Homeward Bound


The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut invented the term “Imaginary Jew” to characterize those who, like himself, were born after World War II and drew their Jewish identity from representations of the Holocaust and the vanished world of Eastern Europe: “Jewishness is what I miss, not what defines me.”

The nostalgic component of this condition finds its expression in the unthinking phrase “once vibrant.” But there is also the painful claim on an impossible citizenship in a destroyed, nearly extinct civilization. It is that sense of loss, call it existential Jewishness, that underscores the making of Frederick Wiseman’s tragic poem The Last Letter, Yale Strom’s more cheerful documentary L’Chayim Comrade Stalin, and even Israeli director Amos Gitai’s fiercely maladroit allegory Kedma.

The Last Letter is unlike any previous Wiseman movie, but it is not a complete departure. The dean of American cinema verité here documents a stage production—his own—which is itself a sort of imaginary document. For just over an hour, a lone actress (Catherine Samie) recites an epistolary chapter from Life and Fate, Soviet writer Vasili Grossman’s posthumously published novel of World War II. The letter is sent to the novel’s protagonist, a scientist in Moscow, by his aged mother Anna Semionovna, a doctor in German-occupied Berdichev; he receives it presumably after she has already gone to her death.

Grossman’s own mother was similarly obliterated when the Nazis swept through Ukraine during the summer of 1941—a disappearance that evidently obsessed the novelist for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly, this fictional letter haunts his massive, self-consciously Tolstoyan book, as well as the suppressed dossier on German atrocities that Grossman compiled after the war. (He continued to write to his mother, years after her presumed death.) The movie The Last Letter is thus an instance of multiple ventriloquism—Wiseman re-creates a performance articulating a voice from the grave that itself emerged from Grossman’s own desk drawer 15 years after his own death.

Seen first as a shadow on a scrim, Samie describes the sudden arrival of the German army in Berdichev; the corresponding eruption of previously suppressed anti-Semitism among colleagues and neighbors; and her puzzled self-recognition as a Jew. (The cage has found the bird, to paraphrase the Kafka one-liner—although it was through his mother’s fate that Grossman realized his Jewishness.) In short order, the doctor loses her apartment and her hospital job and, along with the rest of the town’s Jews, is crammed into the ghetto—a holding pen before they can be shot down en masse by the SS.

The Last Letter reverses the sentimental injunction in which the immigrant child is enjoined to send a brivele der mamen—a little letter to mama. The mother describes her life—or rather Grossman imagines it—in concrete detail. Filled with quick sketch characterizations, the letter is a superb piece of writing, and Samie, the senior member of the Comédie-Française, gives what was surely a mesmerizing reading when The Last Letter was staged in Paris. For the film, Wiseman uses multiple set-ups—alternating close-ups of Samie’s face and hands with stagier long shots. Shrouded in black, save for her emblazoned yellow star, the white-haired actress wanders among the shadows. The desire for visual interest is understandable, but one could “watch” The Last Letter with eyes closed. This is very much a radio play—Wiseman’s mise-en-scène might be the patterns cast on the ceiling. As the filmmaker is a child of the radio age, perhaps that’s what he had in mind; in any case, being a child is partially what The Last Letter is about, both as horrifying bedtime story and overwhelming expression of maternal love.

Samie has a deep, smoky voice and the capacity to fill her wide eyes with un-shed tears. Her performance is austere yet histrionic, aquiver with despairing laughs and wry asides. Still, the text does not precisely speak itself. When the actress smiles sadly or pauses to hum a melody, the effect is more Comédie-Française than Berdichev ghetto. Indeed, it is a bit disconcerting to hear the material recited in French. As rendered in the novel, Grossman’s “mother”—with her acute self-analysis, sudden rhapsodies, and sentimental compassion for the little people (“charming, eccentric, sad”)—is the voice of 19th-century Russian literature.

Primal in its effect, The Last Letter demonstrates the power of language, performance, and narrative to hold an audience spellbound. The movie has a cumulative effect, building up to the mother’s final farewell before she vanishes into the darkness forever. As preparation, it is preceded on the Film Forum bill by another sort of artifact, the 10-minute Jewish Life in Cracow, one of a half-dozen Yiddish newsreels produced in Poland on the eve of World War II and restored to ghostly legibility by the National Center for Jewish Film.

