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Looking Back at the Year in Pictures

Director: Lajos Koltai

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Director: Marc Rothemund

The Syrian Bride
Director: Eran Riklis

In an era in which choice threatens to overwhelm us, the overlooked film has become all too common. Jewish-themed films are, in this sense, doubly cursed. They cross into so many categories that unearthing them — and unearthing what makes them Jewish — is trickier than ever. And yet it is also technology that makes it easier both to produce and discover new films, as the indie filmmakers and the surprising number of viewers who seek them out could tell you.

Here, then, are three overlooked Jewish-themed movies that have been released on DVD in the past year (surrounded by shortened reviews of films we did cover). Each film tackles its own questions with particular, even unique, panache and attitude. From the bleakness of a concentration camp to absurdism on the Syrian border to a taut, talky drama featuring no Jews at all, these movies fan out in many directions to understand Jewish (and universal) themes. But what unites them may be even better than what separates them: They are all worthy, subtle and powerful.

Twenty or 30 years from now, when the last witness to the Holocaust is gone and all that’s left is secondhand testimony, “Fateless,” I suspect, is the film that will help us remember. Reflecting neither the melodramatic punch of “Schindler’s List” nor the historical ambition of “Shoah,” this highly literary Hungarian adaptation of Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz’s autobiographical novel (with a screenplay by Kertesz himself) is significant in a perhaps more crucial way: the astonishing way it replicates the experience.

“Fateless” comes closer than any other Holocaust movie to transporting the viewer to the middle of the war, in every sense; it doesn’t simply portray it as it must have been, but it conveys the emotions as they must have been felt.

In its way, the film achieves the impact of a historical document more than any documentary. Sure the archives, the interviews and the footage can tell us what happened. But how many films can make us feel it? Like “United 93” and a select few other movies that size up tragedy, process it and present it back to the viewer without losing the raw power of the original disaster, “Fateless” is a tonally perfect, brilliantly composed depiction of horrific events.

Working with veteran cinematographer Gyula Pados, Koltai composes a visual style that’s striking and nuanced. From the very opening scene — in which, as war takes hold in Europe, a well-off Budapest teenager named Gyuri frolics against a backdrop of lush autumnal colors — the mise-en-scène functions as another character, offering a sense of the beautiful invulnerability of youth.

As the Nazi threat increases, the adults talk around Gyuri in cryptic whispers, saying things like “The boy is entitled to know” but rarely articulating their fears in front of him. The effect of such circumspection is to give the viewer the sense of being young and yet in the throes of history — a childhood naiveté, slowly punctured.

Gyuri’s father is soon deported. And while noble efforts are made to resume the everyday, the darkness begins to curl around the edges of characters’ lives. Still, the movie doesn’t rush to its destination. When passengers on a commuter bus are diverted to Nazi holding stations for the first time, the response is less outrage than impatience, as though this is merely a matter of bureaucracy, capable of resolution through bureaucratic means. Koltai allows the scene to unfold slowly, with no evident panic, and the banality of the horror sneaks up on us just as it does the characters.

Of course, eventually the horror does come. Gyuri ends up at Auschwitz, here a mud-gray place that almost seems to exist in black and white. The sensation is intensified by the use of a fade-to-black at the end of many episodes, almost as though to live in a camp is to disassociate one moment from the next. Gyuri works, he scrounges for food, he tries the impossible task of living a life under the burden of fatigue and meaninglessness. He is heroic — not through great acts of courage but through their opposite — creating a sane existence when so much of life seems insane. The camera almost never moves away from him, but it doesn’t need to. By focusing so tightly, we understand widely. (Marcell Nagy plays the teenager with a sense of aloofness and wonderment that projects an uncommon authenticity.)

When liberation finally comes, Gyuri returns home to find who and what remains. He is so hollowed by what’s occurred that even the un-recognizability of the neighborhood (it has been bombed to shreds) fails to register right away. What’s left after the Holocaust isn’t just nightmares and suffering and a life forever gone; it’s the tragic fear that such a life may never have existed in the first place. What once seemed to be pushing us in a certain direction was in fact, we realize, doing nothing of the kind, and so what’s lost is not just faith but, indeed, fate.

