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.

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Early 2017 Jewish film releases

December 22, 2016

(This article appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 22 December 2016.)

Many of the best films released in Australia arrive in early summer each year, coinciding with the release of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in late January and early February.  Watch out for:

January 12

Jackie:  Playing Jaqueline Kennedy is a big step; few Americans are held in such mythical regard as the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK.  Jewish actress Natalie Portman (already nominated for a Golden Globe best actress) perfectly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance that is likely to place her sitting in the front row awaiting next February’s best actress Oscar choice. “New Yorker” film critic Anthony Lane calls “Jackie”, “a dance to the music of grief”:  this film is a slice of American tragedy.  Given the recent Presidential election and the fascination with “First Ladies”, “Jackie” may very well capture the current “zeitgeist political moment”.   Jewish TV producer Noah Oppenheim scripted, Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert F. Kennedy, Greta Gerwig plays White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman and Billy Crudup plays the historian Theodore H. White.  Jewish trivia:  The Forward reports that Jackie Kennedy spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Maurice Tempelsman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.  In common with President Bill and Hillary Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, Jackie’s daughter Caroline married a Jewish man.  The soundtrack of “Camelot”, which closes this film, was written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

January 19:

Lion, produced by Emile Sherman (Australian Jewish producer and Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”), is being tipped for Oscar considerations.  It’s a great – and true – Australian story, adapted from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly. Five-year-old Saroo finds himself alone and travelling on the wrong train away from his home in northern India. Frightened and bewildered, he ends up thousands of miles away. He survives the streets, ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman (nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actress) and David Wenham, and grows up in Hobart.  The kicker to this story is that using his imperfect early childhood memory and new satellite-imaging technology, Saroo commences “one of the greatest needle-in-a-haystack quests of modern times” – to find his family.  Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”; also nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actor) stars as the older Saroo.

Two other important films are due out in February or March, to be confirmed once Oscar nominations are announced:

Denial, the historical dramatisation of the court case brought against American Holocaust expert and professor Deborah Lipstadt, opened this year’s Australian Jewish film festival to powerful reactions. Directed by Mick Jackson and written by Sir David Hare (“The Reader”, “The Hours”), it is based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier about how David Irving sued her and Penguin Books for libel.  The film stars Jewish actress Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winner for “The Constant Gardener”.  Other actors include Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall as David Irving.

Land of Mine premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is being considered for a best foreign language Oscar.  The title of this Danish-German co-production (“Under Sandet” in German) 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 many thousands of 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 who is filled with rage against the Germans.  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 from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

Other films to note in early 2017 include:

January 5:

Edge of Seventeen, an unusually high quality (and soon could be classic) teen film stars Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld, best supporting actress Oscar nominee for “True Grit” (and nominated for a Golden Globe best actress).

January 12

Collateral Beauty, an absorbing drama about post-traumatic stress starring Will Smith, directed by Jewish director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada“) and written by Jewish screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire”).

February 2:

In Patriot’s Day, a docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing from Jewish director Peter Berg, the theme of home-grown Islamic fundamentalism-turning violent terrorism remains highly contemporary (both the USA and Australia).  Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons star.

Bastards, a comedy from first-time Jewish director Lawrence Sher, who has been one of the most accomplished American cinematographers in recent years (not at profession that has attracted many Jews), and who grew up in “the Orthodox neighbourhood of Teaneck, New Jersey”. Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play two brothers with an eccentric mother (Glenn Close).

February 16:

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel about 17th century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan.  Scorsese has created what will probably be one of the most significant religious history films in years.  Stars include Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Liam Neeson and Adam Driver.

March 30

The Ghost in the Shell stars Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson in a sci-fi action film that will bring in audiences, based on the Japanese manga.

Table 19 is an American wedding comedy by Jewish director Jeffrey Blitz, who is an Oscar nominee for the documentary “Spellbound”. Anna Kendrick and Lisa Kudrow star.

April 6

In Going in Style, Zach Braff – the Jewish director of “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here” – has created a comic heist/caper film, with a great cast including iconic Jewish actor Alan Arkin, along with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon and Christopher Lloyd.

denialImage above: Rachel Weisz (left) plays Deborah Lipstadt (right) in the film “Denial”; see Moment Magazine‘s article and also The New Yorker article by Tad Friend, 3 October 2016.

 


Jewish themes in the Sydney Film Festival

June 2, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News – Sydney edition, on 2 June 2016.)

Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Sydney Film Festival, the apparently random 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.  In short, the answer is that there are a lot of Jews both behind and in front of the camera, especially in the USA and Israel.

In a festival full of Jewish film riches, possibly the most heart-breaking is “No Home Movie”, the last film by the late Belgian-Jewish film-maker Chantal Akerman.  As a dual portrait of both the film-maker and her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor, this films poignantly captures Natalia’s final months – and tragically, Chantal’s as well.  The Festival also includes a screening of Akerman’s restored 1975 classic cult feminist film “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”.

This year two Israeli documentaries continue to showcase the dynamism and vitality of film-making from that country:  “Mr. Gaga”, directed by Tomer Heymann, and “Presenting Princess Shaw”, by Ido Haar.  Heymann – a Festival guest – spent eight years filming the subjects of “Mr. Gaga”, the internationally renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and his Batsheva Dance Company, which he has led since 1990, bringing it to international recognition.  This is edgy modern dance, brought to the screen with multicam footage, which “Variety” has called “the most exciting documentary … on modern dance since ‘Pina’”.  This film is a “must-see” for fans of modern dance or those interested in the cutting edge of the modern Israeli arts scene.

“Presenting Princess Shaw” reflects another kind of Israeli arts.  New Orleans aged care worker Samantha Montgomery writes and sings on the web as “Princess Shaw”.  Israeli composer, video artist and kibbutz resident Ophir Kutiel (known as “Kutiman”) creates YouTube video “mashups”.  This popular documentary charts how they have worked together.

“Weiner” is a different form of documentary, portraying the 2011 and 2013 meltdowns and sex scandals of former New York Jewish congressman and wanna-be mayor Anthony Weiner.  Made by two Jewish directors, Josh Kriegman (a former Weiner aide) and Elyse Steinberg, “Weiner” has been named by “Atlantic” magazine as “the best documentary about American politics in many years”.  Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is a long-time advisor to Hillary Clinton, and currently is the vice chair of Clinton’s Presidential campaign.  This proximity to real power – and the uncomfortable parallels between Weiner and Bill Clinton – gives this documentary a true current relevance.

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 many thousands of 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 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 from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

“Maggie’s Plan” is one of the festival’s most enjoyable films, a Woody Allen-ish dialogue and character-driven comedy of the sort we also now identify with Noah Baumbach.  Set in New York City and directed by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Jewish playwright Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, the film includes Baumbach favourite Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) as the befuddled Maggie, Maya Rudolph (daughter of Jewish composer Richard Rudolph) and everyone’s favourite Jewish character actor, Wallace Shawn.

The most interesting Jewish family to appear in this year’s Festival is that of the Suskinds in “Life: Animated”, a documentary about Owen Suskind (son of journalist Ron Suskind), a boy with autism who finds a way to communicate through Disney characters.

A large number films by Jewish directors are also represented in the Festival, including Steven Spielberg’s family blockbuster, “The BFG”; two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s documentaries “Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation” and “Miss Sharon Jones!”; octogenarian Frederick Wiseman’s documentary on the New York neighbourhood, “In Jackson Heights”; Amy J. Berg’s Janis Joplin biopic, “Janis: Little Girl Blue”; Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic, “I Saw the Light”.

The Festival also features a David Stratton-curated retrospective of Martin Scorsese films, which includes three fascinating Jewish characters: superfan Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) and TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in “The King of Comedy”, and mobster Sam “Ace” Rothstein (de Niro again) in “Casino”.

Other important Jewish personalities and actors appear: the late Jewish musician Lou Reed acts in “Heart of a Dog”, a creative documentary by his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson; Australian Jewish actor Tiriel Mora (“The Castle“) stars as Diego Rivera in Marion Pilowsky’s short “Frida and Diego – The Australian Years”; Daniel Radcliffe stars in Daniel Scheinert’s drama “Swiss Army Man”; and Ira Glass (presenter of “This American Life”) conducts interviews in the music/dance film “Contemporary Color”.

(Mr. Gaga poster below – original version in Hebrew)

Mr Gaga

(Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in “Weiner” documentary below)

Weiner film

(photo from “Land of Mine” below)

Land-of-Mine

Footnote:  The Sydney Film Festival also includes a personal appearance by Mel Gibson, who appears in the American comic thriller, “Blood Father”.  Gibson’s Festival guest status follows his February Tropfest prize-giving appearance in Sydney.  Is this a conscious attempt to resurrect his profile and reputation here in Australia, following his disastrous antisemitic comments during the promotion of his film “The Passion of the Christ”?