Amos Gitai’s Kedma is an account of scarred, traumatized refugees that is something of a scarred, traumatized movie. Gitai’s view of Israel is radical and blunt. The Jewish state was founded on calamity and is itself a disaster.

Fashioned largely from a series of extended, ensemble takes, Kedma opens with the image of a woman’s naked back and tracks from some not very inspired lovemaking in a ship’s berth through the crowded steerage up onto the deck of the decrepit cargo freighter Kedma. The boat is loaded with downcast young refugees from the concentration camps of Europe who, as though addressing an audience of Imaginary Jews, briefly recount their stories.

The creation of Israel is but six days away. The refugees land on the beach in the midst of perfunctory chaos. British soldiers fire on them; as the Jews run off into the interior, they pass a group of keening, displaced Arab women. Kedma is purposefully unheroic. The sense of aimless wandering is nearly risible. Gitai’s direction feels as offhanded as his performances are uneven. The British have American accents. Some refugees speak fluent Hebrew, others pidgin Yiddish—historically it would most likely be the reverse. The facts can be sloppy: One character invokes a Lodz “ghetto revolt” that never existed. Asked to entertain a group of exhausted refugees, a cantor exhibits the dynamism of Perry Como as he breaks into impassioned song without even bothering to sit up.

Kedma is mesmerizingly bad filmmaking—although, confident as he is, Gitai seems to believe that he’s Robert Bresson or Samuel Beckett or, maybe, the anti-Spielberg. Like Saving Private Ryan, Kedma begins with a—here, of course, desultory—beach landing and proceeds to the storming of a hilltop stronghold. (Kedma raises the possibility that the originality of Gitai’s war movie Kippur was predicated on indifferent craft.) The movie means to illustrate two historical tragedies: The Palestinians are driven from their homes as the survivor Jews of Europe are drafted into the Jewish underground and compelled to become fighters.

The Jews bully a truculent Arab, confiscate his donkey, and leave him to make a ranting prophecy on the subsequent Arab presence in Israel. This is complemented by the most sensitive of the refugees’ hysterical tirade on “exile, martyrdom, messiah.” Ending with the image of an empty road, Kedma is less a movie than a symptom inviting diagnosis.

Completing the week’s trifecta of catastrophic Jewish homelands, Yale Strom’s documentary L’Chayim Comrade Stalin is an expedition to Birobidzhan, the not quite Jewish autonomous region established, 15 years before the creation of Israel, in the Soviet Far East. Strom is enchanted by the idea of this Yiddish-language oblast on the Korean border. Indeed, his journey to Birobidzhan parallels the mindset of foreign Jews who “repatriated” there in the 1930s—intrepid and naive.

Birobidzhan may be the first instance of what Ruth Ellen Gruber calls a “virtual Jewish world” in which deracinated “virtual Jews” enact what is imagined to be their essential Jewish culture. But for Strom, whose previous documentaries discovered the “last” klezmer in Poland and a lost Jewish-Gypsy synthesis in the Carpathian Rus, virtual worlds have no history. He attributes the idea of a “new Jew” to Stalin—as though it weren’t key to Zionism (and The Jazz Singer) as well as Communism. Discussion of Yiddish as a source of national identity is postponed, the better to cut in and out of the 1936 Soviet propaganda movie Seekers of Happiness, while flashing “The Jewish Question” in big letters. Archival footage is badly identified and sometimes irrelevant; key witnesses tell truncated stories.

Like Strom’s earlier docs, L’Chayim Comrade Stalin is best appreciated as an exercise in creative ethnography. The filmmaker comes close to making himself a character (not, unfortunately, close enough). The Russians he meets are suspicious of his motives; even his translator is hostile. Although the movie illuminates little of the mass delusion that brought Birobidzhan into existence, the upbeat closing montage proposing this bizarre Soviet relic as a monument to the indomitable Jewish spirit is at least an authentic fantasy.