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Jewish Films at the Doc NYC Festival and Beyond

Mitchell Abidor
November 7, 2017

FERENC Török’s 1945, currently showing at Film Forum, takes place over the course of a few hours in a small Hungarian town in August 1945, a time of transition. The war in Europe is over, the war in the Pacific is about to end, and Hungary, though Red Army troops occupy it, is not yet the socialist state it will soon be. Throughout the film we hear radio broadcasts about upcoming elections. Everything is unsettled, and into this charged atmosphere two Jews descend from the morning train with two crates that, according to the packing slips, contain perfume and cosmetics. Panic among the villagers ensures.

Are the Jews here as an advanced wave of their brethren to reclaim Jewish houses, shops, and goods confiscated and distributed to non-Jews during the Nazi occupation? The barely hidden ugliness of too many of the residents of the town, from the town clerk to the priest and those in between, who benefited from, instigated, or were indifferent to the roundup of the Jews, is brought to the surface, and nobility is hard to find, though it tragically takes the form of the town drunk, the only resident who seems to suffer for his part in the disappearance of the Jews.
The film is shot in luminous black and white, and the uneasiness felt by the residents and which hangs over the film is accentuated by the editing, the cuts all made in the midst of movement. The sound, the constant clopping of horse’s hooves, sets the film’s rhythm, as does the understated musical score.

The Jews, it turns out, have come to the town to honor their dead, and here director Török falls into all too familiar tropes. The weight of his acts causes one resident to commit suicide, the realization of his father’s role in informing on a Jew causes another to abandon his imminent marriage and flee for Budapest, and the subtle score suddenly turns into a cliched D-minor pseudo-klezmer threnody on the violin. In the final moments flames lick at a Jewish photo album, while the final image is that of smoke against the black and white sky.

This tired, obvious symbolism betrays the rest of this quietly disturbing film.

THE DOC NY festival will be presenting a number of films of Jewish interest, two of which deal with disasters of different sorts, one small-scale but devastating, the other the after-effects of large scale ones. Elish’s Notebooks, an Israeli film by Golan Rise (playing at the IFC Film Center 323 Sixth Ave, November 12 at 6:45 p.m.), tells of the disaster of an awful parent; Playing God by Karin Jurschick (playing at the Cinepolis Chelsea, 260 W 23 St, November 12 at 5:15 p.m.), of lawyer Kenneth Feinberg’s role in distributing financial recompense for the survivors and victims of massive disasters like September 11, the BP oil spill, and the collapse of union pension funds in the Midwest. Both are powerful documents.

Elisheva Rise lived on a religious kibbutz where she gave birth to seven children. Throughout their lives, Elish kept careful journals of all of her brood, journals she wrote not in her own voice, but from the point of view and the voice of her children. They were discovered after her death, and Golan Rise, her grandson, has each of the children read aloud and comment on their ostensible journal. There is nothing endearing about this, though, for there’s a rub: Elish was a cold, forbidding, and generally poor parent who never showed any affection for her children, nor any great concern for their emotional well-being, nor any particular interest in them. She didn’t visit them in hospital when they were ill, showed no sympathy for their plight when they faced problems with their peers, allowed one son to be expelled from the kibbutz for falling away from religion without saying a peep . . .

All of this is reported “like a report for Yad Vashem,” one of them says, as simple facts, not commented on, not justified, not apologized for, in the journals. And how could they be, since Elish was speaking as the victimized child, but with the coldness and distance of the child’s unfeeling mother? The meta levels of the film are stunning: The children read aloud “their” journals as written by their mother, which are now, as they are read in the film, correctly in the first person. Hence the tears flow copiously and anger is set loose as they read their younger selves’ experiences so coldly related by the woman who was supposed to love and protect them but who withheld all feeling from them

One of the children says that these journals are the conversation she never had with her children when alive, but the sole daughter of the family admits that if her mother was still alive she wouldn’t bother telling her how she fucked her up. What would be the point with a woman so incapable of motherly feeling?

Since the family lived on a kibbutz that, though religious, hewed to the kibbutz line and had children live in their own quarters, Elish’s poor parenting was at least supplemented by caretakes in the children’s home. But when, after Elish has already had six children, the kibbutz decides that children will henceforth live with their parents, the six — later seven — children must live with their parents in a small home, and Elish’s failings become a daily weapon inflicting pain and suffering on her offspring.

At one point, a son says that all of these notebooks are the riddle called Elish. The viewer is left admiring the children for their survival skills, but also wondering where their father was in all this? After all, Philip Larkin’s brilliant poem “This Be the Verse” asserts that it is not just mom who does us in: “They fuck you up your mum and dad . . .”

