The Arts: Passing a New Screen Test
On both sides of the Atlantic, indeed all over the world, eager audiences are watching fresh and innovative films that examine and redefine Jewish life.
Throughout most of the late 1990’s, Dani Levy, a Swiss-born Jewish director living in Berlin, struggled to make his dream come true: It was a movie, a comedy about two Jewish brothers. a Despite his solid track record as a director of both theater and film, Levy could find no one willing to invest in his movie. It was, they told him, too risky; Germany wasn’t ready for a film about Jews who crack jokes.
And so, for six or seven years, Levy darted from one backer to another, securing the necessary funds in 2004 with the caveat that the movie would be shown on television, not in theaters.
The film, go for zucker, tells the story of Jaeckie Zucker (Henry Hubchen), a conniving but affable pool shark struggling to avoid divorce, bankruptcy and jail time in an eastern German town. When his mother dies, Zucker sees the considerable inheritance she left behind as a godsend; but the money, he is dismayed to learn, can only be had if he and his brother, Samuel, an Orthodox Jew living in the western part of the country, get together and sit shiva properly.
After seeing the film’s final cut, Levy fought one last time for its theatrical release. A screening held in Munich late in 2004 was a smash. Levy’s backers conceded, and the film gained theatrical distribution.
Within a few short months, Go for Zucker drew more than one million viewers, an extraordinarily high number for the sleepy German film industry, and became one of that country’s highest grossing films of all times.
In 2005, the film won seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards, the German equivalent of the Oscars, including the highest honor for Levy, the Ernst Lubitsch Award for Best German Comedy, named after the legendary director.
Go for Zucker’s success, however, is far from an isolated event. All over the world, Jewish cinema is experiencing a surge, with more movies being made and audiences attending in larger numbers than ever before.
To understand the trend, one must look beyond sheer numbers and observe how, on both sides of the Atlantic, Jewish filmmakers are finding more crafty ways to tell stories, ways that allow the director to weave his or her identity nimbly and subtly into the script. This new wave of cinematic sublimation shows Jews in a novel role: Not just as raconteurs of Holocaust tales or as grim figures stooping under the burden of memory, but also as ordinary people, capable of hilarities and oddities, mirth and squalor.
To be sure, the reasons for this movement are considerably different in Europe than they are in the United States. On the Old Continent, where Jewish cinema was virtually nonexistent before 2000 (though there was a rich tradition of Yiddish filmmaking before the Holocaust), movies such as Go for Zucker are a new phenomenon, stirring a passion, largely latent in postwar Europe for the past five decades, to reconnect with Jewish characters and culture. In the United States, however, where Jews have been represented on screen with almost uniformly consistent growth since the early days of cinema, the Jewish surge takes on another face, finding strength both in independent cinema and in documentary filmmaking.
Europe, however, has the slightly more significant development. Consider this: While European cinema produces, on average, 750 films per year, approximately 4.5 percent—or 35 films—can be considered “Jewish,” that is, directed by Jewish filmmakers and touching on a distinctly Jewish theme or narrative. For a continent that, according to recent census numbers, is home to no more than two million Jews, these numbers are tremendous, especially compared to the past: Between 1950 and 2000, there were fewer than 50 Jewish films produced, a number roughly equivalent to the annual average for the past six years.
The contemporary wave of films also enjoys great diversity; in contrast, the few Jewish films produced between 1950 and 2000 were predominantly Holocaust-themed—such as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie. Today, there are comedies, such as Le Grand Role, Steve Suissa’s French film about a Jewish actor struggling to land the role of Shylock in a Yiddish production. There are social dramas, such as The Last Mitterand, in which a young Jewish writer learns of the former French president’s role in the Vichy government, or La Petite Jerusalem, a drama about Jewish-Muslim conflicts in a Parisian suburb. There are thrillers, such as The Aryan Couple, a story of a wealthy Jewish industrialist who, to escape Europe, must hand over his possessions to the Nazis. And there are love stories, such as Live and Become, the tale of an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel, or Song of Songs, a British film about the sexual repressions and fragile relationships in an Orthodox North London family.
Led by such as Suissa, Levy, Karin Albou (La Petite Jerusalem) and Radu Mihaileanu (Live and Become)—whom some are calling the New Jewish Wave of filmmakers—there’s a double helix shaping the rapid evolution of Jewish films in Germany, France, England, Hungary, Poland and Scandinavia. First of all, funding, ever a burden to film production, is more readily available thanks to extensive government support of the arts—a cultural norm in most European countries—as well as the cross-national coproductions made possible under the auspices of the strengthening European Union. In 1990, the European Union inaugurated MEDIA, the most prominent example of such funding, dedicated to supporting European cinema. With the project’s coffers constantly refreshed during the 2001 to 2005 period, it enjoyed a budget of 400 million euros ($484 million). Such funding may take some time to trickle down to individual directors—as was the case with Levy’s struggle—but in more and more cases, it proves available. “It’s tough to get funding,” said Suissa. “But, finally, it is there for you.”
The main reason for the growth, however, has little to do with money and everything to do with memory. The Jewish story, explained Suissa, was missing from European cinema for obvious reasons. “It brought back shame and guilt,” he said. “No one wants shame and guilt with their popcorn.”
With France in particular finding itself grappling with multiculturalism, examining the mindsets of minorities is timely. Jewish filmmakers, Suissa noted, are increasingly on hand to deliver poignant cinematic meditations on Jewish identity and its role in French life. Albou, for example, a cinematic newcomer, saw La Petite Jerusalem, her first major feature, gross over $200,000 in France in 2005, more than all but a handful of nationally produced films and enough to guarantee it a constant place in the list of the 20 most profitable films for several weeks.
But it was Suissa’s own film, perhaps, that is the most eloquent representative of the new French-Jewish cinema. A runner-up to the grand prix at the Paris film festival, it tells the story of Maurice Kurtz (Stéphane Freiss), a mediocre actor who is awarded the role of a lifetime as Shylock in a Yiddish adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, presided over by a famous American director. However, Kurtz loses the role to a big-name Hollywood star; on top of everything, he learns that his wife, Perla (Bérénice Bejo), is stricken with cancer. What follows is a madcap attempt to recapture the role by any means necessary; the role becomes a sort of balm for Kurtz’s soul, but it is also a grand metaphor. The American director (Peter Coyote, in a wonderfully hammy send-up of Steven Spielberg) may have money, power and a sunny disposition, but it is Kurtz, a French Jew, who owns the right to play Shylock, the most famous of Europe’s suffering Jewish sons. In Kurtz, and in the movie as a whole, Jewish identity awakes from its slumber and asserts itself.
The same could be said for Levy’s film. In Germany, he explained, any film touching on Jewish issues was considered problematic. Such a film, he added, would “confront the Germans with their own feelings of guilt, and the thought was that they wouldn’t overcome this guilt.”
Go for Zucker proved that assumption to be outdated. “It was as if people felt liberated,” he said. “People don’t want to be confronted with Jews as victims…. They want to discover Jewish culture again. They want to step out of the shadow of the past.”
While confronting and transcending the burden of memory guides Europe’s Jewish filmmakers, it has little to say to their American counterparts. Stateside, it seems, the engine propelling Jewish filmmakers is not the relish of overcoming old boundaries, but the challenge of finding new avenues of expression.
In this respect, today’s American Jewish filmmakers are very much of their time. Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (www2.jewishculture.org), said modern Jewish cinema is in line with the efforts of American Jews to redefine Jewish culture in general—such as the alternative magazine Heeb and the creative idea lab Reboot. Young Jews, he said, “are asking themselves more and more what it means to be Jewish, and are coming up with some creative answers.”
In the realm of cinema—with the Golden Age of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon long gone—such creativity is expressed in two streams: independent filmmaking and documentary filmmaking.
The advent of independent film production and distribution—nearly two-thirds of films released in the United States on any given year are now released through an independent distributor—and the host of venues now open to independent films, from film festivals to cable television channels such as IFC and Sundance, has brought changes to the movie industry. Making a feature is no longer a Herculean task demanding a studio backup and millions of dollars, a sea change that many Jews seize upon.
When Paul Reiser, the comic and television star, failed to interest the major studios in The Thing About My Folks, an intimate portrait of the Kleinmans, a New York Jewish family, starring himself and Peter Falk, Reiser raised the money through private investors and found an independent distributor. The Thing About My Folks made close to a million dollars, a respectable figure for a film shot on a shoestring and lacking a studio publicity machine.
Other examples abound. Salvador Litvak assembled an impressive cast, including Lesley Ann Warren and Jack Klugman, for his 2005 film, When Do We Eat? A farce about a Passover Seder gone horribly awry when the drug ecstasy is mixed with the gefilte fish and wine, the film, not yet released commercially, has become an underground hit at Jewish film festivals and small, independent screenings. Similarly, Checking Out, Jeff Hare’s wacky tale of a Jewish patriarch contemplating suicide, won several first prizes at American film festivals and will be commercially released later this year; and Peter Riegert’s King of the Corner, a sentimental story about a man helped through a midlife crisis by a bizarre rabbi, was a minor hit on the film festival circuit.
But while independent films replicate the narratives of large Hollywood productions, albeit more modestly, casting well-known actors and doing their best to produce a maximally commercial movie on a minimal budget, documentary filmmakers find themselves doing something altogether different.
“There’s clearly a level of energy and creativity that we’re seeing in the [Jewish] documentary film arena that mirrors the general trend in regards to documentaries,” said the NFJC’s Siegel.
In the wake of filmmakers such as Michael Moore (Farenheit 911, Bowling for Columbine) and Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), documentaries are no longer perceived as stodgy, educational artifacts and Jewish filmmakers are more active than ever before. Movies such as Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect; Marc Levin’s Protocols of Zion, on modern anti-Semitism; and Elliott Berlin and Joe Fab’s Paper Clips, about a Tennessee middle school project to honor Holocaust victims, bring in millions of dollars. Kahn’s film, for example, an exploration of his father, renowned architect Louis Kahn, grossed nearly $3 million. And while the number pales in comparison to that of a big-budget Hollywood film, it is still immense in a genre that considers an intake of $200,000 a commercial success.
While statistics by which to gauge the proliferation of Jewish documentaries aren’t available, other helpful criteria are: A Jewish documentary has been nominated for the Academy Award every year for the past five years. And, as Siegel suggested, these films touched on a variety of subjects: From the relationships between Israeli and Palestinian children (Justine Shapiro, Carlos Bolado and B.Z. Goldberg’s 2001 film Promises), to a Jewish cabaret artist forced to collaborate with the Nazis (Prisoner of Paradise, directed by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender in 2002).
In the NFJC’s early years, “we received an overwhelming number of applications to aid Holocaust-related documentaries,” noted Seigel. “Now, the applicant pool is quite diverse in terms of its content.” As an example he cites The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, from 1998, about the Jewish baseball great, directed by Aviva Kempner.
“Documentaries are the wave of the future,” agreed Dan Greenberg, an independent producer living in Los Angeles who is currently working on his first feature-length documentary about sports in Israel. “You don’t need a lot of money. You don’t need expensive equipment. You don’t need a large crew. And you can tell stories that you could not tell before.”
Documentarians, he added, were currently in the midst of learning “the language of nonfiction film. More and more people are realizing that documentaries can be shot and edited just as creatively as fiction films, and this frees up people to take on an endless array of new topics.”
There are also a number of technical factors spurring documentary filmmaking. First, explained Annette Insdorf, Columbia University professor of film and cinema scholar, “the growing number of Jewish film festivals around the world means that these motion pictures will find an audience.”
Second, she said, is the financial support of organizations such as the NFJC and the Leon Constantiner Fund, which provide grants to aid in the production or distribution of Jewish-themed films. In a similar vein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films has produced award-winning documentaries, including Genocide and The Long Way Home, both of which won Academy Awards.
Ultimately, however, the force behind Jewish filmmaking may be comprised less of concrete factors and more of an elusive feeling of inspiration born when new forms of expression become acquainted with new things to say, new ideas to explore. “There is a heightened consciousness among a younger generation of Jews about the diversity and the complexity of the contemporary Jewish experience,” Siegel said.
This diversity mirrors the american zeitgeist. “Given the current cultural emphasis on ethnic roots and the celebration of diversity,” Insdorf said, “why shouldn’t films about Jewish characters thrive alongside those which explore African-American or Hispanic heritage?”
And yet, something is astir in the world of Jewish filmmaking in a way that is perhaps unique in the contemporary cultural landscape. With the flood of European films and American independent and documentary filmmaking—not to mention mainstream fare such as Spielberg’s controversial Munich—Jewish cinema is experiencing a convergence of medium and message leading to more subtle, more intricate and more interesting films.
There are many examples of this cinematic sublimation, the sort, critics argue, that is the major step toward true acculturation in a given society: Levy’s Jaeckie Zucker, Suissa’s Maurice Kurtz or Reiser’s Kleinman clan are distinctly Jewish characters, yet they nonetheless exist within a more universal framework.
Zucker is a dysfunctional man trying to get by; Kurtz is a romantic fighting a hopeless battle; and the Kleinmans are a family learning to cope with the emotional bonds that tie them together. Take away these characters’ ethnicity and they remain intact. Their appeal may stem from the fact that they are human archetypes, instantly recognizable; but it is their Jewishness that makes them complex and therefore interesting.
“After all,” said Suissa, speaking of his own creations, “they are characters in a movie. They can be real or not, beautiful or not, just or not. And they don’t have to be Jewish, but it’s more interesting this way, for those who make the films and for those who watch them.”
Liel Leibowitz’s first book, Aliyah: Three Generations of American Jewish Immigration to Israel, was recently released by St. Martin’s Press.