If “Fateless” casts the horrors of World War II against the unseen shadows of those who perpetrated them, “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” an interrogation drama of sorts, pulls those perpetrators out into the light.

They are no less brutal for it. The inquisitors who grill these members of the resistance (the so-called White Rose) may cite the sophisticated logic of the intelligentsia as they parry with the accused. And they appear willing at least to allow, if not address, the victims’ plea for justice. But their tactics are no less repugnant than those of the prison guards who torture children in “Fateless.”

The shape of the story is this: Two accused student protesters, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, are suspected of distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at a Munich university. The film begins at a breakneck pace as the Scholls run through the halls, dropping fliers when they think no one is around. Then suddenly the movie pulls on the reins, as though time itself stands still for anyone caught in such an act.

What follows is a series of interrogations — inquisitions, really — and a kangaroo court where the Nazis engage in debate as a kind of sport; they know where it all will go, but isn’t it fun to act out a little philosophical theater about such issues as patriotism and dissent?

Sophie at first denies all, but eventually, in a kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome, she proclaims her anti-Nazi politics with gusto, cracking under the pressure.

Or is she evolving? The movie’s greatest pleasure is the transformation of Sophie Scholl herself, whom Julia Jentsch plays using subtly shifting facial expressions. She goes from the cagey survivalism of her early denials to the defiance of her later confession without conjuring a hint of artifice.

Fred Breinersdorfer’s script, which helped the movie earn an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, is dense and pointedly academic; for all the elegance of the debate’s particulars, words don’t matter in such a setting. Regardless of how much truth and conviction are behind them, logic always loses in a place where so much is predetermined. If the movie can’t resist a little grandstanding, it also offers the tidy observation that power doesn’t change the rules — it just makes them unnecessary.

A proclamation of Hans at his kangaroo trial — “You can hang us today, but you will be hanged tomorrow” — takes on an eerie predictiveness in the context of a period movie; many of his so-called adjutants indeed paid for their sins, but with a full two years to go until liberation, tomorrow came just a little later than millions might have hoped. Romanticizing protest even as it argues for its limits, “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” presents the perverse essence of wartime: Tyranny will never negate the truth, but it does, unfortunately, sometimes negate the truth-tellers.

Phones are always ringing in Eran Riklis’s quirky and ambitious “The Syrian Bride,” a persistent reminder (and often failed attempt) to bridge the unbridgeable among the Druze in northern Israel and Southern Syria. An enjoyably complicated family melodrama, “The Syrian Bride” has its scythe aimed at such targets as the politics of territory and that politics’ effect on ordinary people. Riklis’s film is an indictment of a society that places the system over the needs of individuals, even as the film meticulously documents the flaws of those individuals.

The Golan-dwelling Mona, the second daughter in a Druze family, is about to be wed, in arranged marriage, to a Syrian TV star. But there’s a catch: In an intriguing and symbolically rich twist, Mona must move to Syria to be with her husband, since he’s not allowed into Israel. But once she crosses the border, she will be considered a Syrian and will not be able to return to Israel, effectively meaning that the wedding is the last time she will see her family.

Her brother has already done this, and he and their father, a pro-Syrian activist played with charming emotional obliviousness by Makram Khoury, communicate with comic poignancy by standing several hundred yards apart on two sides of a field separated by barbed wire, talking to each other via a megaphone. (Booming voice: “Did you get the coffee I sent you?”) The family is caught in a physical and philosophical no-man’s land, identifying with Syria but trapped, or at least bonded to, the Golan Heights neighborhood in which they live.

What results from all this is a series of disagreements, misunderstandings and, occasionally, reconciliation, between Mona’s rather large immediate family and between the family and Israeli and Syrian authorities. Though the film flirts with the contrived in a series of bureaucratic foul-ups, the payoff is almost always worth it, particularly with a striking scene of the bride moving fearlessly across the no-man’s land between checkpoints.

Riklis offers languorous shots of the northern Israeli countryside, the camera bathing in the vastness of space that always seems just a little bigger than the characters who inhabit it. That interplay between geography and identity is the crux of the film and one of the key exigencies of Druzean life. These are sophisticated people caught between two worlds, neither of which understands them very well. The result is a movie that, like its subjects, is enhanced by the ambiguity.

Steven Zeitchik is a reporter at Variety.


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