In Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, an American Jew travels to Israel to promote Diasporism, a movement encouraging Jewish emigration back to the shtetls of Europe. Well, it seems that European cinema has been touched by the flame of Diasporism, with a sudden proliferation of Jewish themes and a longing to reimagine prewar life as a paradise of ethnic harmony. Consider Bulgarian director Ivan Nichev’s After the End of the World, which opens this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival. This worthy tale of an Israeli scholar who returns to his childhood home in Bulgaria conjures up visions of a lost Balkan utopia where Turks, Greeks, Gypsies, Jews, and Armenians drank the same liquor and loved the same women.
In German director Didi Danquart’s coolly ironic Jew-Boy Levi, the peasants of the Black Forest get along just fine with the itinerant cattle dealer Levi, calling him a Christ-killer only when they think he’s cheating them. But it’s 1935, and when some Berlin big-wigs come to town, that spoils everything. In Rolf Schübel’s Gloomy Sunday, a wealthy restaurateur in 1930s Budapest loves a fetching waitress, who loves both him and a handsome young pianist. Midway through the story, the restaurateur is revealed as Jewish, and the film’s somewhat forced romanticism turns into a more pleasing bitterness. These Jewish men never lust after Jewish women. I guess that fiction serves the strange yearning of these former homelands to be reunited with their vanished communities.
If it’s history you’re seeking, try the archival films and bracing documentaries that are the highlights of this year’s festival. Two marvelous programs present early silent films by the great Ernst Lubitsch. Before he left Berlin for Hollywood in 1922, Lubitsch made movies like Shoe Palace Pinkus, in which he plays a hilariously smart-assed and flirtatious Jewish youth who outwits his bosses to climb from shoe salesman to captain of industry. Die-hard fans will appreciate his When I Was Dead (newly rediscovered), in which he stars as a wily bon vivant at war with his battle-ax mother-in-law.
Another silent, Different From the Others is a fascinating document of gay history. Jewish director Richard Oswald collaborated with celebrated sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld on this pioneering film, which attacked the criminalization of homosexuality by telling the fictional story of a fey concert violinist whose life is wrecked by a blackmailer threatening to expose him as gay. See it for its fetid, languid, art nouveau atmosphere.
It’s a long way from that Old World to the small towns of the American South. From Swastika to Jim Crow focuses on a handful of European Jewish émigré scholars in the 1930s who found American universities rife with anti-Semitism, and went to teach at all-black colleges in the South, out of both desperation and a sense of minority solidarity. This straightforward documentary is low on hard facts, but provides moving accounts of the way these Jewish mentors affected the lives of their black students.
Finally, Claude Lanzmann’s A Visitor From the Living offers another yet chapter in that filmmaker’s brilliant and singular oeuvre. Filmed in 1979, during the making of Shoah, it consists of a single interview Lanzmann conducted with Maurice Rossel, a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross stationed in Berlin during World War II, who managed to bluff his way to the very door of Auschwitz. Rossel, a man of extraordinary sang froid, remembers passing famished prisoners with burning eyes, and exchanging polite conversation in the office of an “elegant” young German commandant. Yet even there, he says, he didn’t suspect the magnitude of the disaster unfolding. (More disturbing still is his account of his official visit in 1944 to the “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt—a fake camp, trumped up to camouflage the Final Solution for an international audience, whose lie he swallowed wholesale.) A Visitor From the Living is a potent lesson in the limits of “neutrality” and simple observation—an exhortation to see and feel.