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.


Film review of The Zookeepers Wife

May 14, 2017

This film review of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 4 May 2017

Directed by Niki Caro; written by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman; starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl and Michael McElhatton


“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a notable film about Jewish survival, but is not a film about Jews. Based on a true story of a non-Jewish Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo at the outbreak of the Second World War, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – adapted from the book by Diane Ackerman – is one of a growing number of dramatic films that tell the stories of Righteous Gentiles (think “Schindler’s List” and “Irena Sendler”).

The film opens in summer of 1939; an idyllic “Belle Epoque” Warsaw Zoo appears like a Garden of Eden, with strange animals running after their almost-rapturous keepers, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty” & “Interstellar”) and Jan Zabinski (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), accompanied by their contemplative young son Ryszard. The Zabinskis love their animals, and New Zealand director Niki Caro does an extraordinary job of showing human-zoo animal intimate interactions, such as healing a sick young elephant (if it was special effects, I couldn’t tell).

The peaceful retreat doesn’t last. When the Germans attack Poland and bomb Warsaw, the zoo is decimated and lives are changed forever. The narrative is familiar: the Nazi occupation, attacks on the local Jewish population and development of the Warsaw Ghetto.

But what happens next is a first for Holocaust screen stories: Antonina and Jan grow a plan to slip Jews out of the ghetto and hide them in a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars at the zoo, creating an “underground railroad”. The pretext is raising pigs (the “treif” juxtaposition is not explored) for food by using ghetto garbage. A sub-plot involves the Nazi Director of the Berlin Zoo, Dr Lutz Heck (German actor Daniel Bruhl) attracted to Antonina. Other notable historical figures appear, including Dr Janusz Korczak, who ran a famous orphanage in the ghetto.

The film has a convincing production design (shot in Prague), fabulous animals and strong acting from the principals, especially Chastain, who rivals Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice”) with her Polish accent. Despite its strong Holocaust and war themes, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does feel tame at times; it’s rated “M” (“not recommended for children under 15”). Most violence and killing, including the animals, happens off-screen. This “soft pitch” film-making shouldn’t give nightmares, but does undermine the dramatic impact of what is still a great story.

(above: Johan Heldenbergh outside the set of the Warsaw Zoo)

Film review of Denial

April 13, 2017

This film review of “Denial” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 13 April 2017.

Directed by Mick Jackson; written by David Hare, based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt; starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall and Andrew Scott


Not long after American history professor Deborah Lipstadt published her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, she and her publisher Penguin Books was sued by British author – and noted Holocaust denier – David Irving for libel. The story of this court case becomes the film “Denial”, opening in Australian cinemas this week.

British libel laws operate differently than other countries: the defendant is presumed guilty unless they can be proven innocent and the burden of proof is much higher. Not only was Lipstadt’s credibility on trial, but also that of Holocaust scholarship, with Irving using the opportunity to promote his denial ideology by focussing on small “unproven” items that could cast doubts on the Nazi genocide.

This docu-drama illustrates real events over the period 1994 to 2000, based on Lipstadt’s memoir, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial” (previously “History on Trial”). The film opens with a confrontation where Irving disrupted a lecture of Lipstadt, and then recounts the court case itself, almost solely through Lipstadt’s eyes. We see her meetings with her legal team, with British Jewish community leaders and with an un-named survivor. Lipstadt is forced to watch the trial unfold without speaking out because her legal advisers focussed on making the case about Irving (who conducted his own defence) rather than about her.

“Denial” gathers a great cast of British actors, with Rachel Weisz – originally tipped for an Oscar nomination for the role – neatly capturing Lipstadt’s nasal New York (Queens) accent. Tom Wilkinson – one of the best character actors working in film today – plays Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, and Timothy Spall (the artist Turner in “Mr Turner”) inhabits the persona of David Irving in a form likely to burn itself in public consciousness as the definitive Irving. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in “Sherlock”) plays lead solicitor Anthony Julius, who in real life is one of Britain’s leading campaigners against antisemitism. Many important historians appear, including Cambridge academic Richard J. Evans (played by John Sessions) and Dutch scholar Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss).

The characters are delightfully drawn, the settings create a strong sense of place, particularly London and Auschwitz, which the defence team visits on an eerie, snow-covered and foggy day.

Courtroom dramas are a staple of modern feature films. From “Witness for the Prosecution” to “Judgment at Nuremberg” to “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Evil Angels” to “A Few Good Men”, the courtroom is ready-made for what the screen does well: illustrate conflict between adversaries, albeit without physical violence. Along with its wider themes of historical truth and the Holocaust, “Denial” sits within this genre, but the film never hits the “aha” moments that the best legal dramas require. This may be because of the known ending or the film’s requirement to stick closely to a trial that revolved around arcane historical research. Because Irving and Lipstadt have only one actual verbal encounter early in the film, the dramatic challenges of the film revolve around keeping Deborah Lipstadt from speaking out, not the most compelling drama.

“Denial” is a film about history and the nature of historical research.  History matters, this film tells us, because it tells us who we are and how we lived then.  But the law also matters, because it can confirm – or deny – one historian’s views in the official view of society.

(image below: Rachel Weisz in “Denial”)

(Note: “Denial” originally opened in North American cinemas on September 30, 2016.)

Film review of Remember

May 19, 2016

(This film review of “Remember” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 12, 2016.)

Directed by Atom Egoyan; written by Benjamin August; starring Christopher Plummer, Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow, Heinz Lieven, Henry Czerny, Dean Norris and Martin Landau

Films about the aftermath of the Holocaust inevitably play on an intersecting mix of identity, revenge, guilt and wonder.  Why did one person survive, and not another?  When non-Jewish film-makers tackle the topic, many Jews pause with concern:  will this film illustrate truths that need to be told and still honour the memory of the dead?  It’s a difficult task, even for the best film-maker.

