MOVIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Six movie reviews from The Waldman Library collection of Jewish and Israeli films: The Last of the Unjust, Footnote, Fill the Void, Bethlehem and Omar, Prisoners of War (Hatufim) First Season.
The Last of the Unjust
The Last of the Unjust is arguably the best documentary on the Holocaust since Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. It features the testimony of Benjamin Murmelstein, the only surviving Elder of the Jews at Terezin in 1944. No character that you see on screen this year will match the impact that is made by Benjamin Murmelstein, who dominates the film for most of the 3 hours and forty minutes. The interviews between Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein took place in Rome in 1975. They were meant for use in Shoah, Lanzmann’s masterwork of 1985. However, Lanzmann, realizing the importance of the material, decided not to include it by shortening it. Shoah was already 8 hours long. He shelved the footage until 30 years later, in 2013 he realized that “I had no right to keep it to myself.”
Murmelstein was the man who came closest to Eichmann. Murmelstein was Eichmann’s “Jew” in Vienna. He survived the camp, but feared travelling to Israel to testify in Eichmann’s trial because he was being accused and condemned as a “collaborator”–the question being why and how did he survive? The case of Rudolf Kastner who found himself accused of being a collaborator and was assassinated in Israel, comes to mind. Lanzmann, now 87 years old, revisits Terezin, and accepts the daunting task of making the film and bearing witness.
The Last of the Unjust, the title of the documentary, is taken from Murmelstein’s words—he calls himself “the last of the unjust,” a play on the title of the brilliant post-war novel “The Last of the Just,” by Andre Schwarz-Bart, published in French in 1959. The book won France’s highest literary prize and is still a magnificent story. The juxtaposition of the 1975 interviews between Lanzmann and Murmelstein and the 2013 scenes of Lanzmann, the aging director at Terezin, make for a dramatic, exciting and intellectually-challenging 3 ½ hour documentary. Murmelstein proves to be an honest, accurate and exceptional witness to the Holocaust. This is essential viewing for those who wish to understand and relate to the tragedy of the Holocaust.
Be prepared to listen carefully or to read every word of the English subtitles – that is, to concentrate on the expositions and the explanations. Put the little ones to bed. Loud popcorn munching could ruin your enjoyment of this smart, funny, intellectual and emotional drama. In the movie Footnote (2011) Joseph Cedar creates a parody of academia, its genius, its perversions, and its absurdities. However, the jokes and witty scenes (for example, the very crowded meeting room, the descent into the dark labyrinth of researchers’ cubbyholes, professors’ studies crammed with books) are juxtaposed with a tormented family situation treated with respect, authenticity and even made sacrosanct by the skill of the actors and director.
The cover of the DVD meant for foreign markets pictures the father scattering thousands of pages of his life’s work to the wind; while the cover of the original Hebrew-language version shows both father and son in attitudes of grim determination.
Whichever emphasis you prefer, that of the folly of academia or that of the conflicts between generations and ideas in a family, you will appreciate the movie Footnote. It is a wise and playful comedy based on rivalry, the search for validation and the strong bonds of familial love and respect. The movie was short-listed as the best foreign-language movie of the year for the Oscars; and won awards and prizes in many competitions. The film is in Hebrew with English subtitles.
Fill the Void למלא את החלל is a 2012 Israeli drama film written and directed by Rama Burshtein. It represents a new and fresh approach in Hebrew-language cinema: a story about Orthodox Jewish family life created by an Orthodox female director. In recent memory, the film Kadosh קדוש, 1999, revealed the severity and inflexibility of the Haredi lifestyle when two sisters experience conflict between their faith and their gender. In Ushpizin האושפיזין, 2004, we were charmed but appalled by a devoted and devout Haredi couple dealing with extreme poverty and two unusual “Sukkot guests”. My Father My Lord פשת קיץ, 2007, unveils a Haredi rabbi so intent on the letter of the law that he neglects his young son. These films were written and directed by men, Amos Gitai, Gidi Dan and David Volach respectively.
