Homeward Bound

Futile Dispatches and Illusory Havens

The creation of Israel is but six days away. The refugees land on the beach in the midst of perfunctory chaos. British soldiers fire on them; as the Jews run off into the interior, they pass a group of keening, displaced Arab women. Kedma is purposefully unheroic. The sense of aimless wandering is nearly risible. Gitai's direction feels as offhanded as his performances are uneven. The British have American accents. Some refugees speak fluent Hebrew, others pidgin Yiddish—historically it would most likely be the reverse. The facts can be sloppy: One character invokes a Lodz "ghetto revolt" that never existed. Asked to entertain a group of exhausted refugees, a cantor exhibits the dynamism of Perry Como as he breaks into impassioned song without even bothering to sit up.

Kedma is mesmerizingly bad filmmaking—although, confident as he is, Gitai seems to believe that he's Robert Bresson or Samuel Beckett or, maybe, the anti-Spielberg. Like Saving Private Ryan, Kedma begins with a—here, of course, desultory—beach landing and proceeds to the storming of a hilltop stronghold. (Kedma raises the possibility that the originality of Gitai's war movie Kippur was predicated on indifferent craft.) The movie means to illustrate two historical tragedies: The Palestinians are driven from their homes as the survivor Jews of Europe are drafted into the Jewish underground and compelled to become fighters.

The Jews bully a truculent Arab, confiscate his donkey, and leave him to make a ranting prophecy on the subsequent Arab presence in Israel. This is complemented by the most sensitive of the refugees' hysterical tirade on "exile, martyrdom, messiah." Ending with the image of an empty road, Kedma is less a movie than a symptom inviting diagnosis.

Through the valley of the shadow: Catherine Samie in Wiseman's The Last Letter
photo: Film Forum
Through the valley of the shadow: Catherine Samie in Wiseman's The Last Letter


The Last Letter
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Adapted by Wiseman and Vronique Aubouy, from Life and Fate by Vasili Grossman
Zipporah Films
Through February 12, at Film Forum

Directed by Amos Gitai
Written by Gitai and Marie-Jos Sanselme
Kino International
Through February 6, at Makor; Opening February 7, at the Quad

L'Chayim Comrade Stalin
Directed by Yale Strom
Written by Elizabeth Schwartz
Cinema Guild
Opening January 31, at the Quad

Completing the week's trifecta of catastrophic Jewish homelands, Yale Strom's documentary L'Chayim Comrade Stalin is an expedition to Birobidzhan, the not quite Jewish autonomous region established, 15 years before the creation of Israel, in the Soviet Far East. Strom is enchanted by the idea of this Yiddish-language oblast on the Korean border. Indeed, his journey to Birobidzhan parallels the mindset of foreign Jews who "repatriated" there in the 1930s—intrepid and naive.

Birobidzhan may be the first instance of what Ruth Ellen Gruber calls a "virtual Jewish world" in which deracinated "virtual Jews" enact what is imagined to be their essential Jewish culture. But for Strom, whose previous documentaries discovered the "last" klezmer in Poland and a lost Jewish-Gypsy synthesis in the Carpathian Rus, virtual worlds have no history. He attributes the idea of a "new Jew" to Stalin—as though it weren't key to Zionism (and The Jazz Singer) as well as Communism. Discussion of Yiddish as a source of national identity is postponed, the better to cut in and out of the 1936 Soviet propaganda movie Seekers of Happiness, while flashing "The Jewish Question" in big letters. Archival footage is badly identified and sometimes irrelevant; key witnesses tell truncated stories.

Like Strom's earlier docs, L'Chayim Comrade Stalin is best appreciated as an exercise in creative ethnography. The filmmaker comes close to making himself a character (not, unfortunately, close enough). The Russians he meets are suspicious of his motives; even his translator is hostile. Although the movie illuminates little of the mass delusion that brought Birobidzhan into existence, the upbeat closing montage proposing this bizarre Soviet relic as a monument to the indomitable Jewish spirit is at least an authentic fantasy.

« Previous Page

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!