Armenian-Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter”, “Ararat”) brings a special sensitivity, haunted by his family’s memory of the Turkish massacre of Armenians, and combining his career-long fascination with matters of identity, redemption and memory.  In his new film, “Remember”, he assembles an astonishing cast to create an R-rated thriller of revenge, plots and double-backs.

Christopher Plummer – the oldest actor ever to win an Academy Award – here gives an extraordinary performance as Zev Guttman, an Auschwitz survivor with dementia whose wife has recently died.  Fellow New York nursing home resident and camp survivor, Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau, veteran of numerous Jewish roles including “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) convinces Zev to abscond from the home and track down the Nazi officer, Otto Wallisch, who had murdered his family – and kill him.  Having immigrated illegally to the USA, Wallisch is living under the assumed name Rudy Kurlander, except that Rosenbaum has found four Rudy Kurlanders, and is not certain which one is the real Otto.

With step by step precise instructions from Rosenbaum, Guttman slows works his way to each Kurlander, purchasing a Glock (German) pistol for the murderous deed.  The gunshop purchase scene is possibly one of the best ever directed by Egoyan, an understated semi-comic, semi-tragic illustration of American gun ownership. The problem with Guttman’s mission is that he can barely remember what to do each day, much less act as the assassin he has become.

Each Rudy Kurlander is a special case.  Bruno Ganz, the powerful Swiss-German actor who played Hitler in “Downfall” (2004), plays the first Rudy Kurlander, with a terrifying resonance of that earlier film.  Jürgen Prochnow (“Das Boot”) plays the fourth one.

The plot twists and turns and rockets along, fantastically at times, and is not for the faint-hearted; the film is R-rated for “violence and language”, for good reason.  “Remember” combines a number of genres, and consciously references the Guy Pearce memory loss film “Memento”.  Egoyan mostly keeps the film under control, ably helped by the stellar central performance by the 86 year old Plummer.  The ending – be warned – is a shock, providing much to talk about in long coffee-shop discussions afterwards.

(below: Christopher Plummer in “Remember”)

Christopher Plummer in Remember

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 Son of Saul

February 28, 2016

(This film review of “Son of Saul” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on February 25, 2016.)

Directed by László Nemes

Written by László Nemes and Clara Royer

Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn and Sándor Zsótér

When the Hungarian film “Son of Saul” wins the Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” tomorrow, it will be the 21st film representing the Holocaust – starting with 1959’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” – to win an Oscar.

This year, unlike last year’s win by the Polish film “Ida”, the Oscar will be well-deserved. “Son of Saul” is one of the most powerful, engrossing and unforgettable films to be released in the last year, and will takes its place as one of the finest Holocaust dramas ever made. Set completely in one concentration camp – presumably Auschwitz, although that’s never specified – and over a two-day period in October 1944, “Son of Saul” neatly blends historical events with a quixotic quest by its protagonist. The resulting film avoids dramatising the slaughter, but still manages to portray the brutality, hopelessness, dehumanisation, and controlled chaos that characterised the Nazi genocide against the Jews: we hear the pounding on the doors of the gas chambers, but do not view what’s inside, only glimpsing the aftermath.

“Son of Saul” focusses on one character, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a member of the Sonderkommando – those inmates chosen selected by the SS guards to accompany prisoners to the gas chambers and to clean up afterwards, taking bodies to the ovens and disposing of the ashes. One day, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy who he believes is his son. “But you never had a son,” someone says. “Not by my wife,” he replies. As the Sonderkommando plan a rebellion (which really did take place on 7 October 1944), Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish and organise a proper burial.

This film owes part of its success to a brilliant Géza Röhrig in the role of Saul, terse (his first words occur more than 10 minutes into the film: “I will”), enigmatic, slight and street-wise, always moving. Röhrig is a New York-based Jewish Hungarian writer, poet and part-time actor who recently graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

While given extra food and relative freedom of movement around the camp, the life of Sonderkommandos was limited, as the Nazis ensured that they killed them every few months in order to erase the possibility of witnesses. Incredibly, buried Sonderkommando eyewitness accounts from Auschwitz survived the war and were published under the title “Voices From Beneath the Ashes” (also known as “The Scrolls of Auschwitz”); these provided key inspiration to director László Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer.

Saul tries valiantly to humanise death, to give a sense of individuality to the many dead. Is his attempt suitable? Possibly not, for – as one character says to him, “You fail the living for the dead.” But as an act that demands humanity – or possibly as an indication of Saul’s serious psychosis – it is powerful.

Technically, “Son of Saul” is a marvel, with a virtuoso cinematic style that almost always shows only Saul’s point of view. Backgrounds are out of focus, and we generally only see what Saul sees and experiences. There are almost no “wide” shots; everything is in close-up or “mid” shot, showing only half a person (much to discuss here). There are also very few edits, including the film’s opening shot, which goes on possibly for three or more minutes. (There could be fewer than 200 edits in the whole film, compared to many thousands of edits in standard film fare.) The result is claustrophobic, powerful and unique.

The film’s European roots enhance its sense of verisimilitude. Unlike “Schindler’s List” – indeed a towering and emotional achievement – “Son of Saul” takes place in the “real” languages of the characters: Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Polish and Hebrew. Those who understand Hungarian and German, in particular, will get the most out of this film, because knowing the national and religious background of each speaker is important.

“Son of Saul” contains no “back story”; the film just begins. Nor is there an epilogue; when the film ends, you know it’s over.

Son of Saul

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