KEN FEINBERG, the professional “special master” of funds to be distributed to those who have suffered from human-made disasters, is the subject of Karin Jurschick’s Playing God, a film that succeeds in raising many questions about both Feinberg’s role as God the actuary, as well as the human — though really more American — propensity to sue and expect payment for almost everything that goes wrong.

For if the fund set up for families of people killed on September 11 was established to pay for the pain, it was also done on condition that those who enter it could not sue anyone else (the government and Boeing are suggested as possible lawsuit targets by Feinberg). When Feinberg coldly and frankly explains that the life of a stockbroker — based on earnings and earning potential — is worth more than that of a cop he is, in the cold light of financial reason, correct. As is the family of a firemen who asks who are “they” to decide one life is worth more than another. But one can’t help but ask, “Well, if you want to receive payment, doesn’t someone have to decide what your loved one was worth?” Once you get into the business of assuming that a payment can in any way replace the departed, you have entered a realm that can only be uncomfortable. A realm in which only Kenneth Feinberg, whose ego cannot be described as under-sized, seems entirely comfortable.

It is all to Feinberg’s credit that he never places responsibility for any of his decisions on “them.” He is them, and all that restricts him is his strict legal and legislative remit. His certainty that he is always right and just fills the screen, and though he seems entirely honest and above board, except in one significant instance, there is a mix of lawerly-rabbinic arrogance that emanates from the man.

A certain cynicism would almost inevitably go with his work, as he recounts his experience with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, when people in Europe filed claims for damages. This is the case in which his veneer as a man “above it all” cracks: He hid from the claimants and public that he was being paid by BP, and confronted about this, he engages in pilpul to hide his discomfiture. There is no question, however, that he was serving two masters, one of whom was paying his bills. Yes, over 500,000 people received payments, but ruined lives and businesses received payments of $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for businesses. Even on the Gulf Coast that won’t go very far.

Playing God is ultimately about a very American version of the deity, one who metes out justice with dollar signs. It recalled to mind a routine in the late 1960s by the comedy group The Conception Corporation. Satirizing the black group the Last Poets and their poem “Black Is . . . ‚” “The First Poets” did a poem called “Jewish Is . . .” in which they said “Jewish is being hit by lightning, suing, and winning.” If only they had known . . .

FINALLY, The Spiral by Laura Fairrie (November 14, 7:15 p.m. , also at Cinepolis Chelsea on W. 23 St.; trailer unavailable online) is ostensibly about the spiral of hatred in France that has fed antisemitism, which has fed fear of Arabs, which has fed antisemitism which has fed fear of Arabs . . . This is a maddening film that allows ahistorical, simplistic ideas about Jewish life in France to go unchallenged. A majority of the film’s French Jewish voices aver that Jewish life is no longer possible in France due to ubiquitous and murderous antisemitism (a Jewish lawyer dramatically reminds us that the murders in Toulouse were the first time since World War Ii that Jewish children were killed win Europe, seeming to equate a single terrorist act with Nazi atrocities). And much time is given over to the odious antisemitic comedian Dieudonné, whom I have written about here — a man who is unquestionably popular, particularly among the young blacks and Arabs in the cités. Though he is painted as a threat, not enough is made of the fact that the French government has not been shy about fining him, shutting down his shows and even attempting to jail him. If France is so lost to antisemitism, how can this be possible? Dieudonné might be vile, but he is not the French government, and so cannot prevent Jews from living free, full lives. He is a pest, not a threat.

Similarly, if we see that Jewish schools and neighborhoods are protected by the state, then in what way is daily existence impossible? In fact, a yarmulke-wearing teacher at a Jewish school, the only dissenting Jewish voice in the film, insists that his students — who claim they live under threat — name a specific threatening act they’ve been victim of. Not a one can.

Fairrie half-heartedly attempts to be even-handed, but the spokesman she chooses for the Arabs, who are the center of antisemitism in France, is too justifiably angry to be a good spokesman, though the points he makes about Jews and their relations with their Arab neighbors are all spot on. One can’t help but feel that this is precisely why she chose him.
The Jews who do leave their homelands, a French family and — for some unexplained reason —a family from Manchester, England (though English antisemitism is never discussed), are happy to have made aliyah, yet they live under more threat in Israel than they would ever experience in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles or Manchester. Their true nature, their real fears, are laid bare by the mother of the French Jewish family from Sarcelles when she complains that there are “so many Muslims in France and that it’s letting in more and more foreigners.” Her racism, her khutspe, her shamelessness, say all we need to know.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.