A Rediscovered Gem -- Are There More Here?

(This piece appears in a slightly shorter version in this week's issue of Jewish Week; however, it is not on their website, and I really want you to go to Brooklyn to check out this series.)


“New Wave” cinemas don’t spring fully formed from the heads of their young maverick directors. They have predecessors, even if only to give the young turks something to rebel against. This is nowhere more apparent than in the former Czechoslovakia, where the highly acclaimed New Wave of the mid-60s had a distinguished but little known set of forebears whose work fits nicely with the great modernist films of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

BAMCinemathek is paying homage to the freewheeling spirit of Czech modernism with a selection of rare films beginning November 30. Among the films being screened are several that testify to the role that Jews and philo-Semites played in Czech cinema when it wasn’t being suppressed by the Nazis or the Stalinist.

Among the most striking of these films, The Distant Journey, was made in Prague in 1948 and is a startlingly uncompromising look at the Shoah from an explicitly Jewish point of view. The film’s director, Alfred Radok, was half-Jewish, lost most of his family in the concentration camps and was himself imprisoned in a Polish camp from which he managed to escape as the war dragged to an end. Drawing on his own experiences and those of survivors of Terezin, he managed to make one of the first and still most honest films about the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis.

The Distant Journey is an astonishingly forward-looking film in several ways. Radok makes skillful use of documentary footage (some of it drawn from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, an appropriate reminder of the uses to which Riefenstahl willingly let her artistry be bent), juxtaposed against the drama of a family caught up in the roundups and deportations. At key moments in the film, Radok will suddenly freeze the frame in which the dramatic material is being shown, then reduce it to a small inset in the corner of the screen while documentary footage shows us the progress of the larger historical action. And, at a time when American films still didn’t discuss the murder of the Jews, this film is about nothing else.

More striking, the scenes set in Terezin are a remarkable use of expressionist techniques, creating the ghetto as a dense spider’s web of suffering, with Radok’s restlessly moving camera linking the Jews in a community of shared misery. In these sections of the film, Radok seems to be groping towards a narrative structure driven by a collective protagonist, denying the “heroism” of individual action so in appropriate to the subject of the Shoah. At those moments, The Distant Journey, overcomes its pat melodramatic main story and becomes a work of astonishing power, brutally unsentimental and agonizing to experience.

Also included in this intriguing series are several films by Gustav Machaty. Machaty is best remembered for Ecstasy which is, in turn, best remembered for a nude scene by the young and astonishingly beautiful Hedy Lamarr. Machaty and Lamarr moved on to Hollywood but, like Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo, only the star would flourish there. Machaty returned to Prague and his radical visions, while Lamarr became the most beautiful and inert of Hollywood goddesses.

“Czech Modernism: The 1920s to the 1940s” will be playing at BAMCinemathek (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, from November 30-December 10. For information, click on the link on the right-hand side of this page.

Comments

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Thanks,

Bob