Gathered from around the globe, the films presented in this year’s Jewish Film Festival offer a kaleidoscopic perspective on several perennially tragic themes: anti-Semitism, the Jew as outcast (and cosmopolitan), and the eternally knotty conundrum of Jewish identity. Not surprisingly, the festival is heavy on documentaries, and unifying the several very engaging ones is the crucial role memory plays within Jewish culture—particularly in the face of atrocity—and the ethical responsibility of bearing witness.
As a group, these documentaries testify to a common and even pressing urgency on behalf of Jewish filmmakers throughout the world to investigate and create a more comprehensive record of the history of Jewish persecution in the 20th century. This, before the remaining survivors and witnesses are gone, and the details are erased or distorted by time. Among these films, several draw upon family history as a portal into a larger contemplation of past and politics.
Catherine Bernstein’s Murder of a Hatmaker turns the life and extermination of the director’s aunt, Odette Bernstein, into an incisive chronicle of the Vichy regime. Bernstein traces the swift progression of Jewish genocide in France with the delicacy and precision befitting her subject: a beautiful and successful Parisian hatmaker. Jewish on her father’s side and of French aristocracy on her mother’s, Odette (nom de chapeau: Fanny Berger) was estranged from both parents due to her choice to live independently and pursue a career in couture. Though the visual record of Odette’s life consists of only a few photographs, meticulous Nazi paperwork documents her demise (and that of 87,000 other French Jews), the forced sale of her business, as well as the money that was confiscated from her before she was sent to Auschwitz. Some of these details are related in a chillingly detached account by two French archivists, who, as the official custodians of the Vichy regime’s census data and Nazi records, bear the burden of history with a disdain that seems equally directed at the Jews as the Nazi occupiers. It is an attitude that provides the subtext for much of what unfolds in the film, including the bizarrely self-reproaching admission of an elderly aristocratic acquaintance of Odette’s, who claims he has no recollection of serving as a witness to the mandatory sale of her business to a gentile “Aryanized” hatmaker, because, as he says, “to send a person to her death, I think I would remember.”
The directors of both Murder of a Hatmaker and the less dramatically engrossing, yet quietly elegant, Buenos Aires Pogrom follow the choice Claude Lanzmann made in Shoah, his seminal Holocaust opus: to abstain from concentration-camp imagery, which can, through overexposure, render the documentation of genocide a trope. Like Murder of a Hatmaker, Buenos Aires Pogrom also exposes—through an examination of records and some rare archival footage—how Jews who fled Eastern European anti-Semitism re-encountered its violent eruption elsewhere, as in Buenos Aires during “Tragic Week,” a 1919 pogrom triggered by a labor strike. Filmmaker Herman Szwarcbart spends much of the film talking to archivists about the historical repression of the pogrom, and so the film is as much about the gatekeepers of memory as the events they narrate. As with Bernstein’s film,
Szwarcbart’s family connection imparts a home-movie intimacy to the larger events. In the film’s closing coda, Szwarcbart’s grandfather sings “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” (“To me, you are beautiful”), the Yiddish song popularized by the Andrews Sisters in the late 1930s. He seems to marvel at the survival of Yiddish culture while at the same time questioning its future.
This familiar idea of a precarious existence returns in Evgeny Tsymbal’s Red Zion, a documentary that explores one of the most curious chapters in early-20th-century Jewry. In the 1920s, as a means of discouraging Jewish immigration to Palestine and developing the fertile lands north of the Black Sea, the Soviet Union established agricultural collectives for Jews: Crimea’s Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region. Red Zion is a fascinating look at how the state aggressively promoted the collectives (which became a model for the Israeli kibbutz) for their power to transform Jews from unhappy, anxious urban dwellers into jovial, salt-of-the-earth laborers—and then pulled the plug. As World War II began, Stalin denounced the Jewish settlers and sanctioned new army-instigated pogroms.
In the context of these films and the excruciating history they represent, the dangerous double life of Ze’ev Gur-Arie, the subject of The Champagne Spy, is an irresistible fantasy. A German-born Jew who immigrated to Israel, Gur-Arie worked for the Haganah (Jewish defense) during the war, and afterwards as a spy for Mossad. By the late ’50s, he was dividing his time between Paris, where his wife and son lived, and Cairo, where he assumed the identity of Wolfgang Lotz, a German millionaire and horse-breeder. By gaining access to Egyptian high society, Gur-Arie was able to gather intelligence on former Nazi scientists advising Nasser on his arms program. When his cover was blown, Gur-Arie never recovered.
Gur-Arie’s son Oded, who felt privileged as a boy to share his father’s secret and was later abandoned when his dad was arrested, tells this tale, further amplifying the psychological complexities. By interweaving home movies, newsreel footage, and gripping interviews with Oded and Mossad operatives, The Champagne Spy brilliantly succeeds in demonstrating the overarching point of the festival’s doc slate: In Jewish culture, the political is, and has always been, personal.