In the 1930s, Shanghai was the world’s only free port—no papers or payment required for entry. So at the start of World War II, nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe set out for the city, then under siege by Japanese forces. They bartered Impressionist paintings for a place on ship, or crowded aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad. Once there, they re-created a lost world of Viennese coffeehouses, German newspapers, and kosher restaurants. The Port of Last Resort, a richly detailed documentary by directors Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy (at Anthology, December 9 through 15), combines newsreel footage with home movies, photographs, letters, and reminiscences by four former refugees, to recall this twilight of European Jewish culture, existing in the shadow of the Orient’s great den of iniquity.
John Burgan’s Memory of Berlin (also screening at Anthology) follows a more private journey that this English director took back to the German city he had visited as a child, with his adoptive family, at the height of Cold War tensions. Even then he had sensed that Berlin’s divisions mirrored his own half-understood personal history. When the wall came down he returned there, and set about searching long-distance for his birth parents in London and Australia. His strangely affecting film is a poetic meditation on a city that remains deeply split in time and psychology, and on an adoptee’s sense of being haunted by an alternative history. Yet it walks a thin line between emotional reticence and avant-garde affectlessness, and sometimes the latter wins.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 7, 1999