Matters of Life, Death, and Art


What can one say about the current state of the Jewish people, or of that benighted category, “Jewish Cinema” (which most would agree includes vast chunks of Hollywood), by perusing the 31 productions in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival? Anti-Semitism is alive and well—witness White Terror, Swiss documentarian Daniel Schweizer’s alternately plodding and chilling exposé on extremist groups that use music to market racism throughout Europe and in America. Israel remains mired in generations-long political conflict, so much so that even an indefatigable observer such as Amos Gitai, whose News From Home/News From House revisits the former and current owners of a Jerusalem residence that he first filmed 25 years ago, admits to a certain fatigue.

And a good laugh is still hard to come by. The humor is (appropriately) muted in My Mexican Shivah, director Alejandro Springall’s mortuary comedy about a bohemian Mexican Jewish patriarch who suddenly drops dead. During the traditional seven-day period of mourning (the shivah), his family and friends gather to honor him and dysfunction blossoms: His old Communist pal won’t join the minyan; his neurotic, middle-aged daughter threatens to tear out the eyes of his Catholic mistress; and his grandchildren nearly commit cousinly incest. (Two angels, represented by wizened old Hasidim, watch over the proceedings, taking notes in Yiddish.) In Shivah, spiritual angst vies with human absurdity, but each is tempered by the profound respect for life that lies behind this ancient ritual.

The festival can often seem a grab bag of Jewish experience. This year’s edition
includes a number of films concentrating on the immediate postwar period in Europe, a subject still rare in cinema. One of the more fascinating examples is 1948’s Our Children, the last Yiddish-language feature to be made in Poland. The renowned comedic duo Shimon Dzigan and Israel Schumacher star as traveling actors who are putting on a play about (of all things) the Warsaw ghetto, when some children in the audience—Jewish kids who miraculously survived the war—heckle them, saying life in the ghetto wasn’t so. Though touched by the spirit of nationalist propaganda, this deeply moving film explores the complex debates over how to represent the Shoah that were brewing, even while its wounds were still fresh.

Nina’s Home, the late French writer and director Richard Dembo’s feature, is set between 1944 and 1946 and based upon the true story of the group homes for Jewish orphans set up in France during the Liberation. French star Agnés Jaoui plays the unflappably determined director of one such home, a château near Paris sheltering formerly hidden Jewish children, whose relative calm is shattered first by revelations of the death camps (where many of their parents perished) and then by the arrival of a few dozen famished kids in striped uniforms. Dembo makes some questionable choices, such as having the kid survivors turn en masse to religion for solace. But in its sensitive treatment of tangled emotions, his film has the ring of truth.

Several documentaries illuminate the precious consolations of art, including The Rape of Europa, based upon Lynn Nicholas’s eponymous 1995 bestseller and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham. Europa tells in breathtaking detail the epic story of the Nazis’ systematic plunder of European art from both private hands and state collections, as well as the efforts of other governments to mitigate the war’s damage.

Art is also the driving force behind Sonia, director Lucy Kostelanetz’s engaging and visually inventive (if over-long) documentary about the turbulent life of her great-aunt Sonia Dymshitz-Tolstaya. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in czarist Russia, Sonia remade herself as a scion of Russia’s artistic avant-garde—first as an expatriate painter in Paris, then as a collaborator with Vladmir Tatlin, an artworker in the service of the Revolution, later harnessing her talents to Stalin’s Five-Year Plans. The purges of the 1930s and the siege of Leningrad during World War II dimmed, but could not put out, Sonia’s aesthetic ardor.

Finally, the heartbreaking short film David, directed by Alexsey Fedorchenko, follows the astonishing trials endured by David Levin. Born in Minsk, this child survivor of Auschwitz medical experiments was later interned in Cyprus and spent most of his adult life in Soviet gulags. Today we live in a world where a head of state invites people to “debate” the truth of the Holocaust. Documents such as David are precious rebuttals to Ahmadinejad’s claims; let’s hope filmmakers keep working on further rejoinders.