It seems quaint to recall how, a decade ago, some critics worried that Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” — with its overwhelming prestige, honors and box-office success — would squelch the future of Jewish filmmaking. In the past 10 years films on Jewish themes have shown remarkable growth in number, quality and significance, and the annual New York Jewish Film Festival has developed with them. This year’s 12th edition, which runs January 12 to January 23 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, offers 33 features and short films in what promises to be its strongest and most varied program since it began, a year before Spielberg’s epic.
Inevitably dominated by the past century’s central events in Jewish history — the Holocaust and the founding and development of Israel — this year’s offerings of fiction features and documentaries also range widely across Jewish private and public lives in the United States, Canada and Australia. A special presentation on the first and second Sundays previews the Jewish Museum’s upcoming “Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting” exhibit with selections from Jewish silent comedy, 1930s Yiddish film and a 1950 feature based on the radio and TV series “The Goldbergs.”
The festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, begins January 12 with “Rediscovering Max Davidson,” a selection of four silent comedy shorts showcasing the once-popular but long-forgotten Jewish comedy star, introduced by film critic J. Hoberman. With wild hair, a scraggly beard and a sour expression, Davidson celebrated and parodied the Eastern European Jewish immigrant’s skepticism, shrewdness and inventive wit. “Pass the Gravy” (1928), which improbably places Max as a single father in a brand-new southern California suburban tract, is a small comic masterpiece that was chosen several years ago by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry of significant American movies.
Also playing Sunday afternoon is “Molly” (1950), featuring Gertrude Berg in the title role as matriarch of the working-class Jewish family whose struggles and strivings were chronicled on the popular radio and TV series for nearly a quarter-century. The following Sunday offers “Motl the Operator,” a 1939 Yiddish-language production concerning the tragic consequences of a Jewish immigrant family’s decision to join a strike by garment workers to improve their labor conditions.
Perhaps the most prominent trend in contemporary Jewish filmmaking is the effort by European filmmakers to dramatize the significant Jewish role in European societies that is now largely missing from contemporary experience. Nearly half of the festival’s feature-length presentations fall into this category, with fiction films and documentaries from Austria, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, generally with stories set during World War II and the Holocaust or reflecting back on that era. Typically these are historical works that seek to re-create the past in a straightforward realist style, as represented, for example, by “Nowhere in Africa,” Germany’s nominee for best foreign-language film in this year’s Academy Awards competition. Director Caroline Link’s drama of a German Jewish family’s emigration to Kenya in the late 1930s will screen twice on January 16, prior to the film’s theatrical release later this year.
Among the most innovative and unconventional filmmakers in this group, however, is France’s Emmanuel Finkiel, with two films, the documentary feature “Casting” (2001) and a short fiction film “Madame Jacques sur la Croisette” (1995), on a single program screening twice on January 15. Finkiel’s striking first fiction feature, “Voyages,” was a critical favorite and a modest art-house success in 1999 with its subtle treatment of contemporary Holocaust survivors struggling with their past in three linked stories set in Poland, France and Israel. “Casting” reveals his approach as it documents his search for Yiddish-speakers over 60 to appear as non-professional featured players in his films. The film traces the process through first interview to rehearsal to actual location shooting for “Voyages” in Poland. The earlier 38-minute work, “Madame Jacques,” marks the debut of these amateur but skillful players in a quiet drama of Holocaust survivors as retirees taking in the sun and air by the beach at Cannes.
Nonfiction films can provide a different way of experiencing the past from conventional historical fiction works, mingling period photographs, stock footage and documentation drawn from archives with interviews that reflect back from a contemporary perspective, providing a doubled sense of time’s passage. “The Joel Files” (2001) is an outstanding example of the genre, screening three times on January 20 and January 21. The Austrian documentary, directed by Beate Thalberg, involves the family of pop star Billy Joel, whose German Jewish grandfather was a prominent textile manufacturer who managed to escape to Switzerland as his holdings were taken over by the rival Neckermann concern. The Neckermann firm prospered as a supplier to the Nazi regime, using Jews in the Lodz ghetto as slave laborers, and went on to greater success in postwar West Germany. The filmmaker traces this history and also stages a meeting with Joel, his Austrian brother and three Neckermann grandchildren to discuss the past’s meaning for today.
In a world premiere screening on January 14, the documentary “Hitler’s Hat,” directed by Jeff Krulik, recounts how Rich Marowitz, a Jewish-American soldier with the 42nd Rainbow Division, found Hitler’s formal top hat in the dictator’s Munich apartment, shortly after his unit participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. He’s famously photographed in the hat as a military publicity stunt, holding up a comb to mimic Hitler’s mustache. Later a professional magician, Marowitz rediscovers the hat more than half a century later in the basement of his Albany, N.Y., home, and displays it at a reunion of his Army group.
The festival closes January 23 with two screenings of “Kedma” (2002), the most recent work of Amos Gitai, Israel’s most internationally acclaimed and nationally controversial filmmaker. The film takes its name from a cargo ship packed with European refugees that arrives off the Palestine coast on May 7, 1948, days before Israel is to become a nation. A few on board disembark on lifeboats and manage to elude British patrols to link up with the Jewish underground fighters of the Palmach. The refugees are given a quick lesson in how to use a rifle and pressed into a sudden firefight with Arab forces; several are killed.
“Kedma” is an allegory of Israel’s historical dilemmas. The film is most powerful in its visceral battle scenes, at which Gitai previously demonstrated his mastery in the acclaimed “Kippur” (2000), based on his own experience in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “Kedma” is at its most tendentious in long, didactic monologues at the end, one by a displaced Arab, another by a newly arriving Polish refugee, which predict — in the characters’ foresight and the director’s hindsight — Israel’s future struggles. What is significant is that these tirades fall on deaf ears, as few around the speakers can comprehend the language in which they are spoken. The film’s protagonists speak in Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, Polish, Russian and German, and Gitai suggests how futile speech can be, and how lethal the failure to understand.
Robert Sklar, author of “A World History of Film” (Abrams, 2002), last appeared in these pages reviewing the world premiere of “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” on September 13, 2002.