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Portrayals of Jews in Recent Films

Elliot Gertel
November 20, 2016

by Elliot B. Gertel

FROM LATE SUMMER to early fall, I saw four films that were short-lived in theaters but widely discussed. These movies presented different portraits of Jews -- the first, very indirectly; the others, pervasively. Here are some short reviews for the curious, who may be interested in tracking down any or all of them.

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU, Richard Tanne’s nostalgic, picturesque account of the first date of Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, provides an engaging and heartfelt promenade through the South Side of Chicago. It offers insights into African-American art and church community organizing. Most of the film is a continuing dialogue between the two principals, played beautifully by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. Their conversation is smart and insightful, even when it becomes a bit biting. In addition to good talk, the movie offers fine and generally gentle music in a variety of styles.

I was riled, however, by one scene in this film. The major premise is that Michelle, who is assigned to mentor the visiting Barack, is concerned about the slightest appearance of romantic associations with work associates. When he arrives to drive her to a meeting (which, unbeknownst to her, is much later in the day than he has let on), she makes it clear that she does not want their outing to be considered, or construed as, a “date.” Barack does prevail upon Michelle to accompany him to Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing, after the meeting. In the scene that bothers me, they run into their law-firm employer, “Avery Goodman,” and his wife “Laura,” outside the theater. After Barack deftly spins the ending of Lee’s film to appease Goodman’s concerns, the senior lawyer praises Barack for being “bright,” adding, “We can use his perspective.” He also says to Michelle: “Be sure to treat him real good.” Michelle later tells Barack that she does not like the connotations of those remarks. Those remarks come across as most inappropriate in the context of the movie.

“Avery Goodman” is a pseudonym for a famous Chicago Jewish lawyer who has mentioned in interviews his bumping into future President and First Lady at the theater. So in a somewhat indirect way, the film suggests that a prominent Jewish attorney made an off-color suggestion upon meeting two African-American employees. Why did writer/filmmaker Tanne do that? Was it to distract us, at least for a moment, from the suggestion, more than once in the film, that Obama himself was manipulative that day?

THE THESIS OF WAR DOGS, a Todd Phillips film loosely based on a real-life story, is that war is “not about democracy” or about “the other guy hating our freedom,” but about the billions in profits that can be made from guns and ammunition. The ancillary premise is that the sight of two nice Jewish boys dealing guns in war-torn lands while living high makes for a hilarious action movie.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) meets former Jewish day school chum Efraim (Jonah Hill), who boasts: “We did run [the] yeshiva. We didn’t take shit from anyone.” David is a struggling massage therapist trying to establish a business that provides quality bed sheets to nursing homes, but quickly learns that no one cares about providing a seniors-friendly product. Efraim, however, is raking in a fortune by gun-running for the Iraq War. He gushes that President Bush has opened the gates to profit, “even though I’m against the war.”

David joins Efraim in the arms business, though he tells his Latina wife that he is selling bed sheets. Efraim has a silent partner, a religiously observant, kippah-wearing proprietor of a laundry business, Ralph Slutsky, who asks no questions because Efraim tells Ralph that his dealings are designed to save the State of Israel from its enemies.

The film paints the chai-wearing Efraim as the quintessential pathological liar who, for his own nefarious ends, figures out who someone wants him to be and becomes that person. Furthermore, Efraim is viciously vindictive. Jonah Hill is scary and even brilliant in delivering all the chilling aspects of a Jeckyll-and-Hyde character.

At one point, worried that he will lose a weapons deal, the guileful Efraim begs a skeptical U.S. Army captain, “Please don’t do that [cancel the deal], from one Christian to another.” He even claims to have an ailing son with the Gospel name, Lucas. In like manner, Efraim will don a kippah when he thinks it will serve his purposes.

It is not only the impulse to lie that Efraim cannot control. While gun-running, he complains to David that he can’t procure a sexual act in a “Muslim country.” To Efraim, “chaos” is having to delay, even for a second, immediate gratification, including the high of the lie. To him, endangering a friend’s life is nothing. Yet Efraim does meet his match with a dealer on the international terrorist watch list.

Efraim is also not above endangering American troops by repacking old surplus Chinese firearms in order to fill an order. He propounds his own “ethical” code in which telling the truth never helps anybody. He uses antisemitic slurs against Jews who fire him and distance themselves from him.

The film capitalizes on the bizarre plans and actions of the main characters, almost daring us: Don’t you just love these partying crooked young Jews? But as in the real-life case on which it is based, the film must, if even in spite of itself, depict the legal comeuppance that comes to its two Jewish lead characters. Still, they are unrepentant to the end -- Efraim pathologically so, and David willing to accept a bribe for not testifying against a terrorist. The film glories in its bad Jews, but does it expect audiences to do so, as well?

IT ISN’T OFTEN that one finds a heartwarming depiction of a Jewish man as a mentor and friend. So I was delighted to see Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone, with Robert de Niro’s fine depiction of Ray Arcel, Roberto Duran’s real life crusty Jewish trainer and guide.

