Starting a New Year on an Up Note

Here's my modest first contribution to your viewing pleasure for 2008. The New York Jewish Film Festival begins at the Walter Reade Theatre on January 9; my first-week coverage of it can be found here. Beaufort, which I consider a must-see film, opens on the 18th.

You have your orders. Now carry them out.

I've always looked forward to the retrospectives this festival always includes. My sidebar on the first three of them runs in Jewish Week today, but some technological reason beyond my feeble understanding, isn't on the website. So here's what I wrote:

Although the overwhelming majority of the writing generated by this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival will focus on the new movies on display, the Film Society and the Jewish Museum have done their usual splendid job of highlighting some important rescue and restoration projects as well. In addition to a retrospective look at the work of the late Austrian director Axel Corti (which we will discuss next week), this year’s festival includes three films from the more distant past that are well worth a look.

By far the most exciting of the three restorations is “Love One Another,” a 1922 drama directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Carl Dreyer. Dreyer was an inveterate philo-Semite, a deeply spiritual Christian who devoted many hours and pages to debunking the myth of the Jews as the murderers of Jesus. (His dream project, a film of the life of Jesus specifically intended to exonerate the Jews, was regrettably never made.) “Love One Another,” an adaptation of a novel by fellow Dane Aage Madelung, was only Dreyer’s fourth feature film; like the novel it centers on the terrible tragedies that befall Hanna-Liebe in 1905 Russia. She is hounded out of village by lying gossip, finds herself mixed up with revolutionaries and police agents in St. Petersburg an finally returns home just in time for a pogrom.

Unfortunately, “Love One Another,” for all its admirable intentions, is rather minor Dreyer, a setback after his previous film, the wonderful pastoral comedy-drama “The Parson’s Wife.” Dreyer’s approach to the material is surprisingly unnuanced, his moral palette devoid of any shades of gray, with the result that the film is wildly melodramatic to diminished effect. Still, there are great moments and the entire first third of the film with its skillful contrast between stark and barren interiors and the sun-dappled woods surrounding the village is quite lovely.

“His Wife’s Lover” is a 1931 film that billed itself as the “First Jewish Musical Comedy Talking Picture,” which it probably is. More significant, it is the only appearance on film of the great Yiddish musical comedy star, Ludwig Satz. The script is a silly farce in which matinee idol Eddie (Satz) finds himself wooing the girl of his dreams (Lucy Levin) who he has already married in the guise of a cantankerous old man in order to win a bet. The less one thinks about this plot, the better, but Satz has a grand time jumping back and forth between the two roles and his whiny oldster anticipates Jerry Lewis’s arrested adolescent in some unsettling but very funny ways. Sidney Goldin does little more than keep the action going, but the film is modest fun.

The great historian of silent cinema, Kevin Brownlow, thought so much of Edward Sloman that he devoted a chapter of his classic oral history “The Parade’s Gone By” to his work and recollections. “His People” a 1925 melodrama about Jewish pride and assimilation in modern
New York City, was such a hit that Sloman complained to Brownlow that for years after studio heads would toss at him any remotely Jewish-sounding project. Seeing the film in the restored version being shown in the festival, it’s not hard to see why. Sloman’s direction is brisk and business-like but laced with adroit humor that takes the edge off some of the more absurd excesses of this story of two brothers, one a selfish lawyer who passes himself off as an orphan, and the other a talented boxer with an Irish girlfriend. Rudolph Schildkraut is memorable as their father and the film plays a rather graceful variation on the Jacob/Esau rivalry.

For info on the Festival go here.