“Like finding documentation of Moses” was how one Israeli film historian described the rediscovery, in 1997, of The Life of the Jews in Palestine, a 1913 film shot by a Russian crew in the Holy Land and presumed lost for 80 years. Few among the 33 selections in the New York Jewish Film Festival hold out the promise of such divine revelations. But rare archival films and documentaries about music are among the highlights.
A smash hit throughout the Pale of Settlement, The Life of the Jews in Palestine offered shtetl dwellers a vision of terrestrial paradise. Noah Sokolovky’s 79-minute silent is a cinematic experience of aliyah, or homecoming: opening on board a ship in Odessa, where passengers bid adieu to the diaspora, and gliding past the ancient Oriental mysteries of Constantinople, before surveying the broad, perpendicular avenues of brand-new Tel Aviv, whose allure is distinctly modern. All across this land of plenty, where Jews appear virtually the sole inhabitants, girls and boys (liberated from kitchen and yeshiva) learn agricultural techniques and compete at gymnastics. Sokolovky’s crew captured the farms of the Galilee, but not the malarial swamps that surrounded them; the piety of Hasidim at Hebron, but not their tensions with Arab neighbors. Only the stiff backs and rigid physiognomies of middle-aged pioneers celebrating 30 years of Zionist enterprise suggest the price that dream exacted from its earliest participants.
The dream’s architect, Theodore Herzl, is given hagiographic treatment in Otto Kreisler’s ponderous 1921 silent, The Wandering Jew, which dramatizes the life of Zionism’s founder as he reflects upon the history of his people, debates the merits of Uganda as a homeland, and appeals to a baron, a sultan, and a pope before collapsing in 1904, at age 44, from heart failure and exhaustion. A very different Jewish visionary is profiled in The Brian Epstein Story. The man who discovered the Beatles and served as their first manager emerges as a fascinating, wistful figure in this documentary. The native Liverpudlian, who was gay, dismayed his middle-class family with dreams of becoming a dress designer; instead, they let him manage a record shop. One fateful night in 1961 he heard four cute boys playing in a Liverpool club. “Fame has overtaken me, and this is not always pleasurable,” Epstein wrote before his death in 1967 from an overdose of sleeping pills. By then he’d become a latter-day Diaghilev. Yet filmmaker Anthony Wall maintains that, behind his debonair manner, piles of money, and Mona Lisa smile, this professional fan remained a vulnerable outsider. More testimony might have helped make his case—Paul McCartney is the only ex-Beatle interviewed, and his comments are disappointingly flip. But the near absence of intimate witnesses lends Epstein a greater aura of loneliness.
Communists and Jews (overlapping categories) make strange bedfellows in a number of films. Barak Goodman’s wrenching Scottsboro: An American Tragedy investigates events that began in 1931, when nine black teenagers were charged with raping two white women while riding the rails in Alabama. The case of the “Scottsboro boys” became a cause célèbre in radical circles and a life-changing experience for Samuel Liebowitz, their flamboyant New York defense lawyer. Yet for the accused, it remained an unmitigated disaster. In Disparus, a recent French feature, Grégoire Colin plays Alfred Katz—workingman, poet, Trotskyite—who arrives in Paris in the 1930s, gets caught up in surrealist circles, marries Man Ray’s favorite model, becomes enmeshed in nasty Stalinist plots, and vanishes on the eve of war. Director Gilles Bourdos frames his story with a sketchy but intriguing contemporary drama about a man and woman trying to solve the mystery of Katz’s disappearance. Unfortunately, he handles his historical material as tenderly as a sacred object, and his characters’ passions never ignite.
Avant-garde culture and radical politics form a more volatile mixture in The Jazzman From the Gulag, which follows the vertiginous career of jazz trumpeter Eddie Rosner. Born in Berlin, Rosner was a child prodigy whose reputation took off in the 1920s. Persecuted by the Nazis as a Jew playing “Negro music,” he fled briefly to Warsaw (on the brink of its destruction), and later to Russia, where Stalin first lifted him to the rank of State Musician and then condemned him to the gulag. Even there, his prison orchestras swayed the hearts and feet of Kremlin masters, political detainees, and common criminals. The magic of his music remains elusive, but this rousing documentary does a fine job of conveying Rosner’s astonishing energy and generosity, as well as the enmity of totalitarian regimes for jazz, an orchestrated space of liberty.