian Christian boy who pretends he is Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel during “Operation Moses” in 1984.

Mihaileanu’s current film The Concert uses the same theme of pretence and identity switch, this time set in the present day.  The film opens on a Russian symphonic conductor, Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov), blissfully conducting a rehearsal in a major concert hall.  But all is not as it seems, as the camera pulls back and we realise that Filipov is only pretending to conduct from the balcony seats, and is in fact a cleaner, a disgraced former conductor of the “Bolshoi Orchestra” who lost his job three decades earlier during the Brezhnev era for refusing to fire Jewish musicians.

When Filipov intercepts a fax inviting the orchestra to give a concert at the famed Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, he rashly decides to bring his old group of musicians together and do it himself.  But this is no simple task:  he needs to find, convince and organise his widely spread group of misfits – mostly Jews with a few gypsies thrown in for good measure – to make their way to Paris.  Against the vehement protestations of his Jewish cellist Sacha Grossman (Dimitri Nazarov), he enlists a die-hard former Communist Party official, Ivan Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov) as the tour’s negotiator and manager.

Part of Filipov’s plan is to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, and to enlist young French violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent, from Inglorious Basterds) – who he secretly adores from afar – as the soloist.  But the difficult Jacquet is shielded by her manager and guardian (played by classic French actress and the wonderfully named Miou-Miou), and clearly there is more to the Jacquet-Filipov story than is first apparent.

This delicate and highly entertaining film makes clever and often hilarious points about modern entrepreneurial Russia (the Russian musicians all immediately race out to try to make money when they arrive in Paris), French artistic pretensions, and the clash of cultures between new and old Russia (the ex-Communist leader Gavrilov still holds illusions as to how the French masses will unite behind him) and Russia and the West.  The Russians all speak a delightfully fractured French, which apparently charmed the French audiences when it opened there late last year (a passing knowledge of French definitely helps to understand the humour).  The Concert opened at number one in France, and achieved almost two million admissions, making it one of the most popular French films of 2009 – and where it was also nominated for best film, director, script and editing in the French “Cesar” awards (and won for best music and sound).

The Concert is about making music and finding your dream.  But it is also about the modern Jewish condition, because the background theme to the whole film is the anti-Jewish actions of Communist Soviet Union from the 1960s and 1970s.  The film has Mihaileanu’s characteristic combination of broad comedy and touching personal identity search, this time blended with Gallic philosophising and amusing Russian consumerism.  I found the mixture to be both moving and delightful.

Watch the video review here: