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Holocaust-Period Films at the 2017 Berlinale

Tony Wohlfarth
July 14, 2017

by Tony Wohlfarth

THE 2017 BERLIN International Film Festival featured several period films set during the Shoah -- remarkable, considering the festival’s location -- reminding us how Germany has transformed over the past seventy-two years. Three titles stand out and are reviewed below.


THE OPENING FILM at the 2017 Berlinale, Django, is a biopic that tells the story of Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt is widely considered to be one of the best musicians of the 20th century. He formed a partnership with Stéphane Grappelli and the duo performed the most innovative jazz in Europe at the Hot Club in Paris.

When World War II broke out, Reinhardt and Grappelli were on tour in London and returned to Paris, where Reinhardt began touring solo. The film begins in 1943, with France now occupied by the Nazis. In the dramatic opening scene, the Germans conduct a brutal nighttime raid on a Rom (“Gypsy”) camp in the Ardennes Region of France. Reinhardt, meanwhile, is due on stage to perform, but is nowhere to be found. His manager sends out a search party to locate him, and they track him down by the side of a river, fishing for catfish.

Reinhardt initially wants to ignore the war (“it’s not my war”, he declares), but when he is asked to give a performance in Germany, he faces a moral dilemma. Ultimately, Reinhardt’s ego prevails and he accepts the invitation to perform before the German Army. In Berlin, Reinhardt is told that the Nazis don’t want him to perform certain “negro” music, and he is asked to “tone it down.”

As the film proceeds, Reinhardt’s initial obliviousness to the ongoing war crimes is replaced by a growing consciousness and engagement as he sees his compatriots dying at the hands of the Nazis. When Reinhardt and his entourage reach Switzerland, he experiences the brutal repression and shootings of his fellow Roma musicians. In one especially disturbing sequence, the Nazis use flamethrowers to destroy their trailer homes. In response, the French Resistance blows up a German transport train.

Directed (and co-written) by Etienne Comar, Django is (remarkably) the filmmaker’s debut feature length movie. It is deeply moving, enhanced by charming music and by a powerful acting performance by Reda Kateb (as Reinhardt). Kateb, who came to prominence in 2012 as Ammar in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, is joined in the cast by Cécile de France as Louise de Klerk, his companion. Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography is highly emotive, vividly capturing the scenery -- much of it shot at nighttime, the crimes of war being committed under the cover of darkness.

Django had its North American premiere on March 1 at the Rendezvous French Film Festival in Lincoln Center and was released commercially on April 26. The running time is 115 minutes.

A Prominent Patient

IN 1938-1939, France and the United Kingdom turned a blind eye as Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, in violation of the Munich Agreement. A Prominent Patient dramatically captures these historic events. The film’s title character is Jan Masaryk, the Czech ambassador to London who would serve as his country’s Foreign Minister from 1940 to 1948. During the Nazi occupation, Masaryk was a member of Czechoslovakia’s government-in-exile in Great Britain. (Born in Prague in 1886, Masaryk was also a vocal supporter of Zionism. An Israeli kibbutz is named after him, as are streets in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.)

A crowd–pleaser in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia -- the film won 12 Lion Awards from the Czech cinema, including for best picture, and another 8 Sun in a Net Awards from the Slovak cinema -- A Prominent Patient is not without problems. Key parts of the script, dramatizing Masaryk’s life, are highly fictionalized accounts of historic events. The film begins in a mental institution in Vineland, New Jersey, where Masaryk is being treated for depression. In flashbacks to earlier days, Masaryk is portrayed as a womanizer and a party animal. While these scenes are entertaining, the viewer cannot be sure what is true and what is imagined.

The director of A Prominent Patient is Julius Sevcik, a 39-year-old Czech filmmaker who was trained at the New York Film Academy. Karel Roden plays the lead role of Masaryk, and Hanns Zischler performs the role of Dr. Stein, the German psychiatrist treating the Czech diplomat in the mental health facility.

A Prominent Patient was released commercially in Europe on December 2, 2016.


THE FERTILE PLAINS of Hungary are the setting for 1945, a film about two Orthodox Jews, an elderly father and his adult son, returning to their village at the end of World War II. As the story unfolds, the elders of the village -- which is now devoid of Jews -- are up in arms as the pair approach. Why all the commotion? It’s because the village’s residents have stolen and plundered the Jews’ homes, businesses and valuables, and are anxious about these now being reclaimed. Shot in beautiful black-and-white monochrome, 1945 plays out like a western: Tension mounts as the father and son approach -- by horse and wagon. A planned wedding is underway, and is unexpectedly cancelled when a tragedy intervenes.

An impressive cast delivers in this compelling drama, in which antisemitism is a central underlying theme. The town clerk is performed by Péter Rudolf, and the stationmaster is played by István Znamenák. The Orthodox Jews are performed by Iván Angelus (the father) and Marcell Nagy (the son).

1945 was filmed on location in five villages near Tokaj, close to the border with the Ukraine. The scenery is simply stunning, as captured by the capable Director of Photography, Elemér Ragályi. Among his other credits, Ragályi was the cinematographer for the TV mini-series, Anne Frank: The Whole Story, in 2001. The black-and-white cinematography has been favorably compared to that in Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski’s film, which won the best foreign language Oscar in 2015.

1945, which had a budget of 1.5 million Euros (approximately 1.7 million US Dollars), was directed by Ferenc Török, and is based on the short story, The Homecoming, by Gábor Szántó. I interviewed the director in Toronto, following its premiere at that city’s Jewish Film Festival. Török told me that he toiled for ten years to adapt the story for the screen, working with Szántó, who co-wrote the screenplay.

Török’s film has evoked comparison with Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes. Török was a film student at the Budapest Film Academy and he now leads a film production company, Katapult Films, representing several young and emerging Hungarian filmmakers.

1945 had its world premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival in January, where it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Film. It was released commercially on April 26 and was the opening night film at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 3. A trailer in Hungarian:

SEVENTY-TWO years ago, World War II ended after the mass murder of over six million Jews, Roma and others. Today, European cinema continues to discover stories and reinterpret historical events from these darkest chapters of history and is bringing them to audiences worldwide. Django, A Prominent Patient and 1945 join Ida, Son of Saul and others as part of a growing list of recent feature-length European films set during the Shoah.

Tony Wohlfarth is a Canadian freelance film writer and regular contributor. He covered the 2017 Berlinale and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on behalf of Jewish Currents.