Impressed with Duran’s talent, encouraging him literally from the other side of a border fence, Arcel was in every way a devoted corner man to Duran, admonishing him that boxing, like life, demands “psychological” or “in the head” resistance to opponents and to destructive inner impulses. Edgar Ramirez offers a fine, charismatic performance as Duran.

Arcel gets Duran’s attention with Yiddish words, “Listen, you stupid little shmendrik.” He tells Duran, “Now you’re speaking Yiddish,” when Roberto starts repeating words like “shmendrik,” “shmuck” and “putz.” But this is not the usual parroting of vulgar Yiddish expressions in popular film. The context here is gentle and warm, and one of genuine communication between the two men, to the extent that Duran refers to Arcel as his father.

This banter with Yiddish words enables Arcel to take Duran to task for “the way you talk to women, the way you behaved.” At one point Arcel tells Duran, “Real warriors do not do what you did.”

In this film a Yiddish word can be a powerful corrective. One wants to applaud when Ray Arcel tells Duran’s agent, who has gotten the fighter into a devastating situation, “You’re a sick paskudnyak.”

Ray is most understanding of Duran when the latter puts on pounds after a major win: “Let him eat. He’s having a good time. He never ate.” One wonders whether Ray identifies with Duran’s desire to make up for privations as a child because Ray also suffered poverty in his early years. If this is so, the film would have done better to have told his story. We do learn, however, that Ray was a most resourceful and visionary entrepreneur. His pioneering efforts to bring boxing to television led the territorial New York mob to put out a “contract” on his life. Luckily, they forgave him after he wisely hid for a while.

Ray is a responsible guy who scrutinizes his own actions -- and sometimes feeling unnecessary guilt. “I probably failed at keeping my fighter grounded,” he shares with the press regarding circumstances beyond his control. When guilt is justified, he tries to do the right thing. He tries, for example, to be attentive to his daughter, whom he left as a child with his in-laws because he could not take care of her. Now, as she struggles to overcome addiction, he watches her and holds her and tries to make Duran understand that he must help her. In one moving scene, we see a mezuzah on Arcel’s door as a symbol of the human obligation to offer Divine-like protection, especially, but not only, to family.

The acting in this film is excellent and the story is told in a compelling and moving way. The images of Duran’s beginnings as a street urchin are unforgettable, and even become a leitmotif of this movie. Ana de Armas is affecting as Duran’s wife, as is Ellen Barkin as Arcel’s spouse.

LARS KRAUME’S THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER is an engaging, well-acted, multidimensional German film. Bauer was a Jewish attorney who had escaped Germany during the Holocaust and then returned after the war to fight for justice as a prosecutor. Divorced and alone, except for a sister in Denmark, he searched for Nazi war criminals and was understandably obsessed with finding the vicious and unrepentant Adolph Eichmann in Argentina. Bauer bucked his own German government employers by personally traveling to Israel and revealing what he had learned about Eichmann’s whereabouts. He wanted Israel to catch Eichmann and to try him there.

According to the film, Bauer (Burghart Klausner) was not trusted by his own staff or by the Israelis. In failing health, he had to navigate the unbearable stresses of the conflicting agendas of his own crusade and the respective priorities of the German and Israeli governments. The film highlights the ambivalence displayed toward Bauer when he visits Israel, and his own ambivalence, as well; he is always perspiring profusely in the country, and not only because of the hot climate. For him, dealing with Israel, whose goals do not necessarily coincide with Bauer’s, is a heart attack waiting to happen.

German premier Konrad Adenauer more than hinted that reparations which helped to build the State of Israel could be withheld, along with guns to the struggling Jewish State, if Eichmann’s trial was not conducted as Germany wanted. Adanauer did not want Eichmann to name war criminals who were for various reasons valuable to the new German government.

Only one staff member in Bauer’s office, Karl Angerman (Ronald Zehrfeld), is sympathetic to Bauer’s cause, though at first it appears that his solid middle-class life and upwardly mobile marriage will bar any attempt to assist him. Still, Bauer sees in Angerman something of himself at a younger age -- with both a sincere desire to do what is right and just, and a homosexual orientation. The film makes it clear that Bauer engages in gay liaisons whenever he visits his sister in Copenhagen, and that Angerman is irresistibly attracted to a female impersonator lounge singer whom he met at a trial.

Interestingly, the Angerman character was invented for the film. My own sense is that this character is intended to bring home the vulnerability of homosexuals like Bauer in the German society (and all other societies) of that era, and to help us understand the extent to which Bauer was expendable in Germany even as Israeli officials were willing to mislead him because they were distrustful of a Jew who would return to Germany and serve in government there. The point seems to be that Bauer deserves added credit for fighting the good fight while vulnerable to governmental exploitation (which was attempted more than once) and Israeli second guessing. Yet the film is more about the plight of homosexuals in post-war German society than about the Holocaust or the Eichmann trial.

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.