(originally published in the Australian Jewish News, June 2, 2000)
Cinemas may come and go, but arguably the most enduring and significant film culture institution in Australia remains the Sydney Film Festival, held each year at the State Theatre – and this year at the new Dendy Opera Quays – starting on the June long weekend. The list of former festival directors is a virtual “who’s who” of some of the greatest Australian cineastes: David Stratton, Paul Byrnes, Rodd Webb, with Gayle Lake taking over this year for her first season.
Of greatest interest to Jewish audiences in this year’s festival is Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. This feature-length documentary by noted American film-maker Erol Morris examines the life of Massachusetts engineer Leuchter, a former designer and repairer of gas chambers, electric chairs and lethal injection systems who became a Holocaust-denier under the tutelage of Ernst Zundel, a Canadian neo-Nazi and author of tracts such as “Did Six Million Really Die?”. Zundel commissioned Leuchter to look at the “facilities” of Auschwitz and Birkenau, take samples (which were done illegally) and examine them in order to conclude that poison gas was not used there. He wrote a report (“The Leuchter Report”) detailing his “findings”.
Morris, who was a private detective before he turned to film, is one of the noted documentarians of our age, with an uncanny knack to put together science, philosophy and whimsy in some very moving and often hard-hitting films. His The Thin Blue Line is credited as the first film actually to solve a murder, and overturned the conviction of the original accused – not long before he was to be executed.
In Dr. Death, Morris lets his subjects incriminate themselves. Interviewees include Leuchter, Zundel, the notorious David Irving, Shelly Shapiro (a Holocaust educator who was instrumental in refuting Leuchter’s claims), Suzanne Tabasky (an organiser of Holocaust education programs) and Robert Jan Van Pelt, a Canadian cultural historian who has examined Auschwitz at length, resulting in the book Auschwitz, 1270 to the Present. Dr. Death follows the slow disintegration of Leuchter’s life and – as Morris puts it – attempts to answer the question “How is it that people are capable of believing something that is false, despite all evidence to the contrary?” This is not always an easy film to watch, but remains powerful to the end.
The festival is also bringing a unique historical retrospective of German-Jewish film-maker Max Ophuls (1902-1957), who – among other things – was the father of Marcel Ophuls (The Sorrow and the Pity). Ophuls senior left Germany after the rise of Nazism, made films in France and Italy and eventually settled in Hollywood in 1941, finally returning to France in the 1950’s. He is credited with developing modern cinema, with some critics comparing his work to early Orson Welles. The Festival will screen his films La Signora Di Tutti (Italy 1934), The Reckless Moment (USA 1949), Madame De … (France 1953) and Lola Montes (France 1955).
Other Jewish film-makers represented at the Festival include Barbara Kopple with her film A Conversation with Gregory Peck and Frederick Wiseman with his Belfast, Maine. Wiseman is a social historian with a particular interest in public services, and Belfast, Maine painstakingly documents the sometimes-depressing lives of the residents of this small working-class coastal city. I actually have an aunt and uncle who live just outside Belfast, and have visited there a few times; the portrayal is reasonable as far as I can see. But at 248 minutes, this is a film only for the most committed. Also of interest in the Festival is a retrospective of films by British Alan Clarke, including Made in Britain (1983), which features Tim Roth’s film debut, as a 16 year-old racist skinhead. Powerful stuff.