What Would Lubitsch Do?

That's what the sign on Billy Wilder's office wall read. I thought about it a lot while I was watching one of the two Jewish-themed films in this year's Kino! series which opened at MoMA yesterday. My article on the series is the "culture box" in the new issue of Jewish Week (which has a link, by the way), but that feature isn't generally on the webpage, so I include it here for your edification.

Given his pivotal role in the growth of the Berlin film industry in its infancy, it is only appropriate that with the Museum of Modern Art’s annual New German Cinema series focused on films about the German capital should have as one of its centerpieces a new documentary on Ernst Lubitsch’s career there. Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schoenhauser Allee to Hollywood, written and directed by film historial Robert Fischer is a heartfelt and entertaining tribute to one of the greatest of all Jewish filmmakers. Fittingly, Fischer’s film devotes a fair amount of time to exploring the Jewishness of Lubitsch’s humor and includes several of the brighter lights of contemporary German cinema who are devotees of his work, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Wolfgang Becker (Good Bye Lenin) and Dani Levy (Go for Zucker).

The documentary is a treasure trove of clips from Lubitsch’s early comedies and a vivid reminder of his mastery of the historical epic, a genre he left behind when he went to America. Fischer assembled a distinguished group of film historians as well as Lubitsch’s daughter Nicola and granddaughter Amanda Goodpaster, who offer some interesting personal insights into the master’s world and work. The result is a tribute that would undoubtedly have amused Lubitsch himself and which fills a major gap in our understanding of his work.

The other feature film in the series that touches on Jewish concerns, And Along Come Tourists, written and directed by Robert Thalheim, has something of Lubitsch’s delicacy of touch, albeit in a somewhat darker mood. Tourists is the 33-year-old Berliner’s second feature, a gentle, almost fragile comedy-drama about the duty to remember and recount the past at its most terrible. Sven (Alexander Fehling, who looks like the young Paul Newman) is a German youth doing his year of civil service as a volunteer at the Auschwitz Museum. There he finds himself playing nursemaid to a truculent Polish survivor, Krzeminski (Ryszard Ronczewski), who now works there repairing the battered suitcases that are part of the museum exhibits. He also has a developing relationship with Ania (Barbara Wysocka), a tour guide there.

Thalheim balances this pair of attachments quite nimbly, showing the growing sympathy Sven feels for the crusty old man with as much tenderness as the budding love between him and Ania. And Along Come Tourists is a slender but surprisingly sturdy film that carries an emotional punch far beyond the seeming slightness of the material. Lubitsch, I think, would approve.

“Kino!2007: New Films From Germany” will run at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.) from November 1-14. For information, phone 212-708-9400 or go to www.moma.org.


Two important programs of women's films preserved coming up next week.

On Thursday, November 8 at the Walter Reade Theater at 6:30 p.m., a screening of the recently restored Attica, by Cinda Firestone. When it played the Tribeca festival this spring, here's what I said:

Attica is a film that I saw when it first was released in 1973. At the time I was a gung-ho radical with shoulder-length hair. (I would post a picture to prove this, but then I would have to kill everyone who visits the blog.) Here it is thirty-four years later, and 36 since the massacre of inmates and hostages by NY State Troopers and local sheriffs at the state prison at Attica and I'm a gung-ho radical with a growing bald spot and a yarmulke. Plus ca change . . .

Joking aside, I was curious how the film would hold up, particularly since I didn't have a strong memory of it from my original viewing. But I do have strong, almost ferocious memories of my rage when the all-too-brief negotiations with the striking prisoners were cut off and the D Block prison yard was turned into a killing field. In recent years, I have re-viewed many films that I remembered fondly from my anti-Vietnam War activist days and, regrettably, most of them didn't look too good to my fifty-something self.

Happily, Cinda Firestone's Attica is an exception, perhaps because it is a piece of very good reportage as well as an act of advocacy. This is never more apparent than towards the end of the film when she shows headlines from the major NYC dailies, reporting that the coroner's autopsies of the victims revealed that every single hostages who died was shot by the state troopers and local police who were sent in to retake the prison, in direct contradiction to what had been said by state officials. What makes this detail important is that it comes immediately after several people (including the late Bill Kunstler unfortunately) attacked the mainstream media for failing to report the autopsy results.

Truthfully, it is painful to watch Attica and to be reminded that Nelson Rockefeller, the governor who was responsible for the lethal decision to attack despite signs of hope in the negotations, and Russell Oswald, Rocky's commissioner of corrections, were never brought to book for those deaths. The cops were firing dum-dum bullets -- illegal under the Geneva Convention and in many states at the time -- indiscriminately. In the aftermath, there were violent reprisals against the cons that the film documents amply. And the final irony is that the demands that were being made were mostly entirely reasonable ones involving better health care, food and educational programs.

Of course, the situation today is vastly worse. America has more men and women incarcerated than almost any nation on earth and, with the privatization of prisons, the profit motive guides correctional decisions more than ever. While I was watching Attica, the thought occurred to me that if I wanted to do something concrete about the problem, it was imperative that instead of another film link, what I need to place here is links to criminal justice and penology websites. So here are a couple that may inspire you to action:

Vera Institute of Justice
The Family and Corrections Network
Action for Prisoners' Families (UK)
CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants)
The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

Don't just stand there. Do something, dammit.

The CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue) has an interesting program on Friday November 9 at 4 p.m., at their Martin E. Segal Theatre. "Lost and Found: Seven Extraordinary Short Films by Women" includes works by Maya Deren, Mary Ellen Bute and others, followed by a panel discussion with Drake Stuteman from the Women's Film Preservation Fund; Patricia White, Associate Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Swarthmore College; and Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY; moderated by Heather Hendershot, Professor of Theater and Media Studies and Coordinator of the Film Studies Certificate Program. Should be an interesting afternoon.


November looks to be a very exciting month to be in NYC. Just a few things to look forward to:
Humphrey Jennings at Anthology, Max Ophuls at BAM, Ousmane Sembene at Film Forum, and the usual round of new films opening. As they used to say on billboards, "Watch This Space."

Of course, they also used to say, "If you lived here, you'd be home now," which always made me wonder what the great advantage would be of living on a billboard in the middle of nowhere, but I guess I'm just literal-minded.