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January 18, 2005

The Man Who Loved Haugesund, 2004

haugesund.gifIn the early 1910s, a hardworking and ambitious textile traveling salesman of Polish Jew ancestry named Moritz Rabinowitz arrived at the insular, Norwegian herring export town of Haugesund and, touched by the townspeople's humble existence and diligent work ethic, decided to settle in the community. Establishing a clothing company near the town port (where sailors from neighboring ports were invariably bound to spot his eye-catching billboard painted on the side of the store building and pay a visit) that incorporated several forward-thinking innovations as mail order, print and mass advertising, quick turnaround, made-to-measure suits, and even an affordable couture line, Rabinowitz soon became one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in Norway (an opening anecdote notes that it was nearly impossible to find anyone in Haugesund who did not have, at one time, an old wooden hanger that bore the name M. Rabinowitz hanging in the closet). Nevertheless, Rabinowitz remained curiously an outsider to the city's social circles. Using his personal finances to conduct a seemingly one-man campaign in the 1930s against the looming danger of spreading Nazism and also to dispel the culturally fostered misconceptions about Jews that contributed to that threat, the outspoken entrepreneur soon became a targeted enemy of the Third Reich and was forced into hiding during the German invasion of Norway.

During the Q&A, filmmaker Jon Haukeland noted that in Norway, 50% of the Jews were lost during the war while in Denmark, nearly 100% were saved, a striking contrast that compelled him to examine the nature of this disparity. Composed of interviews by Rabinowitz's former employees and staff and set against photographs from his personal effects that were stored after his apprehension by the Germans, Haukeland and Tore Vollan's The Man Who Loved Haugesund is a profoundly disturbing examination of the deeply rooted racism that, not only contributed to the death of the personable and dedicated industrialist, but (and most tragically) continues to be endemic in Norwegian culture. Perhaps the most revelatory of this insidiously pervasive sentiment is the well-intentioned employees' own vaguely apologetic (and unconscionably vulgar) insinuation that Rabinowitz had contributed to his own death by continuing to conduct business in absentia through the telephone (which allowed the Nazis to tap his company's lines and determine his location) because of his inextricable love for his thriving business and tireless pursuit of money (implicitly alluding to the racist stereotype, an innuendo that is refuted by another employee who conjectures that he could not allow himself to leave his (married) daughter behind), and an employee's own irreconcilable words as she wistfully and sincerely states that even though the social elite essentially shunned her employer because of his race and unpopular activism, she and the other employees would have loved to have had the charismatic Rabinowitz as a guest in her home, even though none of them had ever apparently made the explicit effort to actually invite him.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Jewish Film Festival