Incubators of Antisemitism


By Masha Leon

Published October 28, 2005, issue of October 28, 2005.
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Dennis Gansel’s riveting film, “Before the Fall (Napola),” sheds light on the little-known Napolas, acronym for Nazi National Political Academies — elitist ideological greenhouses with perverted curricula and barbaric military and physical training that shaped young Germans into “future gauleiters for [such anticipated Reich conquests as] London and Capetown.” It is Berlin, 1942. Against his father’s orders, Friedrich (Max Riemelt), a naive, lower-class, promising teenage boxer jumps at the opportunity to attend a Napola.

A sample lecture is Martin Luther’s “After the devil there is no more bitter poisonous enemy than a righteous Jew who takes Judaism seriously.” Darwin’s principle is applied to “the survival of nations.” Friedrich is told: “Forget humanity in battle [as] in the boxing ring.” Albrecht (Tom Schilling), son of a fanatic Nazi official who lives in a mansion with Jewish provenance, is critical of Nazi ideology. He befriends Friedrich, and it is their comradeship — with the film’s wrenching finale — that makes this an unforgettable cinema experience.

During our interview, Gansel explained: “The film was targeted for the young [who] are tired of dealing with the [Holocaust]. I wanted them to try to understand Friedrich. [The Nazis] did not trust the bourgeois and took students from the lower classes.” Gansel said that some of the Napola “graduates” had regrets, some not. “Some committed suicide,” he said. In halting English, Riemelt — who was quiet for most of the interview — described the discomfort he felt in playing the role. “It was almost taboo to play that character,” said the blond actor whose skull’s shape along with his pale hair rated him a “Nordic Category 3” designation in the film.

* * *

During his 93-minute film, “Protocols of Zion,” Mark Levin posits that the availability of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a catalyst for the spread of the lie that no Jews were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center because 4,000 of them had received advance notice not to go to work on 9/11! (In “The War Against the Jew” [Philosophical Library, 1968]) Dagobert D. Runes writes: “In 1921 a correspondent of the London Times uncovered the plagiarism of half the “Protocols” from a satire on Napoleon III written by Maurice Joly, a French attorney.”)

Levin’s roster of American antisemitic characters includes an Egyptian cabbie, angry mosque mourners of a militant Palestinian sheik, an Arab newspaper editor and skinheads. To expand the range of current antisemitism, Levin uses such film clips as the beheading of Daniel Pearl; Mel Gibson defending his film, “The Passion of the Christ”; vintage frames of a ranting Father Coughlin, antisemite extraordinaire Henry Ford, a scene from an Israel Day Parade; comments by an admirer of Rabbi Meir Kahane, and exchanges with oddballs who call New York’s former mayor “Jewliani” and the United States “Jewmerica.” During Levin’s visit to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Foxman unravels the mystery of the “4,000 Jews” cabal. Seems Israel’s consulate in New York received 4,000 calls from worried relatives!

What added edge to the October 19 Lincoln Center Film Society’s showing of Levin’s film was the post-screening question-and-answer session by panelists Stuart Klawans (The Nation), professor of history Alan Brinkley (Columbia University), Martin Peretz (The New Republic) and Richard Peña, the society’s program director. Turning to Levin, Peretz expressed dismay at “a portrait of Che [Guevera], a shocking image to me, in your father’s house,” adding, “I didn’t find the film coherent.” Klawans noted, “The treatment of the Mel Gibson film is too much of a mish-mash.” Brinkley hedged, “Today, the antisemitism of the 1920s and 1930s does not carry the same level of respectability.”

During our chat Saturday, I asked Levin, “What would you have done differently?” He replied: “I was unconscious as I did it. Had I been more self-conscious, I would not have done it. [But] in the DVD, we’ll have more of an opportunity to give context and expand on the history of the ‘Protocols’ itself.”

My question to Levin was, why did he wait till the end of the film to show the reading of the roster of Jewish victims of 9/11? Also held off until the end were the interview with Shiya Ribowsky — a cantor at the Brotherhood Synagogue and chief investigator for the Medical Examiner’s office — who describes the tender handling of the victims’ remains, and Heidi Markenson, whose husband, Jeffrey Weiner, died on 9/11. A convert to Judaism, Markenson said what attracted her to the religion was the concept of tikkun olam — “to leave the world a better place than you found it.”

* * *

Following greetings by Jewish Museum director Joan Rosenbaum at the museum’s September 28 Warburg Society Tea, guest speaker Bel Kaufman proved that stand-up comedy could be added to her many talents. The author of “Up the Down Staircase” informed: “I am the only living descendant of Sholom Aleichem… who remembers his face, his voice… because I am 94…. I am too busy to grow old. I’m perfecting my tango lessons and writing a memoir. Age is mind over matter and if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. [My grandfather] used to say, ‘You’ve got to stay alive even if it kills you.’ And we stayed alive even though they killed us.… We are indestructible.” Kaufman confided that at home, Sholom Aleichem spoke only Russian. “When my family came to America, I had to attend a Sholom Aleichem school to learn Yiddish!”

Karen Levitov, associate curator of the museum’s upcoming exhibit, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama, offered a few titillating facts about the legendary actress. The first Bernhardt museum exhibit in 60 years, it will contain 250 objects of clothing, jewelry and film. With a 60-year career to her credit, Bernhardt traveled on a personal train, created a scandal by wearing a silk white pants suit made by Worth, owned 3,000 pairs of gloves and was savvy about self-promotion. She endorsed biscuits, autos and… real estate in the Bronx!

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