The process of writing, financing, making and editing the movie Fill the Void was lengthy; but ultimately Burshtein became the first Orthodox Jewish woman to direct a film intended for wide distribution. Fill the Void has as its plot the story of an 18-year-old girl Shira who is pressured to marry the husband of her deceased older sister Esther; following Esther’s death in childbirth. The grandparents and family members on both sides of the newborn child exert their influence and interfere in the situation and on the possibility of Shira marrying her deceased sister’s husband. It is the rabbi who realizes that Shira is acting to please her family and refuses to condone the arranged marriage. Shira must decide for herself what she wishes to do. This is a modern concept not usually associated with Orthodox Judaism.
The process of sorting out emotions and wishes while dealing with shock, confusion and grief are slowly and beautifully portrayed by all members of the families. To this secular reviewer, the Hasidic, Ultra-Orthodox way of life became a warm, generous and loving way of life. Rama Burshtein brought out the best in her actors, in creating the most heartfelt emotions which follow tragedy.
“Graceful, complex, and beautifully layered, Fill the Void offers a sympathetic portrait of an insulated culture by exploring universal themes (www.rottentomatoes.com ).” Burshtein manages to confront, rather than confirm, stereotypes. She has achieved a gripping film without victims or villains, an ambiguous tragedy drawing on universal themes of love and loss, self-sacrifice and self-preservation. The film won many prizes, and was the Israeli entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. It is a film worthy of your attention. Kadosh, Ushpizin, My Father My Lord and Fill the Void are available at the Waldman Library.
Bethlehem בית לחם and Omar عمر
Waldman Library offers movie lovers the rare privilege of watching two movies on the same topic “collaboration with the enemy.” One is written and directed by an Israeli Yuval Adler (Bethlehem), and the other by a Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad (Omar), in the same year 2013. The films are in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles. They both were acclaimed by critics and received many prizes and nominations for awards.
The incidents described in Bethlehem were directly influenced by actual events from the period. The three lead actors in the film were non-professionals who had never acted in a film before. Yuval Adler approaches the subject from the point of view of the complex relationship between an Israeli Secret Service officer and his teenage Palestinian informant. Shuttling back and forth between conflicting points of view, the film is a raw portrayal of characters torn apart by competing loyalties and impossible moral dilemmas, giving an unparalleled glimpse into the dark and fascinating world of human intelligence (www.imdb.com ).
In Omar a young Palestinian freedom fighter agrees to work as an informant after he’s tricked into an admission of guilt by association in the wake of an Israeli soldier’s killing. Omar routinely climbs over the separation wall to meet up with his girlfriend Nadja. The Wall becomes a metaphor for the struggle of the Palestinians, not only does it separate the Jewish West Bank settlements from Palestinians, it even more effectively separates Palestinian towns, families, and friends from one another and their water supply (www.imdb.com )
Viewing these movies provokes anger, frustration and feelings of ambivalence in the spectator. Opinions and long-held views are shaken by the powerful themes of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. The fierce, ever-present threat of violence and death does not take sides; there are only victims. The movies realize the awful toll on the human psyche and the human spirit.
Prisoners of War, First Season
חטופים Transliteration: Hatufim
Prisoners of War is an Israeli television drama series in Hebrew with English subtitle which begs for superlatives. It has been called “a truly once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.” I agree –it represents the best series of 10 programs which I have ever seen. Israelis, from March to May 2010, were riveted, in record numbers, to their television screens. The series was created by Israeli director, screenwriter and producer Gideon Raff. Prisoners of War is set in 2008, depicting three Israeli soldiers who were captured seventeen years ago while on a secret mission with their unit in Lebanon. In season 1, the story begins with the soldiers’ return home after years of negotiations for their freedom. Nimrod Klein and Uri Zach return alive, along with the remains of Amiel ben-Horin. Their integration into their disrupted family and civic life is explored, as well as the psychological traumas of captivity and torture. Discrepancies in their stories arouse suspicions. They are hiding something! All of the actors are completely believable; the twists and turns of the three major plots are surprising and shocking. Through flashbacks we become thoroughly familiar with their lives before captivity and the cruelties and deprivations of prisoners of war. This series is not for the faint-hearted. Warning: You will become a binge-consumer of these episodes.
Reviewed by Dolores Luber
These movies are available free from the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library at the JCC.
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