After two days of jury duty, two German films about Jews

I am a firm believer in the jury system. Despite telling many lawyer jokes and being almost terminally cynical, I have a deep and abiding faith in the Bill of Rights, most of the Constitution and the legal system. So I usually do jury duty with a light heart. (The fact that I'm a freelance writer and don't have much of a schedule to disrupt makes it easier, of course.) This time was a bit of an exception. For once I actually did have appointments that would be hard to reschedule and when I was faced with the prospect of a felony trial that promised to last at least three weeks, I was appalled. Fortunately, that bullet whizzed by my head and I am now back at my desk writing this entry to the blog.

I should have run out and bought a lottery ticket.

Back to business.

Film Forum (link to the right) opens an interesting recent German film later in February. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, by Marc Rothemund, is at least the third German feature film to retell the story of Scholl and her fellow members of the White Rose resistance group. Rothemund’s emphasis is somewhat different from that Michael Verhoeven (The White Rose) and Percy Adlon (The Five Last Days); he focuses almost completely on the capture of Scholl and her brother Hans, her interrogation and trial, events to which the previous films only allude. The appeal of Scholl’s story is obvious: the White Rose group were college students, young, idealistic and uncompromised unlike, say, the participants in the Stauffenberg plot against Hitler, who included high-ranking German military officers. And Scholl herself is an appealing figure, pretty and spirited. Rothemund’s film is deliberately paced, not plodding but methodical, subdued but detailed. The problem is that while this pacing works well sequence by sequence, the film has little rhythmic variation as a whole, with the result that, at 115 minutes, it gradually becomes a chore to watch. Julia Jentsch, who is on-camera for virtually the entire film, is reason enough to make the effort; her performance is intelligent but never condescending.

Dani Levy’s Go for Zucker!, which has opened theatrically already and is getting a lot of press simply because it's a German-Jewish comedy full of Jewish caricatures, suffers from the opposite problem: this comedy is almost all rhythmic variation, pyrotechnics without purpose that undercuts much of the film’s potential humor. Henry Hubchen is the title character, born Jacob Zuckerman, a pool hustler who was a demi-celebrity in the old East Germany and now is not much more than a failing scam artist. When his mother dies, he is forced to reconcile with his Orthodox brother in order to win the old lady’s inheritance. So Zucker and his estranged non-Jewish wife and two adult children must sit shivah with brother Shmuel, his wife and two adult children. A potentially funny situation, particularly with Zucker’s Marlene (Hannelore Elsner) trying to give herself a crash course in Judaism, while Shmuel’s self-proclaimed princess daughter is trying to seduce her stuttering first cousin. But Levy never gets much out of the material, pitching most of the film at a level of frenzy that is more pained than funny.