Jewish film festivals, which take place in virtually every major city in the country (San Francisco was first, 31 years ago), always run the risk of irrelevantly roping in nearly any film with an "oy" in it, even while they've relied, soporifically, on World War II docs and Israeli Crash ripoffs. Not this year. In the wake of Defiance, Valkyrie, et al., the blooming of features based on Holocaust history nudges out the familiar "kak," albeit with erratic results, while a smattering of archivals define what such a festival is really for.
The new discovery and restoration of Bar-Mitzvah (1935) should be cause for aficionado celebration—despite it being a deplorable film, no more adept than Oscar Micheaux's early talkies, it is just as fascinating as cultural time travel. A canned melodrama hinging on the old chestnut about a shipwreck victim returning to find her husband remarried—here to a goldbricking vamp—Henry Lynn's movie, the only surviving film of Yiddish theater legend Boris Thomashefsky, is paradigmatic New York ethnic cinema, shot flat as a pancake, recycling old vaudeville routines (dances, Mae West jokes), and acted as if the camera were in the next county. (So? It played for years in Yiddish theaters around the world.) If "Jewish film," and Jewish culture at large, are about legacy, then this is required viewing, an immersion in remembrance of the forefathers.
Falk Harnack's The Axe of Wandsbek (1951) presents an antithetical problem. A German film made after the war about the "innocent" Germans, it's a tepid monstrosity worth studying, suppurating with shame and rationalization. Its tale of a struggling butcher who takes the job of executing condemned Communists, turning himself and his wife into community pariahs, scrambles wish fulfillment with a sweaty measure of self-defense, and never seems to fathom how guilty it makes the entire nation look.
New films about the middle-century European ordeals vary. Marleen Gorris's Within the Whirlwind follows Emily Watson's Russian teacher through a decade in the Gulag, and the trip, peopled entirely by Brit actors with smudged faces, is both belabored (sorry) and unconvincing. Similarly leaden, Kaspar Heidelbach's Berlin '36 explores a head-shaking Third Reich story about how Jewish high-jumper Gretel Bergmann was squeezed out of the '36 Olympics by what turned out to be a man in drag.
Ludi Boeken's Saviours in the Night, also a true story, is better—a sneaky and finally heroic account of several Westphalia farmers who hid a Jewish family for years during the war, simply because they thought they should and because they're stubborn Westphalians. The glorification of ordinary Germans wouldn't have washed well in the '50s, but by today, we've come to expect almost anything from Holocaust stories.
Still, the best film by a wide margin, and only marginally Jewish, is Adam Elliot's Mary and Max, a dark-but-semi-sweet Claymation mini-masterpiece of New Globalism, in which a neglected Australian girl begins a pen pal relationship with an obese New Yorker with Asperger's (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Not a flick for kids: The landscapes are, respectively, shit-brown and clay-gray, and the story is stunningly frank about alcoholism, suicide, illness, misery, and death. Yet this rousingly gritty fable lands more poetry and caricatural wit than the intensely WASPy Fantastic Mr. Fox, and puts a cherry on top of the animated-year-that-was 2009.
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