Novelistic scope and dialectical edge distinguish Fighter, Amir Bar-Lev’s irresistible documentary about two Czech Holocaust survivors, Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig. The film started out as a portrait of the 78-year-old Wiener, who escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague in 1941 and made his way to England, where he joined the RAF. En route, he witnessed his father and stepmother’s suicide, hid under a train hanging on to a shit-covered rod for 18 hours, and spent close to a year in Italian jails and POW camps. After the armistice, he returned to Prague only to be sentenced by the new Czech Communist government to five years of hard labor for the crime of “contamination by the West.”
Bar-Lev’s idea was to record Wiener retracing the route of his odyssey. His stroke of genius was to take Lustig along, not only as an interlocutor and philosophical foil, but also as a subject in his own right. Unlike most survivor memoirs, which are basically monologues, Fighter takes the form of a dialogue between two men who, because of the radical difference between their personalities and specific experiences, bring divergent perspectives to a shared history of grief. Their on-camera arguments and reconciliations reveal the life force that helped them survive (although nothing helped so much as luck) and give a dramatic structure to the dialectic between past and present.
“The motives for this trip are terribly sad, but we are going to have a lot of fun,” says Lustig as he and Wiener peruse maps and make preparations. Both men emigrated to the U.S. in 1968 but didn’t become friends until 10 years later. While Wiener is defined by an anger that his ramrod posture and stern demeanor barely keep in check, Lustig, who is six years his junior and a prolific novelist, is both warmer and more introspective. He survived Terezinstadt and other camps, but, like Wiener, lost his parents and most of his family. At the end of the war he joined the Party and, in Wiener’s eyes, remained a member far too long. It’s the first bone of contention between them, a suggestion that they’re in for a rough trip.
Thanks to Lustig, the film has a generosity and antic humor. Like his father, who made himself happy by laughing uproariously at Hitler’s radio speeches during the war, Lustig tries to see what he calls “the sunny side.” The one trauma he can’t let go, he says, is the thought of his father in the gas chamber. Wiener resents Lustig’s interpretative bent, and as the journey wears him down emotionally, he takes out his anger on his friend.
Bar-Lev shot 50 hours of video, which he edited down to 85 minutes. Fighter is probably more terse than it needs to be, but the dramatic line has an elegance and drive that reinforces the unexpected turns of the story. “No one who survived the war is normal,” says Lustig. “Maybe it’s hard to be a fighter not in a time of war, but in a time that created millions of indifferent people. Wiener was a hero.”
The law of diminishing returns caught up with Woody Allen many movies ago, and the best that can be said of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, a spin on the mystery-film series that were cheap filler for double bills in the ’30s and early ’40s, is that it’s not as awful as Celebrity. Allen and Helen Hunt play embattled coworkers CW and Fitz in a New York insurance firm, circa 1940. He’s a claims investigator whose eccentric methods and colorful street contacts have made him a star in his field. She’s a Nurse Ratched-like efficiency expert who has made getting rid of CW her priority. Since she’s shtupping the boss (Dan Aykroyd) on the side, she has an advantage.
There is a plot of sorts, involving multiple jewel robberies carried out separately by CW and Fitz while under the power of an evil hypnotist. When Allen and Hunt aren’t in a deep trance, they’re hurling insults at each other. Although there’s no evidence of sexual chemistry on the screen, the stars share a certain physical defensiveness that occasionally makes them seem simpatico; most of the time, however, they just look bored to death. The supporting cast is so affectless as to make you suspect the hypnotist of visiting them on the sly.