Showing this week at the annual New York Jewish Film Festival, this video documentary double bill might be termed “Maccabees of Aesthetic Modernism.” Dziga and His Brothers profiles the Soviet film genius Dziga Vertov and his talented sibs; Kafka Goes to the Movies ransacks Franz K’s past for incipient cinephilia.
David, Moisey, and Boris Kaufman—”perhaps the most talented brothers in the history of cinema” per film historian Yevgeni Tsymbal—were born in Bialystok (the “most Jewish town in Poland”) to a used-book dealer and a rabbi’s daughter. The town suffered a major pogrom during their childhoods, and their parents would eventually perish in the Holocaust, but the Kaufman brothers attended Russian school and reinvented themselves in the crucible of revolution: David most radically as docu-visionary Dziga. Mikhail (né Moisey) worked with his older brother—he is the title character in The Man With a Movie Camera—until they quarreled and he too became a director. Baby Boris went first to France, collaborating with Jean Vigo, and then to America. Dziga was targeted during Stalin’s Cold War anti-cosmopolitan campaign; he suffered a heart attack and died in obscurity months before Boris won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront.
Kafka Goes to the Movies, which Hanns Zischler based on his book of the same title, is a tricksy movie—full of artfully layered images—that works hard to invent a connection between the Prague writer and the movies. It’s a relationship that, as a fan of both, I would fervently wish for, but Zischler isn’t altogether persuasive in casting K as a heroic spectator. Still, his doc is pleasingly haunted by nickelodeon-era ghosts and witty one-liners. Noting that Kafka may have attended a feature-length Zionist travelogue, Zischler muses that Kafka saw “the promised land as a film, in a film.”