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New York Jewish Film Festival

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

Permission to Remember, 2003

permission.gifShot on DV, Permission to Remember opens to a shot of a bustling Ukrainian market as a holocaust survivor and expatriate now living in Israel named Moishe begins to recount memories from his childhood, only to be interrupted by an aggressive woman who complains of the "foreigners" who are blocking her way into the market and refuses to step aside to allow them to continue filming, asserting that she is a Ukrainian and does not have to step aside for the foreigners. The episode provides an insightful glimpse into the entrenched prejudice and xenophobia that had contributed to the genocide of over 20,000 Jews in Moishe's native town of Lubmir during World War II (only 80 people survived at the end of the campaign). Incited by news that a (personally) unknown Ukrainian from Lubmir named Stephan Wermchuk has been bestowed the Righteous Among the Nations honor by Israel after having provided for safe passage (apparently, at the age of eight) to 50 Jews with his mother Maria to the Kruk underground resistance during the war (a noble national distinction that also provides for special treatment by the Israeli government such as immigration privileges, free housing, and a monthly stipend), Moishe and other Ukrainian Holocaust survivors embark on a campaign to research Wermchuk's controversial claim, returning to his native land to locate witnesses who can support Wermchuk's testimony and, perhaps indirectly, to confront painful boyhood memories of ostracism, desolation, impotence, and the unimaginable, senseless deaths he witnessed during his years in the Jewish ghetto that have continued to haunt him throughout his life. Documentarian Yael Kipper Zaretzky presents a complex portrait of the collective consciousness of a nation still attempting to reconcile with its complicity in the unconscionable tragedy, and a survivor's surrogate obsession for truth and accountability (and perhaps, implicit vengeance) in its traumatic aftermath and, in the process, creates a compelling exposition on the guilt of survival and the human importance of accurate historic documentation.

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

The Mortal Storm, 1940

mortalstorm.gifDuring a dinner party to celebrate the occasion of Professor Roth's (Frank Morgan) 60th birthday, news of Adolf Hitler's ascension to the position of German chancellor at the Roth home is met with fervent excitement by his stepsons Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr), and his daughter's suitor Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) who believe that the new leader holds the key to restore the lost greatness of the German nation, and with tempered ambivalence by Professor Roth - a euphemistically called "non-Aryan" intellectual - and his protégé, a veterinary student named Martin Breitner (James Stewart) who disagree with Hitler's policies of racial segregation, unilateralism, and warmongering. From this opening premise, Frank Borzage sets the poignant, defiant, and socially incisive tone for the inevitable tragedy and ruin that befall the Roth family as the remote Alpine town near the Austrian border becomes increasingly seduced by the sense of empowerment and solidarity provided by the Nazi movement...and with it, its oppressively (and destructively) isolationist, xenophobic, and militarist policies. Structured within the melodramatic framework of an ill-fated love affair between Martin and Professor Roth's daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), The Mortal Storm is an elegantly realized, penetrating, and chillingly prescient cautionary tale of socially accepted blind obedience, collective mentality, and narrow-minded self-righteousness: an indelible - and continually relevant - portrait of true compassion and human courage in the face of a prevailing, inhuman tide of intolerance and aggression.

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

January 17, 2005

Nina's Tragedies, 2003

ninastragedies.gif On the day of his father's funeral, the curious and meddlesome adolescent Nadav (Aviv Elkabeth) peeps in through the window of the funeral home where the rabbi is making last minute preparations for the burial, a task that involves calling an unreliable, impatient repairman during a torrential rain in order to fix a chronically squeaky gurney wheel. Ordering the technician to remain throughout the services in an attempt to ensure the soundness of his repair work, the somber proceeds from the idiosyncratic point of view of the erratic wheel as it precariously wobbles out of stability and back into its familiar, irritating din. The seemingly surreal, deceptively lyrical opening sequence provides an elegantly conceived framework for filmmaker Savi Gabizon's elegantly modulated tragicomedy. Told from the perspective of young Nadav, the only child of separated parents, the film proceeds in a series of flashbacks as his religious father is asked by the school principal to read passages from his Navi's confiscated journal in order to determine if his son is merely engaging in innocuous, fanciful creative writing or involved in some perverse relationship with an older woman, his impossibly beautiful, recently widowed aunt Nina (Ayelet Zorer). During the post-screening Q&A, Gavizon cited Bertrand Blier as perhaps his greatest influence in becoming a filmmaker, a reference that seems particularly suitable within the context of the fanciful, almost absurdist mundane situations encountered by the characters in the film (which idiosyncratically includes a style obsessed, Jil Sander-clad, promiscuous mother, a reforming peeping tom, a haunted memory involving bedouin pants, and a seemingly nude ghost). Richly constructed, sincerely affirming, and elegantly realized, Nina's Tragedies presents a whimsical, yet incisive and intricately observed view of the cultural fusion innate in contemporary life in Tel Aviv through the ephemeral, universal mystery of adolescence.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 17, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Jewish Film Festival

Tomorrow We Move, 2003

tomorrow.gifIn the film's droll, double entendred opening sequence, a breathless woman, Catherine (Aurore Clément), speaks off camera in dulcet, anxious tone as she provides a series of guiding, seemingly appetent directions against the image of a grand piano craned precariously overhead, culminating with a stray tear that falls from her cheek at the point of pleasant resolution. The introductory, tongue-in-cheek correlation between relocation and sexuality provides an appropriate context to the inconvenient domestic arrangement in the film as the nurturing, vivacious piano teacher has decided to move in with her only child, Charlotte (Sylvie Testud), an insulated (and introspective) pulp novelist of erotic fiction following the death of her husband only to realize that the apartment is too small for their needs and that the only practical solution is to move again. Recalling the effervescent lyricism of Window Shopping and the intrinsic humor of the domestic displacement comedies, Night and Day and A Couch in New York, and fused with the burlesque theatricality of late period Alain Resnais, Tomorrow We Move playfully encapsulates thoughtful, recurring themes within Chantal Akerman's oeuvre: displacement, perpetual migration, artistic isolation, cultural disconnection (in the triggering of indirect, sentimental memories by a fumigated apartment during Charlotte's apartment-hunting trip with the real estate agent Popernick (Jean-Pierre Marielle)), surrogacy, and the identification of the female speaker (in a poignant discovery of the grandmother's diary, a Polish Jew who had perished in Auschwitz). Juxtaposed against the underlying theme that the act of moving represents a figurative death of a relationship (whether through physical separation or change in life circumstances), the film serves as an understated, whimsical, and elegantly realized exposition on the sentiment of rootlessness and perpetual exile.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 17, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Jewish Film Festival