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


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)


Holocaust films and the Oscars

April 10, 2015

A conversation with two close friends a few weeks ago – just after the Academy Awards presentation this past February – made me realise yet again how often we miss the real characterisations in films.  Some years ago I loved the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice, conveniently ignoring (or at least somehow not noticing) that the characterisations of Jews in that film were all, somehow, slanted and skewed.  The two major characters – one played by Kevin Kline (an actor who is a personal favourite of mine) and a young woman who dates the young writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol) – both become victimisers, and the symbol of the Holocaust becomes Sophie (Meryl Streep, another favourite of mine), a non-Jewish Polish woman whose father was a fascist.

The Holocaust, for those who have not been counting, is a popular topic on film.  With the success of the Polish film Ida, the numbers are now in.  As J. Hoberman reports in Tablet magazine:

Beginning with the 1959 movie The Diary of Anne Frank, there have been 22 Oscar nominees that, in one way or another represented the Holocaust, and since Shelley Winters won for Best Supporting Actress in 1959, 20 of these movies garnered at least one Academy Award.

The all-time winner of Academy Awards was 1993’s Schindler’s List, with nine Oscars, including Best Picture.  Other big winners:  Cabaret (six in 1972), The Pianist (three in 2002) and Judgment at Nuremberg (two in 1961).  Meryl Streep won her second Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, and “Adrian Brody and Shelley Winters are the only actors to have won Academy Awards for playing a Jewish character in a Holocaust-themed movie”.

So this year the much-cheered Ida won the best foreign film award, beating out the (in my opinion) much superior Leviathan, a contemporary Russian film that has captured the “moment” of a corrupt but empowered Russia that has seen an undeclared civil war in the Ukraine and a heightening of tensions throughout Europe.

In my review of Ida, I was highly critical, writing that I found the film “profoundly depressing and problematic” because “all of the film’s implicit conclusions about Jewish life in its aftermath of the Holocaust are negative.” I concluded that “the life decisions of the two key characters (Ida and aunt Wanda) indicate that the Holocaust has so damaged both of their lives that their only options are to turn away from being Jewish, each irrevocably in their own way.”

Writing in The New Yorker in May of last year, Richard Brody goes further, entitling his review “The Distasteful Vagueness of Ida”.  Brody declares that Ida is a “pernicious fraud—an aesthetic one and a historical one.”  Brody writes:

He is making a declaration: there were Jewish victims of the war in Poland—Jews who were killed by Nazis and, yes, even by Poles—but that Jews weren’t solely victims. Jews, too, were killers, including those who got their revenge on Poland by propelling themselves to power with the rise of Communism….  The evenhandedly editorializing accusations that Pawlikowski builds stealthily into the movie are repellent. Even as he nourishes the notion of collective or national guilt—and seeks to expiate it—with the movie’s ceremonial tone, Pawlikowski also insinuates that the victims were no angels, either, and that maybe some of them have something to atone for as well. “Ida” is, in effect, “12 Years a Slave” in which Solomon Northup shows up in the South, after the Civil War, as a carpetbagger. Ultimately, the movie legitimizes resentment of the very Jews who were murdered on Polish soil—even at the hands of Poles.

I have a hard time disagreeing with Brody.  So here again is a Holocaust film lauded by “the Academy” – and presumably voted for many of the Jewish voters who are members.  Did they really know what they were voting for?  Or were they, like many others, taken in by the pseudo-historical black and white photography, and lulled into believing that Ida was a true representation of Polish-Jewish life in the early 1960s?